When it comes to the Heisman Trophy, the little guy gets no respect.
And by the little guy, I don’t mean Utah State’s Chuckie Keeton. I mean 300-pound defensive lineman or 6-foot-4 fire-breathing linebackers.
No, when it comes to the most prestigious trophy in sports, the entire defensive side of the ball has been largely ignored for the better part of a century. Michigan’s Charles Woodson in 1997 is the only true defensive player to ever win the award.
Recent runs to New York by Nebraska’s Ndamukong Suh in 2009 and Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o in '12 may be a sign of things changing slowly, but odds are still heavily stacked against the defensive side of the ball.
Assuming that both halves of the field will get a fair shake this fall, who are the top defensive Heisman candidates for 2014?
Shaq Thompson, LB, Washington
Fans and experts all point to Myles Jack as the top defensive candidate to break through this fall but he isn’t expected to be used on offense. Thompson, on the other hand, could see more than spot duty for the Huskies' offense. He is a freak athlete, an All-American candidate and could be the next two-way star in college football.
Vic Beasley, DE, Clemson
The nation’s top returning sack master is the Tigers' star — who posted 13 sacks a year ago. For a defense that could be the best Clemson has had in years, Beasley’s explosive playmaking ability should make for national headlines.
Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska
The Big Ten’s top returning sack master (9.5), Gregory is hoping to restore the Nebraska defense to Blackshirt status. He should be able to build on his monster 2013 campaign that featured 65 tackles, 16 for a loss and 15 quarterback hurries. Like Calhoun, Gregory should perform like the projected first-round NFL Draft pick that he is.
Eric Striker, LB, Oklahoma
The big-play linebacker shows up all over the field. He constantly disrupts the opposing backfield and regularly imposes his will with physicality and explosiveness. He should build on his stat line from last year: 50 tackles, 10.6 TFL, 6.5 sacks.
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Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida
Not many players earn first-team preseason All-American honors as a true sophomore but that is what VH3 has done. He might be the nation’s top pure cover corner and should only build on his excellent first season in Gainesville.
Jaylon Smith, LB, Notre Dame
He was the No. 1 recruit in the nation at his position for a reason. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound athlete stepped into a starring role for Notre Dame and produced as just a freshman last fall. He posted 67 tackles (third on the team), 6.5 for a loss and made one freakish interception against USC. With a move to the inside, Smith should find himself around the ball on every play and the Irish have already proven that their middle linebacker can land in New York.
Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State
The massive (6-5, 260) defensive end was a star last year as just a sophomore (37 tackles, 14 TFL, 7.5 sacks, 3 defensive touchdowns). With much less help at linebacker, the Spartans' defensive line now takes center stage. Calhoun is the star of that bunch due to elite NFL upside.
Landon Collins, S, Alabama
He is one of the most gifted tacklers in the nation. When Collins arrives at the ball, the entire country knows about it. The lone returning starter in the Crimson Tide secondary could be the nation’s best safety. And he plays a position that has recently become a marquee spot with names like Mark Barron and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix excelling for the Tide.
Myles Jack, LB, UCLA
Jack made a huge name for himself last fall while playing two ways. Unfortunately, coach Jim Mora has talked openly about returning his star linebacker to an exclusively defensive role. Either way, he is a star athlete who will be a national award winner at some point.
Leonard Williams, DE, USC
The lanky defensive end is a projected top pick in the NFL Draft in the spring and should he dominate the line of scrimmage once again — he has 26 TFL and 13 sacks in two seasons — he should be in line for national acclaim.
Jalen Ramsey, S, Florida State
Not many true freshmen start every game for a national champion but that is what the former five-star recruit did for the Noles a year ago. The lanky playmaker should develop into one of the best defenders in the nation and should be an All-American this fall.
Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon
The first-team All-American cornerback consistently makes highlight-reel plays on defense. He has seven interceptions and seven forced fumbles in the last two seasons while making 147 total stops. He could be the most high-profile member of a Pac-12 championship defense.
Su’a Cravens, S, USC
From a talent standpoint, few can match Cravens’ size and speed combination. He proved as a true freshman last year that he could be special, posting 53 tackles and four interceptions.
Chris Jones, DT, Mississippi State
As a true freshman, Jones — who is listed at 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds — made a much bigger impact than even his five-star status indicated. He posted 32 tackles, seven for a loss and three sacks and constantly disrupted the opposing backfield. He is a sure-fire future NFL star.
Cedric Reed, DE, Texas
He is a massive part of the Longhorns' rebuilding project on defense, figuratively and literally. At 6-6 and 260 pounds, Reed towers above the competition regularly and his numbers back it up as well. He posted 77 tackles, 16.5 TFL and 10 sacks last year and should only be better this year.