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 Lott IMPACT Trophy is given to the top Defensive Impact Player of the Year in college football. Last year's winner was Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly.
Lott IMPACT Trophy Winner:
Star Lotulelei, Utah
The Lott Trophy seems to go to defenders who are almost a one-man stop unit. The selection committee members look for defenders who are extremely disruptive and have a huge impact on the game. Thus the top-three candidates here are defenders who don't have much talented help around them.
Lotulelei is the star player of Utah's program and is a monster on the defensive line. The senior could be the top defensive draft prospect in the entire nation this season. He was one of the breakout stars in the Pac-12 and across college football last year.
The junior was one of the most dominant linemen in the Pac-12 and won the Morris Trophy as the conference's top defensive lineman. That award is even more impressive considering it is decided by a vote of the offensive linemen. Lotulelei totaled 44 tackles, 1.5 sacks, nine tackles for a loss and a forced fumble in 2011. He was far more disruptive than the numbers indicate.
The Tonga product is just getting started and has a lot of upside. He should be even better in 2012 after gaining experience last season. The 6-foot-4, 325-pound Lotulelei is a strength and speed mismatch who should control the Pac-12 offensive linemen on a weekly basis. He has the ability to beat double teams and still disrupt runs and collapse the pocket as a pass-rusher.
Lotulelei should be able to overwhelm his competition on a weekly basis. He could easily be the most disruptive defender in the nation and be deemed to have the biggest impact of any defensive player in college football. As a result, Lotulelei could be the most likely player to win the Lott IMPACT Trophy.
Lott IMPACT Trophy Runner-Up:
Manti Te'o, Notre Dame
Te'o was a finalist for the Lott Trophy last year, but was beaten out by Kuechly. Te'o will need to provide an even bigger impact for Notre Dame this season since the team lost a lot of experienced starters in its secondary. Plus, the Irish's best defensive lineman, Aaron Lynch, decided to transfer.
Te'o recorded 133 tackles, 9.5 tackles for a loss, one sack and one forced fumble as a sophomore in 2012. He led Notre Dame last year with 128 tackles, 13.5 tackles for a loss and five sacks. If Te'o stays healthy, he is a lock for 120 tackles and some splash plays. Te'o will get blocking attention, but he had that already in 2011 and it didn't prevent him from making any less of an impact. It would be very surprising if the senior had a drop in his play.
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 its 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.
Te'o is the heart and soul of the Fighting Irish defense. He is disruptive against both the run and the pass. With his ability to impact the majority of plays, Te'o is a strong candidate to win the Lott Trophy.
Lott IMPACT Trophy Dark Horse:
Kawann Short, Purdue
There is less talent around Short than there is around Te'o or Lotulelei. However playing for Purdue will make it hard for Short to get noticed. Reinforcing that is Ryan Kerrigan getting passed over for the Lott IMPACT Trophy in 2009 and 2010. The latter year could've been in part because Kerrigan had a breakout sophomore, Short, playing next to him.
Short recorded six sacks, 12.5 tackles for a loss, 41 tackles and two blocked kicks as sophomore in 2010. The 6-foot-3, 310-pounder took over as Purdue's defensive leader last year. He was slowed down by constant double teams in the beginning of the season, but adjusted to able to play excellently in the latter part of 2011. Short dominated Ohio State with three sacks for instance. He totaled 54 tackles, 17 tackles for a loss, 6.5 sacks and one forced fumble.
Short is a quick defensive tackle who is very skilled at firing through his gap and disrupting the offensive play. He may be one of the best pass-rushing defensive tackles in the nation.
Short won't get a lot of help in 2012 as Purdue is seriously lacking in talent, but that was the case last year, and he still managed to produce. The senior will once again be a one-man team, but many will probably continue to underrate him. Considering the impact that Short has for his team, he has to be considered as an outside threat to win the Lott Trophy.
Honorable Mentions: Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones, Georgia defensive tackle Johnathan Jenkins, North Carolina State cornerback David Amerson, Mississippi State cornerback Johnthan Banks, Texas defensive end Alex Okafor, Texas defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat, LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, LSU safety Eric Reid, LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo, LSU defensive end Sam Montgomery, Purdue defensive tackle Kawann Short, Florida State defensive end Brandon Jenkins, USC safety T.J. McDonald, Penn State linebacker Gerald Hodges and Illinois linebacker Jonathan Brown.