Can a defensive player win the Heisman? OSU's Chase Young has made his case

Pete Thamel

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Imagine scoring 72 points on the ‘85 Bears. Or out-showtiming Magic Johnson’s Lakers. Or perhaps envision mauling the Broad Street Bullies in a fistfight and leaving them a bloody mess.

That’s the best context to put Ohio State defensive end Chase Young’s dominant performance in No. 3 Ohio State’s 38-7 waxing of No. 13 Wisconsin on Saturday afternoon. Not only did Young finish the game with four sacks, two forced fumbles that resulted in turnovers and five tackles for loss. He inflicted this caliber of damage on a Wisconsin program that’s very existence and engineering is built to resist such performances, as the Badgers have a proud tradition of outsized offensive lines.

And that’s precisely what makes Young swallowing whole the Wisconsin offense so impressive on Saturday, in what I’ll remember as the single most dominant defensive performance I’ve witnessed in 16 seasons covering national college football. His mugging of Wisconsin took the program’s singular identity and bull-rushed it into oblivion. “He’s the most dominant player in college football,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “He completely changes the game.”

The slate sky, biblical rain and preponderance of scarlet ponchos set the backdrop for a dreary day. Gloom licked the top rows of Ohio Stadium, ensconcing the noon kickoff with its autumn misery and making midday feel more like late evening.

Streaking across the dank afternoon, from every fathomable angle, came Young’s bouncing blond dreadlocks. He spent the day for Ohio State lining up at right end, flipping over to left end and occasionally roving like a middle linebacker before picking his favored lane to the quarterback. Young’s transcendent defensive performance flipped football convention, as he made tracking him pre-snap on defense as exciting as Justin Fields running in the open field.

Ohio State's Chase Young takes down Wisconsin QB Jack Coan for one of his four sacks on Saturday. (Getty)
Ohio State's Chase Young takes down Wisconsin QB Jack Coan for one of his four sacks on Saturday. (Getty)

It quickly became evident who the best player on this field, or any field, was on Saturday afternoon. Young, a 6-foot-6, 270-pound defensive end, hit Badger quarterback Jack Coan so hard in the fourth quarter that the ball tumbled about 25 yards toward the sideline.

As the empirical evidence mounted with every blown-up double team, it became obvious to the college football world what the NFL has long recognized – Chase Young is the best player in all of college football. And that’s why the second half of this season will test one of the most vexing conventions that’s hung over the most prestigious individual award in American sports. Why have defensive players been virtually excluded from consideration for the Heisman Trophy?

Young put on a clinic in dominance on Saturday, dancing in the head of the Wisconsin play-callers and likely haunting their dreams when they land back in Madison on Saturday night. He delivered persistent and relentless production – six tackles to go along with countless headaches.

Wisconsin tried to double team Young. They tried to chip him with tailbacks and tight ends. They tried to run away from him. Twice, foolishly, they left him unblocked and tried to dump a screen pass in the space he vacated. (Note to future opponents, not a good idea.) And still, he managed to conjure up plays, moments and images of some of this generation’s most dominant college defenders – Ndamukong Suh, Jadeveon Clowney and Myles Garrett.

The most exciting part of seeing Young move around and prance over the defensive line is that OSU defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley said the Buckeyes will likely do more of it. After Ohio State played Michigan State on Oct. 5, teams began attempt to chip and double-team Young more aggressively. That’s prompted the Buckeyes to get more creative to counter what offenses are doing.

“There should be more and more [attention on him],” Hafley told Yahoo Sports. “We’re going to have to do [different things] with Chase. If we don’t then we’re not doing our job.”

The Buckeye defense held Wisconsin to 191 yards, and along the way chiseled the epitaph on star Badger tailback Jonathan Taylor’s Heisman Trophy campaign, holding him to just 52 yards on 20 carries.

“He’s a man amongst boys out there,” a veteran NFL scout told Yahoo Sports. “He’s getting close to Ndamukong Suh territory. Chase Young makes it look easy.”

But winning the Heisman Trophy for a defensive player is hard. Only once since the Heisman Trophy began being awarded to the most “outstanding college football player” in the United States has it gone to a primary defensive player. The Heisman Trophy has been given out since 1935, and the trend toward offense has turned into an irrefutable bias that defies common sense.

That lone Heisman winner was Charles Woodson for Michigan in 1997, as he played defensive back, returned kicks and moonlighted as a wide receiver. So even some of his sizzle came away from the defensive side. Young is well aware of this, as he told Yahoo Sports, “He played offense too, though.” Young said the word offense with a hint of disdain, like he had just taken a swig of sour milk.

The highest finish by an exclusive defensive player was Hugh Green at Pittsburgh in 1980 and Manti Te’o at Notre Dame in 2012, both of whom came in second. When asked if it excites him to potentially become the first pure defensive Heisman winner, Young said, “Definitely.”

“Everyone is always talking about it,” Young said. “I try and push it out of my head. Everything that’s going to come to me is going to come.”

Three NFL scouts told Yahoo Sports that they consider Young the best prospect in the entire sport right now, regardless of position. His production backs up the talent, as he entered the game tied for the nation’s lead in sacks (9.5), and someone would need an electric day to wake up on Sunday ahead of his 13.5. Consider this a historic pace, as the last player to register 20 sacks was Louisville’s Elvis Dumervil in 2005.

Young may not be the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NFL draft, as there’s such an overt desperation for multiple franchises to fill the quarterback position that some will either pick or trade for Justin Herbert or Tua Tagovailoa. But right now, it’s safe to cast the race for the No. 1 pick a three-man chase. And after his dizzying Saturday, Chase may just lead that chase. “He’s a can’t-miss,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day told Yahoo Sports recently.

Young will be showcased at the sport’s highest level the next few months thanks to a deep and talented ensemble cast around him. Quarterback Justin Fields pirouetted his way through the Wisconsin defense for clutch conversions and tailback J.K. Dobbins stole the tailback spotlight from Taylor by finishing with 163 yards and two touchdowns. (Dobbins could have his own Heisman argument come November.)

Young’s menacing performance in a television window with no other high-end games helped his Heisman case on Saturday. Combine that with Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s ankle injury cooling his chances and Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts getting upset at Kansas State, and it was ideal conditions for Young to burst into the conversation.

For Young to get to New York, it’s voter convention more than his own production that may be the issue. Suh ran into this in 2009 when he finished fourth despite one of the most dominating individual seasons in the history of sport. A biased but prescient view came after the game from Young’s dad, Greg: “I think it would be good for college football.”

Young is chasing his own slice of history this season. He’s doing it for a national title contender and on Saturday, did it against the best available competition. Come December, the question is whether Heisman voters will ignore their own history of ignorance and recognize what’s become obvious so far this season – Chase Young is the most outstanding football player in America.

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