Historic Heisman? Te'o deserving, but past not on his side

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Historic Heisman? Te'o deserving, but past not on his side

Manti Te'o's Heisman bid started as a pipe dream in mid-September, when the linebacker received plenty of national attention for his outstanding performances against Michigan State and Michigan while dealing with a devastating tragedy.

A month later, Te'o's Heisman chances became legitimate when he intercepted Landry Jones in Norman, sealing Notre Dame's biggest win in nearly two decades. And after Notre Dame beat USC to finish its first undefeated regular season in 24 years, the argument became loud and clear:

If Te'o doesn't get the Heisman Trophy, no defensive player ever will.

"If a guy like Manti Te'o's not going to win the Heisman, they should just make it an offensive award," coach Brian Kelly said in Los Angeles. "Just give it to the offensive player every year and let's just cut to the chase."

On Thursday, Te'o broke Charles Woodson's record for most awards won in a single season. In winning the Maxwell Award -- Te'o's sixth -- he topped Woodson's five won in 1997. One of those awards won by Woodson was the Heisman Trophy, although Te'o is hardly a slam dunk to to win college football's most prestigious honor.

Te'o earned an invite to the Heisman presentation in New York as one of three finalists, meaning he'll be the first defensive player who didn't play offense or special teams to have a top-three Heisman finish since Pittsburgh's Hugh Green in 1980. A handful of defense-only players have finished in the top four -- most recently, Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh -- while Alex Karras and Green are the only two defenders to finish in the top three without playing on offense.

Woodson is heralded as the last defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy, but his bid was aided by his explosive returning ability and moonlighting as a receiver. Te'o doesn't have any of that -- his impact comes only on the defensive side of the ball.

And it's a been a huge impact, one that has propelled Notre Dame to an undefeated season and bid in the BCS Championship. Te'o has 103 tackles and seven interceptions, the latter of which is the highest total compiled by an FBS linebacker in a dozen years. He's the emotional leader of a defense allowing 10.3 points per game, the lowest average in the nation. And Te'o's done it all while being a high-character guy, one who's as upstanding of a human being as you'll ever meet.

So what doesn't make him Heisman Trophy material?

It's exactly about what Te'o is lacking, it's about what Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel has done. It's Manziel -- not Cam Newton, not Tim Tebow -- who holds the SEC record for total offense, racking up 4,600 yards in his redshirt freshman campaign. With a new coach and new quarterback, Texas A&M actually wound up averaging more points per game this year against fearsome SEC defenses than they did last year against the Swiss cheese defenses of the Big 12, and that was with Ryan Tannehill as the team's quarterback.

The last few weeks have turned into ugly attack campaigns, with those in College Station and South Bend digging to find any reason, however small, to discount the other candidate (in this analogy, then, that makes Collin Klein the Green Party rep). Yes, Manziel didn't play well against Florida and LSU. But Te'o was stymied by Pittsburgh, a game which Notre Dame wound up winning thanks to a few big breaks.

It's Michael Trout vs. Miguel Cabrera all over again, with each grenade thrown making the debate more polarizing.

"That's definitely somebody that's of Heisman material," Te'o said of Manziel. "I'm a real big fan."

Manziel is a deserving candidate. So is Te'o. But only one can win the award -- and all signs point to Manziel -- so that begs another question: why not just split the Heisman Trophy into two categories, one for offense and one for defense?

It's a tricky concept, given the history of the Heisman Trophy. It's arguably the most prestigious and recognizable award in American sports, one that pre-dates baseball's Cy Young Award by 21 years. It'd take a lot of convincing for two players to be welcomed into the Heisman fraternity each year, for two players to strike the pose instead of one.

But it's rare for a defensive player to have the kind of national impact and appeal of Te'o in 2012. Quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers pepper highlight reels and YouTube clips. A mundane touchdown will get more play than a run-of-the-mill interception, sack or fumble recovery. That's why it's much easier to identify the nation's top offensive players than defensive players, unless a defender has a gargantuan season like Te'o in 2012 or Suh in 2009.

The idea of a defensive Heisman won't be realized anytime soon, if ever. And even if it is installed down the road, it won't help Te'o this year.

In a situation where there are multiple deserving candidates, one will get snubbed. This year, that guy is likely to be Te'o, and he just so happens to play defense. And while there's no doubt Te'o wants to win the Heisman, he has a chance to play for an even bigger honor -- one Manziel doesn't have a chance to get this year.

"You ask any Heisman winner that wasn't a national champion what they would rather be, and I think they would rather be the latter, a national champion," Te'o said last month. "So that's what I want. I'd rather be holding a crystal ball than a bronze statue."

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Bears DL Akiem Hicks making the most of a chance the Saints never gave him

Living well is indeed the best revenge, and sometimes nothing feels sweeter than proving doubters wrong. Akiem Hicks is savoring that exact feeling.

When the New Orleans Saints made Hicks their third-round pick in the 2013 draft, they typecast their big (6-5, 318 pounds) young defensive lineman as a one-trick pony.

“There were people in New Orleans that said, ‘You can’t rush the passer,’” Hicks recalled after the Bears’ win Sunday over the San Francisco 49ers. “They told me from my rookie year, ‘You’re going to be a run-stopper.’”

This despite Hicks collecting 6.5 sacks and 3 pass breakups as a senior at Regina in Canada. The Saints forced Hicks into the slot they’d decided he fit – nose tackle – then eventually grew disenchanted with him and traded him to New England last year – where he collect 3 sacks in spot duty.

Interestingly, Bears GM Ryan Pace was part of the Saints’ personnel operation. Whether Pace agreed with coaches’ handling of Hicks then isn’t known, but when Pace had the chance to bring Hicks to Chicago for a role different than the one the Saints forced Hicks into, Pace made it happen.

Pace likely saw those New England sacks as a foreshadowing or a sign that the New Orleans staff had miscast Hicks. The Bears defensive end now is under consideration for NFC defensive player of the week after his 10-tackle performance against San Francisco. Signing with the Bears last March 13 as a free agent was the career break Hicks has craved. For him it was a career lifeline.

“They have given me the ability to go rush the passer,” Hicks said. “So I love this organization – [GM] Ryan Pace, coach Fox, Vic [Fangio, defensive coordinator] – for just giving a guy the capability to put it out there and do what you feel like you can do.”

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Hicks has been showing what he can do, to quarterbacks. For him the best part of win over the 49ers was the two third-quarter sacks of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

Those sacks gave the massive lineman, who the Saints said couldn’t rush the passer, 6 sacks for the season – more than any member of the Saints defense this season. It has been a classic instance of putting a player in position to maximize his skills, not jam someone into a bad fit.

“Akiem has been in a couple of different types of packages before with New Orleans and New England,” said coach John Fox. The Patriots switched from a long-time 3-4 scheme to a 4-3 but “we’re more of a New England-type style. But we’re playing him more at end; he played mostly a nose tackle [in New Orleans]. He’s fit really well for us as far as his physical stature.

"But he does have pass rush ability. It shows a little about his athleticism. So he’s got a combination of both.”

That “combination” has been allowed to flourish at a new level, and the Bears’ plan for Hicks was the foundation of why he wanted to sign in Chicago as a free agent. The Bears do not play their defensive linemen in a clear one-gap, get-upfield-fast scheme tailored to speed players. Nor do they play a classic two-gap, linemen-control-blockers scheme typically built on three massive space-eaters on the defensive line.

They play what one player has called a “gap and a half” system, which requires being stout as well as nimble.

One Hicks rush on Kaepernick featured a deft spin move out of a block, not the norm for 336-pound linemen. He got one sack with a quick slide out of a double-team.

“I’m not freelancing,” Hicks said. “But I’m rushing ‘fast.’ There’s a portion of the defense where you have the [run] responsibility and don’t have the freedom or liberty [to rush]. It’s a great system for me and I love what they’ve let me do.”