- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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Hugh Green looks at the evolution of football over time and cannot feign surprise when seeing that no exclusively defensive player has ever walked away with the college game's most prized individual award. But that doesn't mean he thinks it's right.
From spread offense variations to wider definitions of "unnecessary roughness," from 7-on-7 passing leagues all the way back to the legalization of the forward pass, Green sees one common theme as the sport has progressed.
"They have not made a rule change where offenses have the opportunity to score less points," said Green, the former Pitt and later Buccaneers and Dolphins star defensive end. "They always have rule changes that hamper the defense so that the offense can score more points. Like everything else that happens over the decades with that, defenses adjust. They make the offenses come up with another rule, which is the formula of why a defensive player is so important and why he should be characterized into that major award."
That major award is the Heisman Trophy, which will be given Saturday night to one of three finalists: Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein or Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o.
No solely defensive player has notched the Heisman, with Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson being the lone winner (1997) who played mostly defense, though he also took reps at receiver and on special teams.
Green's 1980 season -- which featured 123 tackles, 17 sacks and four fumble recoveries -- earned him a second-place finish in 1980 behind South Carolina running back George Rogers. Green is closest to accept the famous stiff-arming trophy soley as a defender. (Iowa tackle Alex Karras finished second in 1957, too.)
That could change if Te'o's name is called this weekend at the Best Buy Theater in Times Square.
"I think first and foremost, for me it would be a great honor for my team," Te'o said. "Without my team, I wouldn't be a Heisman candidate. If we weren't 12‑0, I wouldn't be a Heisman candidate. So without my team and their help, I wouldn't be going to New York. But definitely if I were to win and representing my school and my team and my family and defensive players in general, it would definitely be a great step for all of us.
"If it doesn't happen, then whoever does win it is truly deserving of the award. Anything, whatever happens, it's going to be good."
Manziel is considered the front-runner following an SEC-record 4,600 yards of total offense for the 10-2 Aggies. The redshirt freshman has the catchy nickname ("Johnny Football") and signature moment (last month's upset of then-No. 1 and defending champion Alabama) that have been Heisman hallmarks, based on history.
Working in Te'o's favor are nine takeaways (seven picks, two fumble recoveries), which are tied for the national lead, along with 103 tackles and the label of best player on the nation's No. 1 and only bowl-eligible undefeated team. Notre Dame's seven Heisman winners are tied with Ohio State for most of all time.
"People characterize what a defensive player does and doesn't do, which is score points," Green said. "I thought each and every time, [Te'o's] interceptions either prevented a touchdown or put his offense in position to score a touchdown or kick field goals. So it can be warranted that he does score points."
Te'o also has the character element, an often-overlooked part of the Heisman Trust mission statement, and something he has embodied in overcoming the deaths of his grandmother and his girlfriend within hours of each other earlier this season.
"There are so many superlatives that you can use about players throughout the country," Irish coach Brian Kelly said. "He's a college football player. He loves the game. He's passionate about the game. He's 21 years old and he acts like that. When he walks into a room, there's an energy and a passion for what he does.
"He raises the level of accountability amongst his teammates, and when you have that kind of energy and that kind of personality, it rubs off on everybody. He's a college football player that loves the game and he elevates the play of others around him."
Still, Te'o faces an uphill climb. Only seven defensive players have even been invited to the Heisman ceremony since players first began attending in 1981, the most recent being LSU fifth-place finisher Tyrann Mathieu last year. The Honey Badger, like Woodson, also made a big special teams impact and, like Manziel, also boasted the catchy nickname.
Nebraska tackle Ndamukong Suh's invite to New York following his monstrous 2009 campaign -- 85 tackles, 24 tackles for loss, 12 sacks, 26 hurries, three blocked kicks -- marked the first top-five finish by a defense-only player in 18 years.
That history was not lost on Suh, who was reminded of it everywhere he went after a Big 12 title game loss to Texas in which he notched seven tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and two hurries. He felt he had a decent shot at winning, but he also knew that the crowded field that year could create some unpredictability, as he was joined in New York by a past winner (Tim Tebow) and two players who would face off in the national title game (Colt McCoy and winner Mark Ingram), along with Toby Gerhart.
"It's unfortunate that defensive guys don't get a better look," said Suh, who finished fourth and is now with the Lions. "I'm happy for Manti Te'o. I'll definitely be rooting for him. If I could vote for him, I'd definitely vote for him.
"I only saw one game of him playing, when he played against Oklahoma, but he seemed like a very dominant defensive player and I wish him the best, especially since I'm on the same side of the ball as him."
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