Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o headlined my 2012 Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) All-American team nominees ballot. The Fighting Irish’s leader is my nominee for the Bronko Nagurski Award, presented to the nation’s most outstanding defensive player. Te’o has been that and more. His 87 tackles far-and-away lead Notre Dame’s second ranked scoring defense. He’s one of the most active ball pursuit tacklers in college football, but he’s also a threat to the passing game. Te’o’s five interceptions rank among the nation’s very best, and he’s deflected nine passes.
Te’o has emerged as a Heisman Trophy contender, virtually unheard of from a linebacker. Not only is his season the best of any defensive players this season, it’s a historically significant campaign. That makes Te’o an obvious choice for the Nagurski Award.
- Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina
The sensational Gamecock sophomore is a terror for opposing backfields. He has a staggering 15 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. Clowney is almost unblockable, thanks to some of the most astounding quickness from a defensive end seen in college football, and power forward-like length.
- Will Sutton, Arizona State
Arizona State’s big man on the line Will Sutton is among the nation’s most prolific sack-makers with 9.5. Sutton moves with surprising dexterity and speed for a tackle his size — he’s listed at 267 pounds on the ASU athletic website, but doesn’t pass that eye test. Though playing on the interior, he has the presence of an end.
- Quanterus Smith, Western Kentucky
Quanterus Smith leads college football in sacks with 11.5 in just eight games played. He’s proven one of the most difficult to contain defensive lineman in the nation with his quick burst off the line and tenacious pursuit of the ball, evident in another 14.5 tackles for loss.
- Damontre Moore, Texas A&M
Aiding Texas A&M’s acclimation to the SEC has been a surprisingly effective defense, and anchoring that is Damontre Moore. He’s brought down ball carriers behind the line of scrimmage 19 times, most in the nation and second most frequently among all FBS players behind only fellow SEC product and All-American nominee Jarvis Jones.
- Jarvis Jones, Georgia
Were any of these All-American nominees to uproot Te’o for the Nagurski Award, it would be Jarvis Jones. He’s averaging better than two tackles for loss per game to lead the nation, and his five forced fumbles also top college football. Jones is among the nation’s best at sacking opposing quarterbacks with 8.5, and one of the Georgia defense’s top tacklers with 52, accumulated in just seven games.
Think opposing quarterbacks aren’t intimidating by Jones? Consider he has 23 quarterback hurries and reevaluate that assessment.
- Khaseem Greene, Rutgers
Khaseem Greene was the SaturdayBlitz.com October Superlatives Defensive Player of the Month, and a deserving All-American nominee. He’s matched Jarvis Jones’ five forced fumbles, his 74 tackles leads Rutgers. Greene is less of a blitzing presence than Jones, but active in the passing defense akin to Te’o. He has a pair of interceptions, four broken up passes and six pass defenses.
- Dee Milliner, Alabama
The nation’s stingiest defense features numerous NFL-bound prospects, which sometimes makes for difficult treading in establishing one clear standout. Dee Milliner has managed to shine though, pairing up against opponents’ top targets and limiting their opportunities with 15 pass defenses and two interceptions.
Milliner has also been a factor in special teams, recording a blocked kick.
- Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Oregon
Sophomore Ifo Ekpre-Olomu patrols the secondary much like the Tasmanian devil from old Merry Melodies cartoons, whirling about to be in on seemingly every play. Ekpre-Olomu has been reminiscent of another wild thing, the Honey Badger — as in, 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist and All-American Tyrann Mathieu of LSU. Like Mathiue, he’s vital to creating plays in the secondary, evident in his four forced fumbles and 13 broken-up passes, as well as three interceptions (including one returned for touchdown).
- Jordan Poyer, Oregon State
Oregon State’s surprise pursuit of the Pac-12 championship is fueled by the most improved defense in all of college football. OSU ranked near the bottom of most every major statistical category a season ago, but this year ranks No. 19 in scoring defense. Jordan Poyer is one of the key contributors to the astounding turnaround, manning the secondary to the tune of five interceptions, one which was returned for a touchdown. He’s active all around the field, both in coverage and occasional in blitz packages.
- Philip Thomas, Fresno State
Out in the Mountain West, Fresno State sits atop the standings and can win the conference championship in its debut season. Much credit belongs to safety Philip Thomas, who has been among the most explosive defensive play makers anywhere. His seven interceptions lead the nation, which in itself is worthy of All-American consideration, but more impressive is that Thomas has returned three of those for touchdowns.