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 Lombardi Award is given to the top offensive linemen, defensive linemen, tight end or linebacker in college football. Last year's winner was Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly.
Lombardi Award Winner:
Barkevious Mingo, LSU
Even though Mingo didn't register double-digit sacks last season, he was one of the most fierce pass-rushers in college football. Mingo was one of the young breakout stars of college football in 2011 and was a disruptive force for LSU.
The redshirt sophomore initiated many big plays for the Tigers' defense. However, Mingo's stats don't completely reflect his impact, even though he recorded 46 tackles, 15 tackles for a loss, eight sacks and a forced fumble. Mingo put a ton of pressure on the quarterback and was a Second-Team All-SEC selection. He was absolutely dominant against Auburn and played well versus Arkansas and Georgia.
Mingo should be as good, or even better, in 2012. With a year of starting experience against elite competition, he should be able to use that knowledge to his advantage. LSU has a tremendous supporting cast for him on the defensive line with fellow end Sam Montgomery and defensive tackle Bennie Logan.
Mingo should see plenty of good pass-rushing opportunities as Montgomery will command frequent double-teams. The Tigers also have a talented secondary that can force quarterbacks to hold onto the ball longer than they would like.
It is obvious that Mingo has elite speed and athleticism. He is a physical freak who is reminiscent of Jevon Kearse, a.k.a. the Freak. Mingo has a lightning first-step and burst off the snap. He accelerates in an instant with fantastic closing speed. If Mingo (6-5, 240) has added some bulk to his frame and developed his pass-rushing moves for this season, he could be an unstoppable force in 2012.
There are a lot of great players eligible for the Lombardi Award. The reason why Mingo is my projection is because he has everything going for him to have a massive season.
Not only does Mingo also has a great supporting cast to help him reach his potential, but he has dominating talent to rack up big production. Mingo is a young, ascending player who is capable of putting up massive totals as a junior.
Other players like Utah's Star Lotulelei could be disruptive and dominant without much of a stat line, while Georgia's Jarvis Jones will see tons of extra blocking without as good of a supporting cast to help him overcome the extra attention. Mingo could produce a monster season.
Jarvis Jones, Georgia
Jones had a shot to lead the nation in sacks with two games left in the 2011 season. Somehow, both LSU and Michigan State held the breakout star in check. Last year was his first significant playing time with Georgia as he sat out the 2010 season after transferring from USC. Jones took the SEC by storm in 2011, and he was named a First-Team All-American.
Jones led the SEC in sacks with 13.5 and that tied for second in the nation behind only Illinois' Whitney Mercilus. Not only was Jones a pass-rushing terror last year, but he did a good job of chasing down running backs in the ground game. The sophomore had 70 tackles, 19.5 tackles for a loss, two passes broken up and two forced fumbles.
Jones was a perfect fit as an outside linebacker in the Bulldogs' 3-4 defense. The 6-foot-2, 242-pounder is extremely talented and is a player who is similar to young Broncos' star Von Miller.
The SEC will be better prepared for Jones this year. There is no doubt that he will see tons of double teams in 2012. Offensive coaches will attempt to mimic the effective blocking by the Tigers and Spartans this September. Georgia doesn't have a pass-rusher on the other side from Jones who can help keep the double-teams away from the talented junior either.
With all of that to overcome, it wouldn't be surprising if Jones' production declines by 4-5 sacks this season. However, if he duplicates his 2011 season, Jones will probably come home with the Lombardi Award.
Lombardi Dark Horse:
Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina
As far as physical talent goes, Clowney would be in the discussion as one of the most gifted of any player in college football. After being the No. 1 recruit in the nation, he showed his rare physical skill set enroute to being the 2011 SEC Freshman of the Year and a Second-Team All-SEC selection. Clowney will have to adjust to frequent double teams this year without former teammate Melvin Ingram to draw them. By mid-season, Clowney will probably be beating double-blocks regularly.
Clowney showed off elite speed and athleticism as a pass-rusher last season. His burst off the edge is superb, and he has great agility to move around blockers. Clowney totaled 36 tackles, eight sacks, 12 tackles for a loss and five forced fumbles in 2011. He did well against top competition including a good game against Georgia's Cordy Glenn.
The 6-foot-6, 256-pound Clowney looks like he will become a dominant force in 2012 and 2013. His body is still developing, and he is just scratching the surface of what he is capable of. Clowney may have the most upside and elite potential of any underclassman in the nation. It is not out of the question for him to produce a massive season and take the Lombardi Award home as a sophomore.
Honorable Mentions: Utah defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, Alabama center Barrett Jones, Alabama offensive tackle D.J. Fluker, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o, LSU defensive end Sam Montgomery, LSU defensive tackle Bennie Logan, LSU offensive tackle Chris Faulk, Purdue defensive tackle Kawann Short, Illinois linebacker Jonathan Brown, Ohio State defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, Georgia defensive tackle John Jenkins, Florida State defensive end Brandon Jenkins, Florida State defensive end Bjourn Werner, Texas A&M offensive tackle Luke Joeckel, Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews, Auburn defensive end Corey Lemonier, Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan, TCU defensive end Stansly Maponga, Texas defensive end Alex Okafor, Texas defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat, Texas A&M linebacker Sean Porter, Stanford linebacker Chase Thomas and Wisconsin offensive tackle Ricky Wagner.