Heading into the 2012 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 for the 2013 NFL Draft. We also will project the winners of the postseason awards that are given out to the best of college football.
The Chuck Bednarik Award is given to the best defensive player in college football. Last year's winner was LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu.
Bednarik Award Winner:
Jarvis Jones, Georgia
The Bednarik Award has a strong inclination to go with defenders in the middle of the defense; 12 of the 17 winners have been linebackers. Only two defensive linemen have won the award: Julius Peppers (2001) and Ndamukong Suh (2009). The other three winners were cornerbacks: Charles Woodson, Patrick Peterson and Mathieu. A safety has never won the Bednarik Award.
Even though I'm projecting Jones, a linebacker, that is still going out on a limb to a degree. The Bednarik Award has a strong inclination towards middle linebackers who rack up big tackle totals - although Boston College's Luke Kuechly never won the award despite massive tackle totals the past two seasons.
The safest pick would probably be Notre Dame's Manti Te'o, but I believe that Jones is the better football player. The junior is a sack-master and a devastating pass-rusher, but he still produced a good tackle total in run defense last year.
Jones became a pass-rushing terror in the SEC in 2011. He tied for fifth in the nation in sacks with 13.5, also amassing 70 tackles, 19.5 tackles for a loss, two passes broken up and two forced fumbles. While Te'o will surely outproduce Jones in tackle totals, the Bulldogs outside linebacker will generate more splash plays with sacks and forced fumbles.
The SEC will be better prepared for Jones this year. There is no doubt that he will see tons of double-teams in 2012. The 6-foot-2, 242-pounder was rarely double-teamed in 2011, but that changed at the end of the season. Offenses will focus blocking attention Jones' direction this year, placing extra blockers on his side of the field in the form of tight ends and halfbacks.
Georgia has an aggressive defense that moves Jones around, so he still should see some favorable pass-rushing opportunities. Jones also has an easy schedule of blockers in the regular season. He avoids the best pass-blocking tackles in the SEC by not playing against LSU, Alabama and Texas A&M.
Texas A&M's Von Miller didn't win the Bednarik Award in either of his big seasons for the Aggies, so that doesn't help Jones' chances. With his speed and pass-rushing skills, Jones is extremely disruptive. He has an excellent burst off the edge. That burst takes tackles by surprise and sets them up for Jones to burn around the corner or dodge back to the inside. He also shows some nice pass-rushing moves.
What helps set Jones apart is that he never takes plays off. The junior has a non-stop motor and gives relentless effort.
Considering the history of the Bednarik along with Jones' big time talent, he is one of the most likely players to win the award in 2012.
Bednarik Award Runner-Up:
Manti Te'o, Notre Dame
Te'o enters the 2012 season as the top middle linebacker in college football. He could've been a first-round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, but decided to return South Bend for his senior season.
Not only does the 6-foot-2, 255-pound linebacker have all the physical tools to be a dominant player, he is very intelligent and instinctive. Te'o has been extremely consistent the past two seasons so there is no reason to think that he won't maintain that level of play as a senior now that he's seen everything at the college level.
Te'o was a Second-Team All-American last year and was the heart and soul of the Irish defense. He led Notre Dame in tackles for the second straight year, making 128 tackles. Te'o also had 13.5 tackles for a loss and five sacks. He recorded 133 tackles with 9.5 tackles for a loss, one sack and one forced fumble in 2010.
If the Te'o stays healthy, he is probably a lock for 120 tackles with a nice mix of splash plays. He will get blocking attention, but he did in 2011 and that didn't prevent him from making any less of an impact. It would be very surprising if the senior has a drop in his play.
Te'o is a well-rounded linebacker. He does everything well and doesn't have any flaws in his game. Te'o is physical at the point of attack in run defense, possessing good instincts to get in position to make plays. He is also a solid pass-defender who splits his time between blitzing and dropping into coverage. Te'o executes well in both phases.
Another thing going for Te'o is the media bias in favor of Notre Dame. The school's exaggerated spotlight and the extra media attention have helped the Fighting Irish's players win awards in year's past. Te'o would be a really good linebacker on any college football team, but playing for Notre Dame only helps him receive more notice. If the senior wins the Bednarik Award, he will be the first Fighting Irish player to do so.
Bednarik Award Dark Horse:
Tyrann Mathieu, LSU
It will be tough for Mathieu to win the award in back-to-back seasons. It has been done before by Penn State's Paul Posluszny (2005-2006) and Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald (1995-1996), but it is easier for linebackers to produce large tackle totals in back-to-back seasons given the nature of the position. Mathieu has consistently produced splash plays the past two seasons, but SEC teams will make it a point to keep the ball away from him in order to target the new replacement cornerbacks for Morris Claiborne and Ron Brooks.
Not only did Mathieu win the Bednarik Award last year, but the sophomore was a Heisman Trophy finalist as well. He was one of the best players in college football in 2011.
Mathieu led LSU in tackles with 76 last season, also racking up 7.5 tackles for a loss, 1.5 sacks, six forced fumbles, two interceptions and nine passes broken up. Additionally, the sophomore served as a punt returner, averaging 16 yards per return with two brought back for touchdowns. He compiled 57 tackles with 8.5 tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks, five forced fumbles, two interceptions and seven passes broken up as a freshman.
While one might think that Mathieu (5-9, 175) is destined to come back to earth in 2012, he is a pure football player with off-the-charts instincts. Mathieu finds a way to make game-changing plays on a routine basis. He is always cognizant of where the ball is and how he can force it free.
Even though quarterbacks and offensive coordinators may game plan against Mathieu, he is the rare player who should still produce well, but it may not be enough to overcome other defenders like Jones or Te'o.
Honorable Mentions: LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo, Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, Ohio State defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, LSU defensive end Sam Montgomery, North Carolina State cornerback David Amerson, Texas defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat, Texas defensive end Alex Okafor, Florida State defensive end Brandon Jenkins, Florida State defensive end Bjoern Werner, Alabama safety Robert Lester, Georgia defensive tackle Jonathan Jenkins, Illinois outside linebacker Jonathan Brown, Michigan State defensive end William Gholston, Texas A&M outside linebacker Sean Porter, TCU defensive end Stansly Maponga, Stanford defensive end Chase Thomas, Purdue defensive tackle Kawann Short and Penn State linebacker Gerald Hodges.