It’s no secret that the Heisman Trophy is an offense-oriented award. Officially, it goes to the best player in college football, but other than Charles Woodson in 1997, the award has never been given to a defensive player. Some on the defensive side of the ball have come close and others have probably deserved, but other than Woodson, no dice. With that in mind, it feels worthwhile to look at some of the great defensive players in college football who should have won the Heisman but were denied.
Chuck Bednarik, Penn
For what it’s worth, Bednarik was more than just a linebacker. He also played center and was used as a punter in college. Of course, all of that just adds to the reasons why he should have been given the Heisman Trophy. He was a three-time All-American, including twice a consensus pick.
Bednarik came close to winning the Heisman in 1948, finishing a distant third behind Doak Walker, and there’s no shame in that. However, Bednarik did win the Maxwell Award that season, so he probably should have been a little closer to Walker in the voting. As a consolation prize, the award given to the best defensive player in college football every year is called the Chuck Bednarik Award.
Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska
Part of Suh’s problem in the Heisman race is that not enough people had heard of him until he was the Big 12 Championship Game MVP despite his team losing. If not for that game, Suh probably wouldn’t have received the attention he deserved after amassing 12 sacks and 20.5 tackle for loss during his senior season, not to mention 10 defended passes.
Of course, he wasn’t enough to give him the Heisman, although he was a finalist, ultimately finishing fourth behind Mark Ingram, Toby Gerhart, and Colt McCoy. On the bright side, Suh earned plenty of hardware in 2009. He took home the Bednarik Award, Lombardi Award, and the Outland Trophy. He was also named AP Player of the Year, becoming the first defensive player to win the award.
Hugh Green, Pitt
Injuries caused Green’s pro career to fizzle out after a few promising seasons, but before that, he was one of the best linebackers the game has ever seen. He had at least 92 tackles in each of his four seasons while totaling 53 sacks. As a senior in 1980, he had a career-high 17 sacks and seven forced fumbles, earning him First-Team All-Big East honors for the fourth time and consensus All-American honors for the third time.
Green finished second in the Heisman voting in 1980, finishing ahead of legends like Herschel Walker and Jim McMahon. However, he was a considerable distance away from George Rogers, who won the award that year. At that time, it was the closest a defensive player had ever come to winning the Heisman. Fortunately, he didn’t finish his career empty-handed. Green won the Walter Camp Award, Maxwell Award, and Lombardi Award in 1980 while also being named UPI Player of the Year. He remains one of the best linebackers in college football history.
Dick Butkus, Illinois
Butkus played in the era of two-way players, but while he also played center at Illinois, he stood out most for his play at linebacker. He was a Consensus All-American after racking up 145 tackles in 1963 and 132 tackles in 1964. Butkus led a defense that led Illinois to a Rose Bowl win in 1963 and kept three shutouts in nine games in 1964.
In 1963, Butkus was MVP of the Big Ten and finished sixth in the Heisman voting, although nobody that year came close to Roger Staubach in the voting. A year later, Butkus finished third in the Heisman voting, an impressive finish for a defensive player, sitting behind winner John Huarte and runner-up Jerry Rhome.
Deion Sanders, Florida State
Perhaps no defensive player deserved the Heisman more than Sanders. The fact that he was a dangerous punt returner also helped his case. He was among the most electric athletes in college football history and always found a way to impact games. Sanders became a two-time Consensus All-American and also won the Jim Thorpe Award.
Alas, Sanders didn’t come close to winning the Heisman. In 1988,
he finished a distant eighth in the voting, receiving three second-place votes and 16 third-place voters. Admittedly, it would have been hard to argue against Barry Sanders winning that year, but Deion probably deserved to finish ahead of at least two or three of the quarterbacks who received more Heisman votes.