The pinnacle of all college football awards, the Heisman Trophy has been given to college football’s most valuable player every year since 1935. The majority of winners through the years have played in the NFL and some have been honored with enshrinement in either the College Football Hall of Fame, Pro Football Hall of Fame, or both. But with all of its history, only one primary defensive player (Michigan’s Charles Woodson, 1997) has ever won the Heisman.
The last defensive player to be named a finalist was Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o back in 2013. And though many defensive players have been worthy of Heisman recognition, it's an award that seems to heavily favor those that play on the other side of the ball. This year figures to be no different, especially given some of the numbers put up by the likes of Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa, Oklahoma's Kyler Murray and Ohio State's Dwayne Haskins (to name a few), but that doesn't mean there aren't some defenders not worthy of some consideration.
Sutton Smith, DE, Northern Illinois
All Smith has done is tie for the FBS lead in sacks two straight seasons. This year he enters the bowl game with 15 sacks after registering 14 last season. Not surprisingly, Smith is a two-time MAC Defensive Player of the Year. He's more than just a sack specialist, however, as he's second in the nation with 24.5 tackles for a loss and tied for the conference lead with four forced fumbles. Even though he was limited with an injury in the middle of the season, Smith continued to produce at a high level and helped Northern Illinois win its first MAC title since 2014. Smith was credited with 10 tackles (eight solo), two sacks and 3.5 tackles for a loss in the Huskies' MAC Championship Game victory over Buffalo. Just a junior, it's possible that Smith's final game in an NIU uniform will come Dec. 18 when the Huskies face Conference USA champ UAB in the Boca Raton Bowl.
Ben Burr-Kirven, LB, Washington
The nation's leading tackler, Burr-Kirven has already racked up 165 stops (85 solo) playing in a conference (Pac-12) more known for efficient, explosive offenses. He filled the stat sheet as he also has registered a sack, two interceptions, six pass breakups and four forced fumbles. The heart and soul of the Huskies' defense, the senior has provided leadership while recording double-digit tackles in 11 of his team's 13 games. He's already been named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and will have one more chance to leave his mark as Washington will make its first Rose Bowl appearance since 2000 when the Huskies take on Ohio State on New Year's Day.
Josh Allen, LB, Kentucky
The Wildcats posted their first nine-win campaign since 1984 and a big reason for it was their defense, which is led by Allen. The senior is tops in SEC in sacks (14), tackles for a loss (18.5) and forced fumbles. He's tied for first nationally in forced fumbles and fourth in sacks. He also leads his team in tackles (84) as Kentucky ranks eighth nationally in scoring defense (16.3 ppg). Similar to his peers on this list, Allen is in line for numerous postseason accolades, including being a finalist for the Nagurski Trophy, Bednarik Award, Butkus Award, Lott IMPACT Trophy and Walter Camp Player of the Year.
Andre Cisco, DB, Syracuse
Just a freshman, Cisco was a major contributor for the Orange, who won nine games for the first time since 2001. He definitely had a campaign worthy of getting on the Heisman radar as he leads FBS with seven interceptions, while added nine pass breakups and 51 tackles. The ACC Defensive Player of the Year, Cisco is just getting started, but it certainly has been an impressive start for the true freshman from Valley Stream, New York.
Clemson defensive line
Yes, it's cheating to name a group of players to this list, but there's just no way to single out one player on the Tigers' stout defensive line. In Dexter Lawrence, Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins and Austin Bryant, Clemson boasts the top defensive front in all of college football and considering their draft prospects, arguably one that could measure up against some of the DLs in the NFL.
And while those four are the headliners, the Tigers' depth up front extends beyond them. They are a big reason why Clemson enters the College Football Playoff tied for second nationally in scoring defense (13.7 ppg) and fourth in total defense (276.8 ypg). Ferrell was named ACC Defensive Player of the Year, but he's certainly not alone when it comes to making things difficult on opposing offenses. None of these Tigers will be making the trip to New York City for the Heisman Trophy presentation but if it was a group award, they'd probably be the runaway winners.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.