Thursday, October 25, 2012

A Heisman Voter Breaks Down Whether Notre Dame's Manti Te'o Can Win

 By Lisa Horne (Featured Columnist) on October 24, 2012

This is the time of year when a Heisman voter starts narrowing down his or her watch list to the front-runners and the sleepers. In other words, there should be a good feeling about which players have really impressed you and which ones need to do more to move up the list.

As a Heisman voter, the next four to six weeks will be all about my watching every game in which my watch-listers play. Thank goodness for DVR!

I want to make sure that my vote is cast knowing I evaluated every player on my list and paid attention to not only what he did on the field, but also the level of competition he was playing against and how his performances impacted the team.

The Heisman Trophy, according to its mission statement, is awarded to "the most outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity."

This year all of my watch-listers have integrity, and that is important to me. One of my front-runners is Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o.

This young man impresses for so many reasons, but one of the biggest reasons is his character. His commitment to excellence and his perseverance despite personal tragedy is beyond reproach. September 11 is always a day for deep reflection and, for many families, a time of grieving, but Te'o suffered along with the families and friends of the four Americans killed this last September 11 in the Benghazi, Libya terrorist attack.

Te'o's grandmother and girlfriend both died that day, but he still played football the following Saturday four days later. He's committed to the school.

Manti Te'o, up close and personal

Manti Te'o could have declared early for the 2012 NFL draft but instead, he announced at the Lott Trophy Presentation ceremony last December that he would be coming back to Notre Dame.

That resonates with me because he represents the University of Notre Dame so well—the school has always had one of the highest graduation rates among its student athletes. Te'o is also the reason why Notre Dame is 7-0 thus far; its total defense is ranked No. 6 among FBS schools.

The last time a defensive player won the Heisman was in 1997; Michigan's Charles Woodson is the only (primarily) defensive player to have won the Heisman. Will Te'o be the second?

The deck is stacked against Te'o for one—and only one—reason: He doesn't touch the ball enough.

Touches matter because whoever is touching the ball has all attention on him. This explains why quarterbacks and running backs usually win the Heisman and why receivers or defensive players don't.

The human eye follows the ball. The camera follows the ball. The game announcers follow the ball. Rarely do you have all of the attention focused on a linebacker on every play, and that hurts Te'o, unfortunately.

For a defensive player to a Heisman vote, he's got to be in on the action on almost every play. Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh was one of those special players. Suh was named as one of the five Heisman finalists in 2009 but finished in fourth place.

He also won the Bednarik, Lombardi, Nagurski and Outland trophies, and was named the Associated Press College Player of the Year—the only defensive player to have ever won the award.

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Again, no stiff arm means a defensive player has the tougher path and has to be the most noticeable player in every game in which he plays. He has to touch the ball whether it be via interception or fumble, and he has to make that monster sack on the quarterback at a critical juncture of the game.

Te'o will have a big trophy haul this year, no doubt, but he will have to exceed the bar that Suh set to win the 2012 Heisman.

Is it possible? Yes, of course it is. But Notre Dame going 12-0 would help. Sacking or intercepting Landry Jones this Saturday would help more. Getting a game-winning pick six against USC's Matt Barkley would really get voters' attention.

But no interceptions, sacks or forced fumbles from Te'o means limited touches.

Personally, I would love to see a defensive player win the Heisman because his contributions are just as important as that of a quarterback. Or that of a running back.

Te'o has the integrity and outstanding pursuit of excellence checked off. He's an incredible athlete and an incredible person.

But he needs to show me his Heisman moment—I'll be waiting for it.

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