Coming off an encouraging – but somewhat inconsistent – 2012 campaign, several Bruins emerged as rising stars for UCLA. The Bruins improved dramatically in countless areas, and so it only makes sense that some of these players be, at the very least, dark-horse contenders for the most prestigious individual award in all of football.
Who are these studs? Let’s find out, as we rank the Heisman candidates from least likely to most likely to nab the honor.
5. Eddie Vanderdoes
We know, we know: This is beyond a long shot. Aside from the fact that Vanderdoes is a defensive player, he’s a true freshman who has yet to showcase his talents at the collegiate level. Sure, he’ll have an impact, but it’s nowhere near clear to what extent he’ll bolster UCLA’s already-stacked front seven.
With that in mind, let’s consider that, in the 3-4 defense that UCLA employs, the defensive tackle almost always is the centerpiece. If the big man in the middle doesn’t cause enough disruption for the opposing offensive line, the gaps for which the linebackers to exploit don’t appear. In essence, the absence of gaps in the line prohibits Anthony Barr from destroying the opposing QB, and given the Bruins’ shaky secondary, that could be disastrous for the UCLA defense.
So sure, Vanderdoes is a true freshman, but Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel just won the Heisman for his 2012 performance; he’s a redshirt freshman. So with the right amount of stellar play, who knows?
4. Eric Kendricks
How did someone who wasn’t even selected for the 2012 all-conference squad even find themselves considered a “dark-horse Heisman contender”? That’s easy: Kendricks was robbed of a spot.
We know, we know: Any fan writing on a fan-oriented blog would say that of almost any of his or her favorite players, but this complaint isn’t without merit. In 2012, Kendricks actually led the Pac-12 in total tackles, anchoring what is perhaps the best linebacker corps in the country. While many are skeptical of such a stat (Sam Strong, formerly of the Daily Bruin, once said that Kendricks was merely the beneficiary of the defense funneling the ball-carrier his way), it’s important to note that Kendricks was, in fact, roaming rather actively. Having looked at the tape (I have three games saved on the ole’ machine), it’s pretty clear that Kendricks’ own abilities played a large role in his success.
Of course, Heisman-wise, this is also a long shot. While Notre Dame senior and eHarmony.com spokesman Manti Te’o bullied himself into the Heisman discussion in 2012, his candidacy was always in doubt because he wasn’t a sack-master, nor was he an offensive player. It didn’t matter that he was one of the best tacklers in the country, nor did it matter that he was the only linebacker in the country to earn seven interceptions. Defensive players just don’t win Heismans.
Kendricks would have to have a pretty spectacular year, but given his sophomore campaign clocked in at “pretty damn good,” we’re sure “spectacular” isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
3. Brett Hundley
While Hundley shows up as No. 3 on this ranking, he’s easily the player with the best shot at chasing the Heisman for a sustained period of time. Why? Because he’s a quarterback for a major college program in an explosive offense under the direction of an increasingly prolific offensive coordinator in Noel Mazzone.
And let’s not forget that Hundley shattered school records last year. With the help of Mazzone (whose offense ran more plays than over 90 percent of the rest of the nation), Hundley earned school records for passing yards and rushing yards by a QB. This year, he’ll figure to be better and with some adjustments to his decision-making (Hundley wasn’t always very decisive when it came to choosing whether to run or pass), he’ll hit the dirt less often. (Of course, this is pretty dependent upon the continuous improvement of the young UCLA offensive line.)
Plus, let’s remember that UCLA won’t have a go-to running back this year, meaning much of the offensive load will fall on the redshirt sophomore from Arizona.
But why is he No. 3, if he has the best chance to win the Heisman? Well, he’s not exactly the best player on this team. Rarely does the Heisman go to the best player in the country (example: Manti Te’o losing out to Johnny Manziel). So who are the two better players on UCLA’s roster?
2. Anthony Barr
If there’s a defensive player that’s going to win the Heisman this year, it’s either South Carolina defensive lineman Jadeveon Clowney or UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr.
Barr is arguably the most talented defensive player in the Pac-12. Recruited as an athlete, he found a niche as the Bruins’ star linebacker, and he’s been disgustingly brilliant at it. Aside from being one of the nation’s leaders in sacks, he somehow managed to blanket Stanford’s tight ends in the Bruins’ first tilt with the Cardinal … and of course, coverage has been an emphasis for the senior this offseason too.
There’s no guarantee that Barr replicates – or as we’re expecting, exceeds – the kind of success he garnered in 2012. Primarily, the guy’s on the radar now, meaning teams will try to negate his impact, understanding that he’s a huge pain in the ass for their offenses’ backfields.
But if he does replicate or exceed his success this year? That’s all he’ll need to join the Heisman discussion. Given the tougher schedule and the target on his back, we’re sure Heisman voters will be tuning in to watch the Bruins’ All-American linebacker, and if he impresses ‘em enough, a defensive player may take home some serious hardware after all.
1. Xavier Su’a-Filo
Let’s get this out of the way: Linemen don’t win Heismans. They win games, they provide opportunities, and they do all the dirty work while some QB with a hot girlfriend takes home hardware. Regardless of how good – hell, great – an offensive lineman is, he’ll never be recognized as a legitimate star in the context of prestigious trophy.
But goddammit, if there’s a lineman that deserves consideration, it’s Xavier Su’a-Filo.
We know, we know: It’s hard to quantify the value that a lineman provides. Sure, we can look at sacks allowed but given that a single lineman might be fantastic and the rest might be a slew of freshman (lookin’ at you, 2012 UCLA Bruins’ offensive line), then that might be a flawed stat.
No, you’ll have to look back at the tape. And, my god, Su’a-Filo is a baller.
There’s a reason for his All-America consideration after the 2012 campaign. There’s a reason Su’a-Filo was picked for the all-conference first team last season. And there’s a reason he’ll be a consensus All-American after this season.
So sure, perhaps he doesn’t win the Heisman trophy because, let’s be real, linemen will always go unheralded. But if there’s someone that pulls it off, it’s Su’a-Filo.
He’s that damn good.