Heading into the 2017 college football season, WalterFootball.com will debut our projections for the nation's leaders during the fall. The All-American teams always have some surprises, and the next fall's stars could be the headline players next April in the 2018 NFL Draft. We also will project the winners of the postseason awards that are given out to the best of college football.
The Bronco Nagurski Award is given to the best defensive player in college football. Last year's winner was Alabama defensive tackle Jonathan Allen.
Bronko Nagurski Award Winner:
Micah Kiser, LB, Virginia
The Nagurski Award has an inclination to go with linebackers and defensive linemen. Only two defensive backs have won the Award this century - Oklahoma safety Roy Williams in 2001 and Oklahoma cornerback Derrick Strait in 2003. Thus, I won't be picking any defensive backs in these three slots. It also has been 20 years since a player won it in back-to-back seasons - Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald. I beliebe that trend will continue. The last edge rusher to win the Nagurski Award was Da'Quan Bowers in 2010, so I will avoid edge rushers as well. The Award has gone to linebackers in four of the past six seasons, and I will stick with that trend.
Over the past two seasons, Kiser was a tackling machine for Virginia. He broke out in 2015 as a sophomore, totaling 117 tackles with 7.5 sacks, 13 tackles for a loss, three forced fumbles and two passes broken up. In 2016, he managed to increase his tackle production to 134 stops, 10 tackles for a loss, 6.5 sacks, seven passes broken up, five forced fumbles and an interception. Kiser is a tough run defender who is strong, intelligent, instinctive, and physical in the tackle box. Give the prevalence of rushing attacks at the college level, Kiser should produce another big season to earn a lot of All-American and postseason honors. Tyler Matakevich won this award two years ago, and I could see Kiser having a similar season to win the Nagurski Award.
Bronko Nagurski Award Runner-Up:
Dexter Lawrence, DT, Clemson
The 6-foot-5, 340-pound Lawrence was a tremendous freshman to help Clemson win last season's National Championship. NFL sources have already raved about Lawrence as he was impossible to ignore last year. Lawrence was an All-Freshman selection all over the nation while being the ACC Rookie of the Year. For his debut season, he totaled 63 tackles with 9.5 tackles for a loss, seven sacks and a pass batted.
Lawrence has a phenomenal skill set that overwhelms college offensive linemen. Additionally, Clemson has a lot of talent around him, including a potential 2018 first-round defensive lineman in Christian Wilkins. With that other good talent around him and now having a year of experience, Lawrence could dominate as a sophomore. After all, it will be hard to double team him on every play. I wouldn't be surprised if Lawrence dominates the competition in 2017 and ends up winning a lot of hardware, including the Nagurski Award.
Bronko Nagurski Award Dark Horse:
Arden Key, DE, LSU
The Nagurski Award has avoided going to edge rushers; superstars like Myles Garrett, Jadeveon Clowney and Joey Bosa never won the award. Even though Key could be the top prospect for the NFL in college football, he is a dark horse to win this award. Around the scouting community, Key is regarded as one of the favorites to go at the top of the 2018 NFL Draft, similarly to Garrett, Clowney and Bosa.
Key was one of the best players in college football in 2016. He recorded 56 tackles with 14.5 for a loss, 12 sacks, three forced fumbles and three passes broken up on the year. He is a dangerous pass-rusher with excellent speed and the ability to bend around the corner. Key can simply take over games and is a constant threat to create a game-changing play. His production might slip some as a junior because of the double teams that will come his direction, but Key is one of the top players in the nation and has the talent level to overcome the extra attention. Even with the Nagurski Award's history, Key could be so good that he ends up winning it for the 2017 season.
Honorable Mentions: Kansas DE Dorance Armstrong Jr., Boston College DE Harold Landry, N.C. State DE Bradley Chubb, Virginia DE Andrew Brown, Florida State DE Josh Sweat, Georgia DT Trenton Thompson, Houston DT Ed Oliver, Clemson DT Dexter Lawrence, Clemson DT Christian Wilkins, Ohio State DT Dre'Mont Jones, Auburn DT Dontavius Russell, Texas ILB Malik Jefferson, Ohio State LB Jerome Baker, Iowa ILB Josey Jewell, Louisville OLB James Hearns, Florida State OLB Matthew Thomas, Ole Miss OLB Marquis Haynes, Oklahoma OLB Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and Clemson ILB Kendall Joseph.