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 Bronco Nagurski Award is given to the best defensive player in college football. Last year's winner was Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly.
Bronko Nagurski Award Winner:
Star Lotulelei, Utah
Even though Kuechly won it last year, the Nagurski Award has a strong tendency toward defensive linemen. After all, four of the past five winners have been defensive lineman, split evenly between tackles and ends. Only four defensive backs have won the award since 1993.
Considering the complete history and recent trends, a tackle could be the most likely position to win the Nagurski Award this year. Lotulelei could be as devastating this season as past winners like Ndamukong Suh, Glenn Dorsey and Warren Sapp when they won the award.
Lotulelei is the star player of Utah's program and is a monster on the defensive line. It looks right now as if the senior could be the top defensive draft prospect in the entire nation.
Lotulelei was one of the breakout stars in the Pac-12 and across college football last season. He was one of the Pac-12's most dominant linemen 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 his junior season. 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 having gained experience from last season. The 6-foot-4, 325-pound Lotulelei is a strength and speed mismatch who should control the Pac-12's offensive linemen on a weekly basis. He has the ability to beat double-teams yet 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 is the pick to win the Nagurski Award.
Bronko Nagurski Award Runner-Up:
Barkevious Mingo, LSU
There were so many deserving candidates that picking the winner and runner-up was very difficult. A dark-horse option was easier considering the inclination against defensive backs. For the runner-up, it came down to Notre Dame's Manti Te'o, LSU's Sam Montgomery, South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney, Georgia's Jarvis Jones and Mingo.
The reason why Mingo is my projection is because the redshirt juniot has everything going for him to have a massive season. First of all, he has dominating talent to rack up big production. Mingo is a young, ascending player who is capable of putting up better totals this year. He also has a great supporting cast to help him reach his potential.
Jones, Clowney and Te'o are the clearly the best players on their defenses, and they will be game planned for. Mingo, on the other hand, has so much talent around him that it will be extremely hard to just focus double-teams on him. Montgomery and defensive tackle Bennie Logan will also command some extra attention. Thus, Mingo should see plenty of good pass-rushing opportunities this season.
Mingo was one of the most fierce pass-rushers in college football last season, even though he didn't register double-digit sacks. Mingo was one of the young breakout stars of college football in 2011 and was a disruptive force for the Tigers. The redshirt sophomore initiated many big plays for the Tigers defense and more than his stats indicate. Some of Montgomery's sacks were him cleaning up a quarterback running away from Mingo.
The first-year starter totaled 46 tackles with 15 tackles for a loss, eight sacks and a forced fumble last season. 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.
It is obvious that Mingo has elite speed and athleticism. He is a physical freak and 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, he could be an unstoppable force in 2012.
Bronko Nagurski Award Dark Horse:
Tyrann Mathieu, LSU
It was a mild surprise when Mathieu didn't win the award last year. He was a Heisman Trophy finalist, but was edged out for the Nagurski Award among others. Both Kuechly and Mathieu had tremendous seasons, so either choice was understandable.
Mathieu was one of the best players in college football in 2011. The sophomore led LSU in tackles with 76. He also had 7.5 tackles for a loss, 1.5 sacks, six forced fumbles, two interceptions and nine passes broken up.
Additionally, Mathieu served as a punt returner averaging 16 yards per return with two brought back for touchdowns. He compiled 57 tackles, 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, the guy is a pure football player with off-the-charts instincts. He finds a way to make game-changing plays on a routine basis. Mathieu 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 continue to produce well. With his name recognition and career accomplishments, Mathieu looks like a favorite to contend for the Nagurski Award, if the junior has a similar season in 2012.
Honorable Mentions: Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o, South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, LSU defensive end Sam Montgomery, North Carolina State cornerback David Amerson, Texas defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat, Texas defensive end Alex Okafor, Texas A&M linebacker Sean Porter, Mississippi State cornerback Johnthan Banks, Ohio State defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, Michigan State defensive end William Gholston, Penn State linebacker Gerald Hodges, Oklahoma safety Tony Jefferson, Georgia defensive tackle John Jenkins, Iowa State linebacker Jake Knott, TCU defensive end Stansly Maponga, Florida State cornerback Xavier Rhodes, Florida State defensive end Brandon Jenkins, Florida State defensive end Bjourn Werner, Stanford linebacker Chase Thomas, Purdue defensive tackle Kawann Short, Alabama safety Robert Lester and USC safety T.J. McDonald.