Nineteen years ago, Heisman Trophy voters made one of the most surprising and controversial decisions in the award’s hallowed history.
Don’t be stunned if it happens again this fall.
When Michigan defensive back Charles Woodson won the Heisman Trophy over Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning, he became the first defensive player to win the Heisman. As we near the two-decade anniversary of that win, Woodson still owns that distinction all by himself, but it’s not too far-fetched to think he’ll gain company soon.
While there are a number of talented offensive players returning who will be strong Heisman contenders, a handful of talented defenders, given the right circumstances, could make their marks in New York when the stiff-arm trophy is awarded in December.
Before we examine them, however, let’s explore what it took for Woodson to win the Heisman. Several factors made his candidacy unique.
First of all, he played on one of the nation’s best teams. Michigan was a college football blue blood enjoying one of its best seasons in recent memory under head coach Lloyd Carr’s watch. The Wolverines finished 12-0 and split the 1997 national championship with Nebraska, earning the crown from the Associated Press.
Woodson was an integral piece of that success on multiple fronts. As a cornerback, he had 44 tackles, five tackles for loss, eight interceptions and nine pass breakups. He made significant contributions as a receiver, making 12 catches for 238 yards and two touchdowns.
Woodson was also dangerous as a punt returner, making 36 returns for 301 yards and a touchdown.
And he made huge contributions on a national stage. In the regular-season finale against Ohio State, Woodson returned a punt 78 yards for a touchdown and also made a 37-yard reception that set up another touchdown. Michigan won 20-14, and it’s easy to argue the Wolverines might not have won the game (or the national title) without Woodson’s key plays.
His victory over Manning was rather decisive; he outpointed Manning 1,815 to 1,543 and garnered 433 first-place votes to Manning’s 281.
Can anyone replicate that resume this fall? Absolutely.
Michigan doubled its win total from five to 10 in head coach Jim Harbaugh’s first season, and the Wolverines are poised for more with a loaded roster in 2016. Redshirt sophomore Jabrill Peppers could be the biggest X-factor. After leg injuries forced him into a redshirt, Peppers broke out as a multitalented threat in 2015.
He played 10 different positions as a veritable Swiss army knife. Peppers made 45 tackles with 5.5 tackles for loss and 10 passes defended. He also rushed 18 times for 72 yards and two touchdowns, caught eight passes for 79 yards and returned eight kicks for a 27.9-yard average and 17 punts for an 11.4-yard average.
This fall, he will move to strong-side linebacker under new defensive coordinator Don Brown, but Harbaugh told reporters at Big Ten media days that he could start at receiver or running back, per Angelique S. Chengelis of the Detroit News:
Anything is accomplishable for Jabrill Peppers in the game of football. Let me start by saying this, I think football players, professional football players are the greatest athletes in the world and Jabrill is that kind of athlete. He’s that kind of athlete that has the greatest in the world type of athleticism.
He can play just about anywhere on a football field and be effective.
If Michigan challenges for a College Football Playoff spot, Peppers should be right in the middle of the action. His crossover appeal could sway voters, particularly if he makes eye-popping plays on big stages against Michigan State or Ohio State, much as Woodson did 19 years ago.
However, Peppers told Bill Bender of Sporting News that comparing him to Woodson is unfair, because he hasn’t accomplished as much as Woodson yet.
On the West Coast, Adoree’ Jackson boasts a similar resume. As Clay Helton begins his first season as Southern California’s full-time head coach, he’ll have one of the nation’s most versatile players at his disposal. Jackson, a junior cornerback, does a little bit of everything and does it well. He’s an All-Pac-12 defensive back but also returns kicks and punts and sees major snaps at wide receiver.
Last fall, Jackson had 35 tackles, eight deflections, a forced fumble and a pick-six as a cornerback. As a receiver, he had 27 receptions for 414 yards and two scores, while averaging 23.0 yards per kick return and 10.5 yards per punt return with a pair of return touchdowns.
He is also a track and field All-American who finished 10th in the long jump at the U.S. Olympic trials.
Now, being a smart person, is he electric with the ball in his hands? Yes, he is. Are there going to be situations throughout the season where we’ll need him to return a ball or two? Yes, in the kicking game, yes. Is there a special play that can be designed offensively for him to help us put points on the board? Yes.
But I think right now going into training camp, his primary focus will be on the defensive side of the ball, trying to help our defensive line.
If the talented Trojans make a run for a playoff spot under Helton, the spotlight will find Jackson. Imagine the corner making a big play in a late-season showdown against UCLA or in the Pac-12 title game that gets attention. That would gain Heisman buzz.
While Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o finished as the runner-up to Johnny Manziel in 2012, he’s one of only three defenders to finish among the top five in Heisman voting since Woodson’s win. A second defensive winner could require a crowded field, with the likes of Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, LSU’s Leonard Fournette and others splitting the vote and no one emerging as a consensus choice, allowing a two-way player to slip into the mix.
Sports on Earth’s Matt Brown listed both Peppers and Jackson, along with Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett, as potential defensive candidates.
Is it probable? No. Is it possible? Yes. And if not this season, sooner or later someone similar will break through and join Woodson in the defensive Heisman fraternity. It’s just a matter of time.
Read more College Football news on BleacherReport.com
Source: Bleacher Report-CFB News