The Heisman Trophy is an incomplete award to be college football's highest honor. The twenty-five pounds of cast bronze is awarded to college football's most outstanding player, but since its inception it has only been bestowed to offensive players (we can quibble over Charles Woodson, but he didn't win based solely on playing cornerback).
That's an incredible weakness of college football's top honor, because of course there have been non-skill position players make huge impacts on seasons. Alabama's Derrick Thomas, Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh, and LSU's Tyrann Mathieu are just three examples of defensive players that made decisive impacts on games and their team's wider fortunes. Those individuals forced coaching staffs to game-plan around them. They took points off their opponents' side of the scoreboard, and added to their own tally. They were college football's most outstanding players in several ways.
I know, I'm preaching to the choir around these parts. The Heisman Trophy has increasingly marginalized it's own importance. Football has evolved, and in the modern era it's become even more possible for non-offensive skill positions to make game-changing impacts. For example, hurry-up, no-huddle, pass-happy offenses challenge secondaries and the dual-nature of linebackers more than ever. Additionally, a defensive lineman who can soak up two blockers—thereby relieving pressure on his teammates—and still create chaos in the backfield is outstanding in his own right (even more so if the 6'3'' 290 pound behemoth faces an offense that averages 75-85 snaps per game).
Ole Miss' Robert Nkemdiche is an example of the latter. The former consensus number one player in the Class of 2013 has been a two year starter for the Rebels. He is an elite breed of defensive lineman that combines traditional qualities of size and strength with new-age quickness off the ball. Nkemdiche was at the tip of the spear for Ole Miss' Top Ten defense in 2014 where he typically played a three-technique defensive tackle role. He had the strength to deal with double-teams, but also the explosiveness to unleash hell on stunt calls. Nkemdiche matched one-on-one with an interior offensive linemen often resulted in the line of scrimmage folding around his presence like a jet breaking the sound barrier.
As a freshman he started 10 games and finished the season with eight tackles for loss, two sacks, two pass break-ups, 34 tackles, and was named to the SEC All Freshmen-Team. Last season saw similar numbers, and he was named second-team All-American by The Associated Press, USA Today, and CBSSports.com. Bringing this up isn't to somehow suggesting a Heisman candidacy should be cumulative; instead, to highlight Nkemdiche's incremental improvement in the eyes of coaches and media. Nkemdiche's best may well be on the horizon. Case in point:
|Stats After Two Seasons||Sacks||TFL's||PBU's||Tackles|
The table above compares Nkemdiche's first two college seasons to Suh's first two seasons at Nebraska. The production was very similar in terms of the totals, but also in the percentage change from freshman to sophomore seasons. Suh would eventually go on to be a 2009 Heisman finalist and would finish fourth (Warren Sapp in 1994 is the only other defensive linemen to be a finalist). That same year, Suh was also the first defensive player to win the Associated Press College Player of the Year Award. So far in his young career, Nkemdiche's career trajectory closely aligns.
The $64,000 Question is, "Can Nkemdiche build on his numbers like Suh?" In Suh's third season he led the team with 76 total tackles and posted 7.5 sacks along with 19 tackles for loss. That's a tall order. On top of that, a cursory search at the average star ranking for opposing offensive linemen in the SEC West is around 3.64 stars -- a number likely higher than the rankings Suh faced in the BIG 12 between 2006-2009. Nkemdiche will face competitive interior linemen every week, and often it won't be one-on-one. Offense's like LSU and Arkansas will call plenty of off-tackle runs, but Texas A&M, MSU, and even Alabama will incorporate more quick-step receiver bubble screens which will probably negate his impact in ways. Finally, there's always the unfortunate possibility of injury limiting his game action.
Nevertheless, Nkemdiche plays on an outstanding defense, and SEC West offenses will have to be careful with how much they game-plan around Nkemdiche given his teammate's abilities. It's harder to avoid running into Nkemdiche's maw when C.J. Johnson and Marquis Haynes are present. Ole Miss' secondary, helmed by Tony Connor, will buy time for more sacks for their defensive teammates given their coverage abilities. Just as Nkemdiche's play makes his teammates better, they make him better too.
Also in Nkemdiche's corner is his position coach Chris Kiffin. Kiffin is usually only thought of for his ace recruiting or his bloodlines; however, Ole Miss' defensive line play has improved a great deal since he took the reigns. He's had multiple players put up noticeable stats at Ole Miss, but also his previous stop at Arkansas State (see: Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year Brandon Joiner) which speaks to his player development abilities.
It's unfortunate that largely antiquated statistical measures are employed to judge players -- especially the non-skill positions. Putting aside the need for an updated statistical regime, Nkemdiche already has the eyes of offensive staffs around the SEC as well as NFL scouts and GM's. His value doesn't always comfortably translate into an ESPN highlight play, but drawing the attention of experts validates his skills and importance. There are more ways to judge the game's most outstanding player, and the respect he's earned from football experts is its own important barometer.
I judge Nkemdiche will have his best season yet in 2015. His incremental improvement from his freshman to sophomore season is encouraging. His attitude -- by all public accounts -- underscores an emotional intelligence required for further improvement. He now has one year of experience playing in the interior of the defensive line, and sounds poised to build upon last season's lessons for a breakout year. His trajectory is already Suh-like, and Suh was within spitting distance of the Heisman. Nkemdiche's future is almost certainly brighter than his past, and it's long past time to overturn anachronistic Heisman voting patterns. Robert Nkemdiche can be the revolution's figurehead.