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Assessing Jadeveon Clowney’s Heisman Chances

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Despite the buzz, South Carolina pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney will need plenty of breaks to even be the best Heisman hopeful within the SEC in 2013. Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images.
Despite the buzz, South Carolina pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney will need plenty of breaks to even be the best Heisman hopeful within the SEC in 2013. Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images.

There’s no arguing that Jadeveon Clowney is one of the best players in college football. He’s so respected that he’ll start the season as a Heisman hopeful. However, his odds of bringing that coveted award back to Columbia are hampered by his position.

In 1997, Michigan’s Charles Woodson won the award. As a cornerback, Woodson is the only primarily defensive player to have ever won the Heisman. In fact, Woodson’s win in 1997 was the last time a player other than a quarterback or running back won the award.

Since 2000, the only non-quarterback to win the Heisman was Alabama running back Mark Ingram. With such a focus on offense, and the passing game in particular, a pass rusher like Clowney is squarely behind the historical eight ball.

Nothing short of a truly dominating 2013 season will be required to get Clowney firmly in the Heisman mix. When you think of the great defensive ends that failed to win the Heisman, it conjures up names like Bruce Smith, Bubba Smith, Lawrence Taylor, Tarrell Suggs, Julius Peppers and Reggie White.

White earned his nickname, the Minister of Defense, at the University of Tennessee. In his final season as a Volunteer, 1983, White had 15 sacks and 24 tackles for a loss. Both of those were school records at the time and White is still the school leader for sacks in a season as well as career sacks (32). Leonard Little eclipsed White with 25 tackles for a loss during the 1995 season, but White remains one of the all-time greats at defensive end and is a pretty good model for Clowney’s Heisman hopes.

Playing in the SEC East, just as Reggie White did, Clowney will need an equally impressive effort. White’s season of 15 sacks and 25 tackles for a loss was good enough to earn him All-American honors and SEC Player of the Year. Last season, Clowney scored All-American honors thanks to 13 sacks and 24 tackles for a loss. He was second in the SEC in both those categories.

To break the stranglehold offensive players have on the Heisman, Clowney must eclipse White’s stats from 1983 and ensure that he leads the SEC, if not the NCAA, in sacks and tackles for a loss. Moreover, he’ll need more highlight reel players like the one against Michigan to keep his profile up. Clowney’s chances also improve if his Gamecocks compete for the SEC title.

While all those factors are under Clowney's control to some degree, he’ll also need a couple of breaks to go his way to win the Heisman.

When Woodson won, he was returning punts and occasionally lining up at receiver. He was primarily a defensive player, but he operated as a threat in multiple facets of the game. Clowney doesn’t have that option. South Carolina could line him up at tight end in goal-line situations, but the Gamecocks are phenomenally deep at the tight end position.

Whether it’s being used creatively in a goal-line package or getting a lucky bounce on a fumble or interception, Clowney’s Heisman chances would receive a serious boost if he finds a way to get a touchdown or two.

Beyond that, Clowney will need his Heisman competition to underperform and give voters a reason to steer their support toward him. In the SEC alone, there’s last year’s Heisman winner Johnny Manziel, Aaron Murray and AJ McCarron. If any one of those players has a huge year or leads their team’s charge toward a national championship, then Clowney will struggle to steal votes.

In 1997, Peyton Manning was supposed to win the Heisman. However, when the Volunteers lost to Florida, it opened the door for his competition. Woodson’s Michigan team was undefeated and playing for a share of the championship, which they eventually got. Clowney also will need the Heisman contenders at quarterback to falter so that he can make his case for college football’s most prestigious award.

Though history is against him, Clowney should certainly improve upon his sixth-place finish in Heisman voting last season. If he’s up around Reggie White’s 1983 SEC Player of the Year numbers of 15 sacks and 24 tackles for a loss and South Carolina is competing for an SEC title, then Clowney might indeed join his coach Steve Spurrier and former Gamecock George Rodgers as a Heisman winner.