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 Outland Trophy is given to the best interior lineman in college football. Last year's winner was Alabama's Barrett Jones.
Outland Trophy Winner:
Johnathan Hankins, Ohio State
Hankins broke out with a huge sophomore campaign after a modest freshman season. He was a disruptive force at the point of attack for the Buckeyes. Hankins recorded 67 tackles, 11 tackles for a loss and three sacks in 2011. Even though he only had three sacks last year, he was a better pass-rusher than the numbers indicate. Hankins caused havoc in both run and pass defense.
The heavy defensive tackle is an excellent run defender. Offensive linemen really struggle to move him off the line of scrimmage. Hankins holds his ground at the point of attack, and there are many runs that he blows up in the backfield by firing through the offensive line.
Hankins isn't just a big-bodied run-stuffer. He has serious quickness that he uses to fire into his gap and disrupt plays. His quickness catches many offensive linemen by surprise.
Hankins gets good penetration into the pocket to hurry quarterbacks and take away space for them to step up in the pocket. It wouldn't be surprising if he more than doubled his sack total this season. Ohio State moves Hankins all over the defensive line, so he will routinely be matched up against the weakest offensive linemen on the other team.
There is plenty of reason to believe that Hankins could be even better in 2012. He has a full year of starting experience and will be able to use that understanding to be more prepared for taking on Big Ten offensive linemen. The schedule of blockers that Hankins will take on looks easy, so he could be poised for a massive season destroying the Big Ten.
Outland Trophy Runner-Up:
Star Lotulelei, Utah
Lotulelei is the marquee 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 heading into the season.
Lotulelei was one of the breakout stars in the Pac-12 and across college football in 2011, winning the Morris Trophy as his conference's top defensive lineman. That award is decided by a vote of the offensive linemen. He totaled 44 tackles, 1.5 sacks, nine tackles for a loss and a forced fumble in his junior season. Lotulelei 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's offensive linemen on a weekly basis. He has the ability to beat double- teams and still disrupt runs or collapse the pocket.
Lotulelei should be able to overwhelm his competition on a weekly basis. He could easily be the most disruptive defender in the nation. As a result, Lotulelei could win multiple postseason awards like the Lott IMPACT Trophy, Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award.
Outland Trophy Dark Horse:
Barrett Jones, Alabama
College football has this trend where, as a decentralized institution, it likes to protect the unique status of all-time great players. Since Archie Griffin won two Heisman Trophy awards, no deserving player, such as Tim Tebow or Chris Weinke, has won it twice.
The Outland Trophy is no different. The only player to win the trophy in back-to-back seasons was Nebraska's Dave Rimington from 1981-82. Thus, the odds are against Jones repeating as the Outland Trophy winner.
Jones is entering his fourth season as a starter, but its his first as the starting center. He was one of the nation's best guards in 2009 and 2010. Jones had a tremendous junior season Last year at left tackle for the Crimson Tide's National Championship team.
The junior was a fabulous run-blocker for Trent Richardson while also serving as a reliable pass protector. Jones was a First-Team All-American in 2011. He also was rock solid against LSU's premier pass-rushing defensive ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery in both of last year's matchups.
The 6-foot-5, 311-pound Jones is powerful and athletic. His size, speed, strength and athleticism on the interior of the offensive line transform him into an overwhelming force for defensive tackles and linebackers to try to overcome. If Jones can play well at left tackle, he should be dominant once again as an interior linemen.
Jones will also have the luxury of playing next to a fantastic guard, Chance Warmack. There is no reason to believe that Jones won't have a dominant season in 2012, but the chances of him winning the Outland again are slim because of the tendencies of the voters.