College Football: Heisman Trophy Breakdown

Posted Dec 7, 2012

Once considered the Heisman favorite, USC QB Matt Barkley now doesn't even garner mention as a longshot. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

By Matt Feminis
Special to

In a relatively lackluster Heisman race, just three finalists emerged, only one of which would be on my ballot. Here’s a look at the finalists, as well as a handful of players more deserving.

The Finalists:

QB Johnny Manziel, redshirt freshman, Texas A&M — The talents of Johnny Manziel were known prior to Nov. 10th. They were known in Texas, where he was an all-everything, multi-sport star at Tivy High. They were known at the University of Oregon, where Manziel originally committed. And they were known in College Station, prompting first-year head coach Kevin Sumlin to offer Manziel a chance to play quarterback much closer to home, a proposition he couldn’t pass up. But the 6-1, 200-pounder was a three-star recruit whose offer list included Wyoming, Tulsa and Rice. He was not viewed as a savior, or a future pro or a future Heisman contender. As recently as August, he was just one of four players vying for A&M’s starting quarterback position. Then “Johnny Football” began to materialize.

In A&M’s inaugural SEC contest against Florida, Manziel acquitted himself nicely, completing 23-of-30 pass attempts for 173 yards and rushing for 60 yards and a score. The Aggies lost by a field goal, but Manziel’s performance and his 10 touchdown passes (and six rushing TDs) to zero interceptions in September at least provided comfort that Sumlin and the Aggies had identified their quarterback. Manziel proceeded to gash Ole Miss on the road then put on a show (576 total yards, three passing TDs, three rushing TDs) in a shootout victory at Louisiana Tech.

Manziel’s lone “dud” came in a 24-19 loss to LSU, a game in which he was contained on the ground and intercepted three times. Seemingly, he had hit the inevitable freshman wall. His response? A five-game undefeated stretch to conclude the regular season which included road wins against Auburn, Mississippi State and top-ranked Alabama on Nov. 10th, a performance that made “Johnny Football” a household name, a freshman sensation and a Heisman Trophy finalist. The Tide had no answer for Manziel, who passed 24-31-253-2-0 and added 92 yards on the ground. Tide head coach Nick Saban couldn’t have been surprised. Leading up to the game, he compared Manziel to Doug Flutie (1984 Heisman winner) for his dual-threat ability, playmaking, competitiveness and instincts.

When the dust settled, Manziel — as a redshirt freshman starter in the SEC — spearheaded a 10-2 team which only losses were by a combined eight points to a pair of college football heavyweights. Individually, he passed and ran his way to one of the most remarkable freshman campaigns in recent history, etching his name alongside the likes of Herschel Walker, Marshall Faulk, Michael Vick, Adrian Peterson and Michael Crabtree. For perspective, in 2002 Missouri’s Brad Smith threw for 2,333 yards and ran for 1,029, becoming the only freshman quarterback in history to gain 2,000 yards passing and 1,000 rushing. Manziel breezed by those marks en route to a statistical season comparable to Cam Newton and Tim Tebow’s Heisman campaigns. In 12 starts, Manziel completed 273-of-400 pass attempts (68.2 percent) for 3,419 yards with 24 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He also carried 184 times for 1,181 yards (6.4-yard average) and 19 touchdowns, garnering SEC Offensive Player of the Year thanks to a SEC single-season record for total offense (4,600 yards). He piled up those numbers by ripping off 70 plays of 20 yards or more, 10 more than anyone else in the country.

From a scouting perspective, Manziel has two strikes against him right off the bat: he lacks ideal height and plays in the “Air Raid” system which enabled passers (including current A&M offensive coordinator and former Texas Tech standout Cliff Kingsbury) to amass gaudy college statistics despite lacking physical traits for the pro game. Manziel has typical flaws for a young quarterback, but given his infectious mixture of moxie, energy and competitiveness, he won’t be written off as a “system quarterback” just yet.  Not with his escapability and improvisational instincts and the makings of a dragon-slayer résumé. He might not have the passing proficiency of Drew Brees. He might not even be as explosive as Eric Crouch (2001 Heisman). Shoot, his arrest following a bar fight in June tells us he doesn’t (yet) have Russell Wilson’s maturity.  But one thing is certain: he’s fun to watch. Armed with crazy legs, a gunslinger’s arm and blind confidence, perhaps inspired by youthful naievete, Manziel’s kinetic energy generated rare production, big wins, memorable moments and a Heisman worthy season.

ILB Manti Te’o, Notre Dame — Te’o is college football’s 2012 golden boy, as the emotional leader of the undefeated and BCS Championship bound Fighting Irish was recognized with a record six national awards: Maxwell  and Walter Camp (both player of the year), Nagurski and Bednarik (both defensive player of the year), Butkus (top linebacker) and Lombardi/Rotary. This was our write up of Te’o during the season, and not much has changed:

“A highly respected, durable, productive four-year starter, Te’o (6-2, 255) is a thickly built, tightly wound, punishing tackler with NFL bulk strength to take on blocks and fill running lanes between the tackles. Generally, Te’o plays on his feet and is able to read hats, diagnose and scrape and flow, though he lacks ideal foot speed and lateral agility and can be a step late to the perimeter. Most worrisome, however, is the fact that missed tackles have been constant throughout Te’o’s ND career. There are just too many times when he’s in position but fails to secure the tackle, particularly in space where his hip tightness shows. Nevertheless, he plays with consistent effort and energy and puts himself in position to make plays or create opportunities for teammates, and there is value in that, especially given Te’o’s desirable intangibles. The Hawaiian-bred linebacker is a heart-and-soul, “foxhole” type with emotional leadership traits. Experienced, competitive and mentally and physically tough (played on a bum ankle as a junior), Te’o loves to play and it shows. For illustration, look no further than his gutty performances against Michigan State and Michigan immediately following the deaths of his grandmother and girlfriend. He will likely impress during the interview process and be drafted higher than his tape dictates, but Te’o is a low-risk, high-character, winning player capable of infusing a defense with intensity and stability. Te’o is in a similar mold as Bengals 2009 second-rounder Rey Maualuga, though he has more upside, and embodies a “Mike” ’backer who could probably be broken in as a “Sam” if need be.”

Update: Healthy and in better shape this season, Te’o showed tangible improvement in two main areas: tackling and pass defense. He was more secure getting ballcarriers to the ground in 2012 and came up with seven interceptions (though, to be fair, four were tipped and one was thrown right to him by Michigan “quarterback” Dennard Robinson).  At this point of the draft process, Te’o is riding a wave of momentum and is viewed as a potential top-10 selection. Whether that comes to fruition remains to be seen, as all eyes will be on him against Alabama’s powerful offensive front, and he’ll be tested, poked and prodded come the winter months, but in April he will undoubtedly have universal appeal. He just wouldn’t get our Heisman vote… 

QB Collin Klein, Kansas State — Klein is old-fashioned, from his playing style to his off-the-field choices. If you pause his tape at the right moment, you’ll catch him in a pose reminiscent of a 1940s or 1950s football card. He wouldn’t look out of place in a leather helmet, as his run-heavy game and old-school toughness seem transplanted from a bygone era. In his personal life, Klein, who will be a 24-year-old rookie, is already married and graduated with a finance degree. Not surprisingly, maturity rates among his best attributes.

His leadership and production for the Wildcats were invaluable. After redshirting in 2008, playing receiver and showing glimpses of excitement as a backup in 2010, Klein had an eye-popping season in 2011 when he started 13 games and completed 161-of-281 pass attempts (57.3 percent) for 1,918 yards with 13 touchdowns and six interceptions. He was a horse as a ballcarrier, however, rushing 317 times for 1,141 yards and a Big 12 and FBS quarterback record 27 touchdowns. This season, the Wildcats earned a Fiesta Bowl on the strength of Klein, who accounted for 69 percent of the team’s offense and 66 percent of its scores. In 12 starts, Klein has passed 180-272-2,490-15-7 (66.2 percent) while rushing 172-892-15 (5.2).

Klein (6-5, 226), a three-year captain, has terrific size and his intangibles are exceptional. He also boasts above-average acceleration and straight-line foot speed for a quarterback. However, his positives drop off quickly from a scouting standpoint. Despite the fact he made strides as a passer this fall, he is a fringe quarterback prospect. He operates a shot gun, zone-read offense and benefits heavily from playaction, meaning he is not well-schooled in pro-style passing. Oftentimes he looks like a high school quarterback, staring at his primary option before tucking the ball down and dashing out of the pocket. He’s not a natural passer, as his long-armed delivery has a hitch and he cannot drill velocity throws on a line. Additionally, his accuracy is shoddy — floats throws and too often throws into double coverage. As a runner, he is not particularly elusive, nor does he run with the power of Tim Tebow, who Klein has drawn comparisons to. Also worth noting is his 15 fumbles the last two seasons (13 in 2011).
Klein’s Heisman hopes took a hit down the stretch, as five of his seven interceptions came in the final three games, including an ugly loss to Baylor (118th ranked pass defense) in which he was picked off three times. Heisman or no Heisman, Klein will certainly get an opportunity at an NFL career thanks to his size, athleticos, leadership, toughness and competitiveness. He’s probably best served adding bulk to his frame and tapping into his former receiver days by transitioning to an H-back role. If he makes an NFL roster, he could be utilized as a short-yardage/goal line player and/or “Wildcat” quarterback, and his presence might even allow for roster flexibility since he could serve as an emergency quarterback.

The Snubs:

DE Jedeveon Clowney, sophomore, South Carolina — If the Heisman is supposed to be awarded to college football’s most outstanding player, then Jedeveon Clowney’s exclusion from the list of finalists is an injustice. He embodies the definition of outstanding. A 6-6, 256-pound freak of nature who has lived up to his massive hype and Julius Peppers comparisons, Clowney is the Hendriks Award winner (top defensive end) and SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year (Coaches), and was a finalist for the Bednarik, Nagurski and Lombardi awards. In 11 games, he’s registered 50 tackles, 21 1/2 tackles for loss (tied for second nationally) and 13 sacks (tied for first nationally) with two batted balls and two forced fumbles. His 24-game career totals now read 86-33 1/2-21 with three batted balls and seven forced fumbles. He’s dominating the SEC as a 19-year-old thanks to a truly rare skill set. Clowney is a once-in-a-decade type talent who was worthy of a first-round pick coming out of South Carolina’s Rock Pointe High School. He boasts a futuristic combination of length, edge burst, flexibility, speed, hand/foot quickness and overall athleticism that could make him the No. 1 overall selection in 2014, an NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year favorite and multiple time All-Pro. Bringing the focus back on this year’s Heisman discussion, no player consistently dominates and disrupts like Clowney, whose only discernible drawback apparently is that he doesn’t play for Notre Dame.

OLB Jarvis Jones, redshirt junior, Georgia — After a breakout sophomore season, Jones was profiled in our preseason prospect rankings as a top-five talent:

“An all-state basketball player in Georgia, Jones began his college career at USC in 2009. However, he suffered a season-ending neck injury on Halloween night against Oregon, and was not cleared by USC doctors. Ultimately transferred to Georgia, was cleared medically and sat out the 2010 season per NCAA transfer rules. In 2011, Jones hit the ground running — was deployed on the strong and weak sides, with his hand in the dirt and as a “Joker,” racking up 70 tackles, 19 1/2 for loss and an SEC-leading 13 1/2 sacks with two forced fumbles, two pass breakups and 49 quarterback pressures. Additionally, the consensus All-American and Butkus Award finalist was named a team captain. He’s a natural stand-up linebacker, boasting explosiveness and pass-rush prowess off the edge. He’s highly athletic, plays on his feet, ranges to make plays and has closing speed to finish. Further, he has quick, strong, violent hands and knows how to use them. Jones, one of the best football players in the land and an elite pro prospect, should only get better and will be a lottery selection when he makes the jump.”

Update: Few players began the season as an elite prospect and maintained standing. Jones is one of them. Despite missing two games, he garnered AP SEC Defensive Player of the Year and was a finalist for the Butkus, Bednarik and Nagurski awards. He’s tallied 77 tackles, a national-best 22 1/2 for loss and 12 1/2 sacks with two batted passes, an interception and seven forced fumbles, more than anyone in the country. He’s also credited with 33 quarterback hurries. Another selling point for Jones is the fact that he’s showed up in big games, totaling six sacks against South Carolina, Florida and Alabama. Since arriving in Athens, Jones has been one of the most consistently dominant, impactful players in the land and he’s worthy of Heisman consideration.

WR Marqise Lee, sophomore, USC — Lee served notice on the first play of USC’s season that he wasn’t going to play second banana to Robert Woods in 2012, turning a five-yard out into a 75-yard touchdown against Hawaii. In 12 games, the Biletnikoff winner (nation’s most outstanding receiver) and Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year went on to establish single-season conference records for receptions and yards by racking up 112 catches for 1,680 yards (15-yard average) and 14 touchdowns, including a 345-yard decimation of Arizona’s secondary, a single-game record. He ranks first nationally in receptions per game (9.3) and second in receiving yards. He doubles as a dangerous kickoff returner, averaging 28.6/return, including a 100-yard score against Hawaii. Lee doesn’t have the intimidating size desired in a receiver, but he’s a first-round pick in waiting with speed, explosion, body control and big-play ability. He jets off the line, is quick-handed to snatch throws out of the air and is lethal after the catch. Lee would be invited to New York if not for USC’s disappointing five losses, of which he could hardly be blamed (recorded 50-835-5 in those games).

Honorable mention:

WR/RB/RS Tavon Austin, West Virginia — The combination of Austin’s all-purpose ability, Dana Holgersen’s prolific system and the Big 12’s porous secondaries created a perfect storm for the undersized playmaker to amass gaudy numbers: 110 receptions for 1,259 yards (11.4-yard average) and 12 touchdowns; 61 carries for 598 yards (9.8) and three touchdowns; 28 kickoff returns for 738 yards (26.4), including a 100-yard score against Kansas State; and 15 punt returns for 165 yards (11.0), including a 76-yard score against TCU. Austin, the only player in the country to score four different ways this season, ranks second nationally in all-purpose yardage (230 yards/game). His high point came in a one-point, shootout loss to Oklahoma when he was used as a running back (position he played as a Baltimore prep), looked very natural and produced 572 total yards and a pair of scores.
Following the game, Holgersen said, “What Tavon did against Oklahoma is the single greatest performance I've seen, ever.”

Much of Austin’s production is derived from short/lateral throws designed to merely get the ball in his hands and let him create, but his talent is legitimate. Despite his stature, he could be a second-round pick come April. He’s a versatile mismatch weapon with game-breaking speed and joystick agility who oftentimes toys with would-be tacklers in open field. He projects as a Swiss army knife type of player capable of lining up in the slot or in the backfield and being effective running screens, draws, crossers, option routes and the occasional vertical strike. He also brings added value as a return man.

OLT Luke Joeckel, junior, Texas A&M — Left tackle is a premium position, one of the most important positions on the field, and Joeckel was the best left tackle in America. We were very high on Joeckel in the summer and, like Jarvis Jones, he’s been stellar this season, solidifying his status as an elite prospect if/when he jumps to the NFL. Joeckel passed his tests in the SEC with flying colors, including a convincing performance against LSU’s vaunted front. His talent was overshadowed by the heroics of Manziel, but Joeckel’s blind-side security was a big reason why Manziel was able to do what he did. Joeckel was awarded the Outland Trophy for his efforts.
OG Chance Warmack, Alabama — Guards have not, do not and likely will never get Heisman recognition, so we’ll give Warmack some love. The Alabama offensive line is one of the best you’ll see in college football, and while Barrett Jones and D.J. Fluker draw headlines and accolades, Warmack is the war daddy of the group. If you were to rank the nation’s players/prospects irrespective of positional or draft value, Warmack would be elite. Simply put, he’s one of the finest players in college football. Experienced, strong and consistent, Warmack makes it look easy on a weekly basis. He will be the rare guard tabbed in the first round and is a plug-and-play prospect with Pro Bowl potential.

QB Jordan Lynch, redshirt junior, Northern Illinois — We will likely profile Lynch as the Orange Bowl approaches, but the first-year starter went scorched earth on the Mid-American Conference, leading the Huskies to an improbable BCS berth. Conference Player of the Year, Lynch completed 222-of-353 pass attempts (62.9 percent) for 2,972 yards with 24 touchdowns and five interceptions. He’s also the nation’s fourth leading rusher with 1,771 yards and 19 touchdowns. If Lynch has a respectable showing against Florida State in the Orange Bowl, he will be in next year’s preseason Heisman discussion.