A brief history of defensive players and the Heisman

There's been a lot of buzz this past week about the Heisman prospects of Notre Dame Fighting Irish linebacker Manti Te'o , so I thought it'd be worthwhile to go back and look at how past defenders have done in the Heisman race. 

Here are the defenders who have finished in the top five in the vote. Note that a few of them before 1965 also played offense. An apples-to-apples comparison with Te'o is better made between players who only played defense thanks to the implementation of the two-platoon system and limitless substitutions starting in 1965. This is why Charles Woodson, who also played significant snaps at wide receiver for Michigan Wolverines while winning the Heisman in 1997, is not on this list.

Defensive players in the top 5 of the Heisman vote

1948 - Chuck Bednarik, Pennsylvania, 3rd

1952 - Donn Moomaw, UCLA Bruins , 4th

1954 - Kurt Burris, Oklahoma Sooners , 2nd

1956 - Jerry Tubbs, Oklahoma, 4th

1957 - Alex Karras, Iowa Hawkeyes , 2nd

1962 - Lee Roy Jordan, Alabama Crimson Tide , 4th

1964 - Dick Butkus, Illinois Fighting Illini , 3rd

1968 - Ted Hendricks, Miami, 5th

1972 - Rich Glover, Nebraska Cornhuskers , 3rd

1977 - Ross Browner, Notre Dame, 5th

1980 - Hugh Green, Pittsburgh Panthers , 2nd

1983 - Terry Hoage, Georgia Bulldogs , 5th

1986 - Brian Bosworth, Oklahoma, 4th

1991 - Steve Emtman, Washington Huskies , 4th

2009 - Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska, 4th

2011 - Tyrann Mathieu , LSU Tigers , 5th

A linebacker hasn't made it into the top five of the vote since Brian Bosworth in 1986. For those of you who remember, Bosworth was one of the colorful characters in college football history and he exemplified the, ahem, spirited Oklahoma teams of the mid-1980s. Had Bosworth been a quiet hayseed, it's doubtful he would've been given as much attention.

As for Te'o, he wouldn't be the first Notre Dame defender to make the trip to New York. Ross Browner did it in 1977 while helping to lead the Irish to a national title. Thirty-five years later, Te'o is in the mix to do just that.

While I maintain that pure defenders can't win the Heisman, a hollowed-out Heisman field gives Te'o a chance to finish as high as second, something a defender hasn't done since Hugh Green in 1980. The Pitt defensive end was almost the exception to the Heisman rule that year, losing out to South Carolina Gamecocks tailback George Rogers by just 260 points (he received 179 first-place votes to Rogers' 216). 

One other point to make: Not all finishes in the Heisman race are equal. Both Bosworth ('86) and Ndamukong Suh ('09) finished fourth in the vote in their respective years. But Bosworth received just nine first-place votes and 395 points, finishing well behind Vinny Testaverde, who won in a landslide with 2,213 points. Meanwhile, Suh garnered 161 first-place votes and 815 points, less than 600 points behind winner Mark Ingram's 1,304. Two fourth-place finishes, two very different outcomes.

If Te'o is going to make history and actually top some of the names listed here, he'll have to start by producing some highlight-reel plays while leading the Irish to a win over Oklahoma this Saturday. It wouldn't be the first time in recent years that Oklahoma has jump-started a Heisman campaign.

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