Today we’re taking up the mantle donned by Andy Staples in the year of the House of Spears and banging our drum (actually, it’s probably more of a tambourine) for an imaginary, expanded Heisman Trophy finalists field. The names listed here failed to earn national recognition for the most famous of bronze lumps, but would be nationally revered if we ran the zoo. Our contenders are a mixed bag of defenders, linemen, stars from overlooked positions and conferences, and even a special-teams whiz kid (guess who!), who’d have our votes in a Very Merry, Very Alt Heisman Race:
• P Brad Wing, LSU. While I could not be more pleased to see a non-offensive player among this year’s actual finalists, particularly one so fearsome as Tyrann Mathieu … I’m not at all sure he’s the best player on his team. Then again, the guy who is the best isn’t even up for his own position award. LSU’s success this season has ridden on defense, and Wing, the freshman Aussie with the adamantium leg, is a field position war machine, a siege engine who’s barricaded opponents behind their own 20-yard line on 23 of 57 tries this year. On average, LSU opponents have returned Wing’s bombs less than half a yard. The first time I saw him play in person, during the Tigers’ Sept. 25 road trip to Morgantown, Wing’s six punts landed on the three, four, five, 11, eight and nine-yard lines. But he won our hearts against Florida, where a fake punt led to a 44-yard touchdown run — that was ultimately called back for taunting under the execrable new “sportsmanship” penalty. Despair not, B-Wing: It’s etched forever on the scoreboard of our souls.
• OL Barrett Jones, Alabama. Another name we’ve heard over and over during the season, Jones is also your freshly minted Outland Trophy winner. (Staples has been stumping for a trophy for Jones since August, and reminds us that an offensive lineman hasn’t finished in the final five in Heisman voting since OSU’s Orlando Pace in 1996.) The junior Memphis native was talented enough to start for the Tide throughout Bama’s 2009 championship run, which should tell you something about his prowess. Without Jones, Trent Richardson’s numbers maybe aren’t so Trent Richardson-y, and sophomore starting quarterback AJ McCarron can’t keep his feet long enough to crack the national top 100 in total offense.
• WR Justin Blackmon, Oklahoma State or WR Robert Woods (…or Marqise Lee) USC. These three are the relative haves in our alt Heisman universe, but again, recall that a receiver hasn’t taken home the big one in 20 years. Blackmon won the Biletnikoff again last night, and with his intentions to enter the draft, won’t get a shot again. Woods was a finalist for the Biletnikoff this year, but could the key to unlocking another wide receiver win in the future actually be behind him? Lee blew by Woods’ 792-yard freshman receiving campaign with an 1143-yard season, though he hasn’t matched Woods’ fiendish kickoff return numbers.
• OL Nate Potter, Boise State. Stupidly snubbed for the Outland this season, Potter operates on a line that’s allowed the fewest sacks in the nation while ranking 10th in passing offense. The Broncos’ highly cerebral offense couldn’t operate so seamlessly without Potter’s attentions. Kellen Moore, you might have heard, throws the ball a whole bunch, and has been sacked only eight times this season. That’s good for the best quarterback-protection record in the country for the 2011 season.
• QB Chandler Harnish, Northern Illinois. While we’re whipped up with RGIII frenzy, don’t forget this other dual-threat star toiling away in the MAC. With some help from a slack-jawed defense, the conference-champion Huskies might have finished 12-1 this season. (Gonna venture out on a pretty sturdy-looking limb and say NIU wasn’t going to beat Wisconsin this year without a good deal of luck or wizardry.) Harnish ranks eighth nationally in total offense, is a top 20 rusher and will hit the 3,000-yard passing mark for the season in NIU’s bowl game without too much trouble. He led the Huskies from a 20-0 deficit to Ohio in the conference title game to a 23-20 win, kicking off the scoring with three unanswered touchdown passes of 39, 32 and 22 yards, and was the architect of that instant MACtion classic, the 63-60 November Tuesday tilt against Toledo, winging the winning score with less than 20 seconds remaining on the clock.
• LB Jarvis Jones, Georgia. The only defensive player in history to win the Heisman was Charles Woodson in 1998. (In fact, key-jangling, famously staid Michigan has produced the past two trend-bucking winners; before Woodson, the last player to win the Heisman as neither a quarterback nor a running back was receiver Desmond Howard in ’91.) I saw Jones play live in five games this season. This is going to sound like a frivolous exaggeration, but for once, it’s anything but: Search coverage of Jones, and the adjective you’ll see appended most frequently to his name is “unblockable.” A 2010 USC transfer who sat out last season per NCAA regulation, Jones leads the SEC both in sacks and tackles for loss, no small feat in a conference that makes its bones on defense. Jones recorded 11 solo sacks this season, most memorably racking up four against Florida in Jacksonville, and was a Butkus Award finalist. Scariest of all: He’s only a redshirt sophomore.
• LB Sammy Brown, Houston. Yes, a Houston defender is on this list. Yes, that’s sort of ridiculous. Do not adjust your monitors. The Cougars’ defense spends far more than its fair share of time on the field thanks to Case Keenum’s quick-strike offense, and I couldn’t let this moment pass without a nod to the guy who leads the nation in tackles for loss and ranks fifth in sacks.
• RB Bobby Rainey, Western Kentucky. That a Western Kentucky player is a Walter Camp All-American is going to have to be thanks enough after an ultimately fruitless season for the Hilltoppers. Not to belabor this point, but let’s belabor this point one more time: Western Kentucky was winless in its first season of Sun Belt play, won two games last year, went 7-5 this season and will be sitting at home all winter while, say, two interim head coaches march miserable Illinois and UCLA outfits through the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. Rainey completes his season just shy of 1,700 yards for the second consecutive year, and winds up his career at WKU as the nation’s second-leading rusher of 2011, trailing only LaMichael James.
Who walks away with your fringe festival Heisman trophy? Sound off below.