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 Jim Thorpe Award is given to the top defensive back in college football.
Thorpe Award Winner:
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 Thorpe Award by teammate Morris Claiborne. Both Claiborne and Mathieu had tremendous seasons, so either choice was understandable. The starting duo consisted of the two best players on the for the Tigers' defense that was loaded with NFL talent. The duo were huge playmakers for the SEC Champions.
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 a rare player who should produce well as a junior. With Mathieu's name recognition and career accomplishments, he looks like a favorite for the Thorpe Award if he has a similar season in 2012.
David Amerson, N. C. State
While Claiborne took home the Thorpe Award, Amerson had the more productive season. The Wolfpack cornerback was simply phenomenal in 2011, having one of the best seasons ever for a defensive back in college football history. He led the nation with a total of 13 interceptions - the second highest total in FBS history -, setting school and ACC records while registering the second highest total in FBS history.
Amerson was a devastating ballhawk with four games of two interceptions. Aside from the turnovers, he chipped in 59 tackles with five passes broken up.
The 6-foot-3, 194-pound Amerson has an extremely rare skill set. It is obvious to everyone that he has tremendous ball skills. When the ball is in the air Amerson attacks it like a wide receiver. Quarterbacks seem to really underestimate his size and leaping ability.
That allows Amerson to trick passers into sending the ball his direction. He looks like a natural wide receiver with his hands and body control. Amerson routinely makes acrobatic catches and has a unique ability to get in position to snatch passes away.
Another of Amerson's elite attribute is that he has great length to limit the ability to get the ball to his receiver. This all adds up to him being fabulous in zone coverage.
No logical observer could expect Amerson to duplicate his 2011 season. Teams will be avoiding him like the plague next fall, so he will have his opportunities for interceptions reduced significantly. That being said, Amerson's reputation and career accomplishments will help him to compete for the Thorpe Award despite the decreased production.
Thorpe Dark Horse:
Tony Jefferson, Oklahoma
Like Mathieu, Jefferson was an impact player starting in his freshman season, being named the Big XII Freshman of the Year in 2010. He started nine games and recorded 65 tackles, seven tackles for a loss, two sacks, two interceptions and seven passes broken up. Jefferson was even better last year. He had 74 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 7.5 tackles for a loss, four interceptions, three passes broken up and one forced fumble.
Jefferson (5-10, 199) is an excellent pass-defender who covers a lot of ground in the deep part of the field. He does a good job of picking up receivers running deep and has the athletic ability to play man coverage on tight ends. Jefferson also is solid in run support. The athletic and instinctive safety has a high ceiling and could be in store for another big season for the Sooners.
In the Big XII, Jefferson will face a dynamic passing attack on a weekly basis. The pass-happy conference is perfect for him to make a big impact. He should get a plethora of opportunities to pick off passes in 2012.
Now that Jefferson has a lot of experience nothing should take him by surprise. He is a difference-maker and a regular generator of splash plays. Jefferson seems poised for a big season with a nice interception total. That could see him snare the Thorpe Award at the end of the year.
Honorable Mentions: LSU safety Eric Reid, Florida State cornerback Xavier Rhodes, Mississippi State cornerback Johnthan Banks, USC safety T.J. McDonald, Florida safety Matt Elam, Michigan State cornerback Johnny Adams, Purdue cornerback Ricardo Allen, Alabama safety Robert Lester, Alabama cornerback DeMarcus Milliner, Oklahoma State cornerback Brodrick Brown, Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro, Texas cornerback Carrington Byndom, Georgia safety Bacarri Rambo, USC cornerback Nickell Robey, Oregon State cornerback Jordan Poyer and Kansas State cornerback Nigel Malone.