There will never be a year where everyone is satisfied with all the Heisman Trophy finalists.
In college football, where there are 130 FBS teams, there are always going to be plenty of snubs from the finalists to the top award in the sport.
But this year, fans might have a legitimate gripe for at least two omissions: Alabama linebacker Will Anderson and Michigan State running back Kenneth Walker III.
Anderson was the best defender in the SEC during the regular season, who only got better as the season wore on. Walker was a dynamic running back, at times single-handedly carrying Michigan State’s offense.
Should those two be going to New York City along with Alabama QB Bryce Young, Ohio State QB C.J. Stroud, Pitt QB Kenny Pickett and Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson? Which of those four would be the easiest to replace? Sporting News dives into the numbers.
Case for Anderson
There have been a lot of standout defenders to pass through the football program at Alabama. Few have ever posted the numbers Anderson did in 2021.
Through the SEC Championship Game, Anderson has tallied 82 total tackles, including 31.5 for a loss and 15.5 sacks. The latter two numbers lead all FBS players. They also are numbers in a season that only have been passed by Pro Football Hall of Fame and College Football Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Thomas in Alabama history, as Thomas had 39 tackles for loss in 1988, and 27 sacks and 18 sacks in 1988 and 1987, respectively.
During the season, Anderson only seemed to get stronger as the year wore on. After tallying three sacks in his first six games, he recorded at least one sack in each of his most recent seven, totalling 12.5 during that span. Down that stretch, he had at least three tackles for loss in four of those games. Facing Georgia, one of the most vaunted offensive lines in the nation, in the SEC Championship Game, Anderson continued his disruptive ways, recording six tackles with two for a loss, including a sack.
Anderson might not be receiving the Heisman Trophy this year, but he has already received one of college football’s most prestigious honors. He was named the 2021 Bronco Nagurski Trophy recipient, given annually to the top defensive player in the nation by the Football Writers Association of America.
Anderson vs. Hutchinson
Only one defensive player made the top four finalists in 2021, and it was Hutchinson. The Michigan defensive end surged toward the end of the season, backed in large part by a standout game against rival Ohio State to deliver Michigan its first Big Ten East title and lead them to the Big Ten Championship Game for the first time in program history.
According to Pro Football Focus, Hutchinson pressured Stroud 15 times during that game, the most ever tracked by PFF, and he tied a season-high with three sacks. Hutchinson currently sits in third among FBS players with 14 sacks and 22nd with 15.5 tackles for loss. Based on PFF’s player grades, Hutchinson currently has the highest grade among edge defenders at 94.7, while Anderson ranks 10th at 89.8.
Hutchinson has had a dynamic season and has rocketed up mock drafts for his season, but his numbers just don’t match up with Anderson’s. Though linebackers tend to rack up higher stat counts compared to defensive linemen, both are in unique situations in that Hutchinson often dropped back into coverage and Anderson often lined up.
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According to Pro Football Focus, Hutchinson was in run defense 313 snaps, pass defense 397 snaps and coverage 28 snaps, while Anderson posted run, pass and coverage snap counts of 290, 424 and 48, respectively, which would help to balance out the typical stat imbalance between the two positions.
Kenneth Walker III
Case for Walker
Walker came into the 2021 season with lofty expectations after transferring from Wake Forest. Safe to say, he lived up to the hype in East Lansing, Michigan.
The junior running back currently has the second-most rushing yards in the nation at 1,636, averaging 136.3 per game. His 6.2 yards per carry are tied with Cincinnati’s Jerome Ford for the most of any back with at least 200 carries. His 18 rushing touchdowns are the eighth-most of any player in the country during the season.
At a time this season, Walker was considered a Heisman Trophy front-runner. On Oct. 30, he gashed Michigan for 197 yards on 23 carries with five rushing touchdowns to lead the Spartans to a win against their in-state rivals. That game remains the only loss suffered by the Wolverines. Walker’s Heisman odds were hurt against Ohio State, when he was held to just 25 yards on six carries, limited early on by his team as Michigan State fell behind early to the Buckeyes and turned to a more pass-heavy approach as it tried to climb out of the large deficit.
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While the Nov. 20 clash against Ohio State hurt, it was still hardly his fault. He averaged 4.2 yards per carry, but was only handed the ball a season-low six times. It was one of only three times during the regular season he received fewer than 20 carries, and one of two times he had fewer than 10. Walker twice rushed for at least 200 yards, including in Week 1, when he ran for a season-best 264 yards on 23 carries with four touchdowns against Northwestern. In eight games, he tallied more than 120 yards.
Walker vs. Stroud
It’s not as easy to compare Walker and his numbers directly to any players as he doesn’t share a position with any of the other finalists. Instead, let’s compare his case to the other Big Ten offensive player.
As is the case with Hutchinson, Stroud has had a standout year. He has the eighth-most passing yards among FBS players at 3,862, the fifth-most passing touchdowns at 38 and the second-best rating at 182.24. Impressively, he also only threw five interceptions. PFF rated Stroud as the third-best quarterback in the country, behind only Young and Pickett.
But as great of a season as Stroud had, it is worth considering the talent surrounding him. He had three receivers with more than 900 receiving yards, and all three (Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson) look like future first-round talents. Smith-Njigba and Wilson were both rated by PFF as top 25 receivers, and even Olave was just 10 spots behind Alabama’s Jameson Williams, who graded as the 48th-best wideout. Additionally, Ohio State had a dynamic running back in TreVeyon Henderson, who finished with more than 1,000 rushing yards. The point being: Ohio State was surrounded by weapons on offense.
Now, consider Walker. According to Pro Football Focus, he was one of just three starters with an offensive grade over 80. Stroud was one of six. Walker also represented 31.7 percent of his team’s total offense, a staggering total for a single running back. Only four running backs accounted for more of their team’s total offensive yardage. In addition, Walker was given a handoff on 33.2 percent of Michigan State’s offensive plays, the third-most in the nation. That is a single player accounting for all that offense, as opposed to two on each connection.
It most likely didn’t help the optics of Stroud vs. Walker with their head-to-head matchup. Walker had his worst game of the season. Stroud had his best, throwing for six touchdowns with 432 passing touchdowns and completing 91.4 percent of his passes in a 56-7 win. But Walker also didn’t play defense, and neither did Stroud. So maybe it’s more fair to compare Hutchinson to Walker, where there is photographic evidence of Walker running past Hutchinson.
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