The defensive back is a big part of the Crimson Tide's top-ranked defense
The Alabama Crimson Tide are the odds-on favorites to win the national championship according to Las Vegas sports books. The team is a near-unanimous selection at No. 1 in the AP Top 25, and was a unanimous pick in the Coaches Poll. Even though Alabama came in at No. 2 in the initial College Football Playoff rankings released Tuesday night, it seems like only a matter of time until it rises to the top. The Crimson Tide are consistently among the most talented and best coached teams in the country, and this season is no exception.
Given the respect for the team as a whole, and the playmaking ability of premiere skill position players like running back Damien Harris and quarterback Jalen Hurts, it’s a bit surprising no individual Alabama player has been featured at the forefront of the Heisman Trophy discussion. Admittedly, it’s a packed field. Penn State running back Saquon Barkley is an explosive playmaker as a runner, receiver and returner. Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett has been outstanding, and led the Buckeyes to a huge comeback win over Barkley’s Nittany Lions. Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield guided the Sooners to a win over Ohio State, and Stanford running back Bryce Love still leads the nation in rushing even after sitting out last week’s game against Oregon State. Oh, and reigning Heisman winner Lamar Jackson is putting up video game numbers again this season.
However, Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick should be mentioned in the same company as Barkley, Barrett, Mayfield et al. Fitzpatrick, an All-American in 2016, is the best player on a star-studded Alabama defense that leads the nation in scoring defense (9.6 ppg), total defense (236.0 ypg), rushing defense (66.4 ypg), and ranks second in the country in yards allowed per play (3.93) and yards per carry (2.31), and third in yards allowed per pass attempt (5.4).
It’s rare for a defender to even enter the Heisman Trophy discussion, but it’s rarer still for one to win college football’s top individual honor. There are several reasons as to why. For one, offensive statistics have long been better understood and are easier to quantify than defensive statistics. Also, offenses can choose to run plays away from elite defenders, which inhibits those players from racking up the statistics that carry weight among voters, such as sacks and interceptions. Typically, for defensive players to make any sort of noise in the Heisman race, they must have a big impact on special teams, like former LSU standout Tyrann Mathieu, and potentially even offense, as the last primarily defensive player to hoist the trophy – Charles Woodson – did nearly two decades ago.
Fitzpatrick doesn’t have sexy statistics. He ranks second on the team with 35 total tackles, and has recorded five tackles for a loss, with one sack, one interception, four pass breakups, and a forced fumble. Fitzpatrick’s numbers don’t even compare favorably to his first two seasons in Tuscaloosa given the fact he was responsible for four defensive touchdowns, two each year. The 6-foot-1, 202-pound junior isn’t a return man on special teams (though he has reportedly lobbied to return punts recently), and his biggest non-defensive play of the season to date was a blocked field goal attempt in the season opener against Florida State.
Nevertheless, Fitzpatrick is worthy of Heisman consideration. Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin shared his opinion on the subject when his Aggies were preparing to play Alabama, and Fitzpatrick followed through with a huge game that included baiting A&M quarterback Kellen Mond into throwing an important interception. NFL scouts are excited, and often compare him to the 2011 Heisman finalist Mathieu because Fitzpatrick is able to play several positions and makes an impact all over the field.
We’ve just reached November, so the Heisman race is far from over. Fitzpatrick and the Crimson Tide will be featured in a prime-time showcase with LSU Saturday night, which would be a good place to start a Heisman push, though Alabama also has Top 25 opponents Mississippi State and Auburn left on the schedule, as well as a potential matchup with fellow national championship contender Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. Should Fitzpatrick pick off a few passes, score a touchdown or two, make a big play on special teams, and most importantly, keep his team undefeated and in position to make the playoff, he won’t be overlooked by the voters any longer and could get an invitation to New York for the Dec. 10 ceremony.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, a member of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.