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Kovacevic: Why give credence to Heisman?

| Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013, 10:42 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pitt's Aaron Donald plays against Florida State on Monday, Sept. 2, 2013 at Heinz Field.
Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald poses for a portrait with the Rotary Lombardi Award prior to the awards ceremony on Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013, in Houston. Donald won the award on Wednesday night.

Aaron Donald, Pitt's superlative defensive tackle, is piling up postseason honors at the same rate as sacks these days. That began Monday with the Bronko Nagurski Award as college football's best defensive player, and it continued Wednesday night with the Lombardi Award as college football's best lineman on either side of the ball. He's also a finalist for the Bednarik Award and Outland Trophy on Thursday.

It all makes for outstanding recognition.

It's good for the program, which never had won the Nagurski and could use the street cred after another 6-6 dud.

It's good for the ACC, whose coaches on Wednesday joined the chorus and named Donald the conference's defensive player of the year.

It's good for the student-athlete, who overcame doubts about his stature coming out of Penn Hills and blossomed into a possible NFL first-round draft pick with 10 sacks, 24 12 tackles for losses, four forced fumbles and that signature blocked PAT at Syracuse.

But all of that isn't good enough, apparently, for a seat at the Heisman Trophy table.

Look, never mind the award itself. If I were one of the 928 voters, mine would go to Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, and I'm sure that's how it'll turn out. What we saw of Winston in his debut at Heinz Field was only the opening chapter.

The part that's inexplicable is that the Heisman voters didn't support Donald enough that he would be one of six players invited to the banquet, an achievement in its own right.

Joining Winston: Northern Illinois QB Jordan Lynch, Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel, Alabama QB A.J. McCarron and two running backs, Auburn's Tre Mason and Boston College's Andre Williams.

Easy pattern to pick up.

The Heisman committee's mission statement describes the trophy as recognizing “the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity.”

Sure. So long as that pursuit doesn't involve chasing a QB as opposed to being one.

Since the Heisman's inception in 1935, it has gone to a defensive player all of three times: Yale's Larry Kelly in 1936, Notre Dame's Leon Hart in 1949 and, a half-century later, Michigan's Charles Woodson in 1997.

Which means that half of everyone who participates is essentially excluded, even though the defensive side of the game is seen as paramount by, oh, only every coach ever.

In the past 25 years, the Heisman has gone to a quarterback 16 times. Moreover, quarterbacks accounted for 75 of the 125 total top-five finishers. Running backs make up most of the rest, leaving even wide receivers in the cold. No Heisman at that position since Desmond Howard in 1991.

How is no one embarrassed?

How is it that no move has been made to change the voting process or guidelines?

More to the point, why are we still giving this credence?

“What I know is that Aaron Donald is a hell of a football player,” former Pitt legend Bill Fralic, like Donald a Penn Hills graduate, was fairly barking into his cell Wednesday. Fralic experienced a similar scenario in 1985, being touted for the Heisman before succumbing to the fact that no offensive lineman has ever won it. “You know, the Heisman and that stuff, I don't know that now anymore than I did then. What I know is the kid can play, and he deserves every honor he's getting.”

Donald has way too much class to get caught up in this, and I knew that before I asked him in a talk Wednesday — he was in Houston for the Lombardi ceremony — whether the Heisman is now unfairly limited to QBs.

“I can't really say too much,” Donald said. “I guess they're going to vote for whoever the best player is for that award. But I don't know that much about it.”

Again, good for him.

Better yet, he sounds like he's having a blast with the experience, bouncing from city to city all week.

“It's been amazing, man. Truly a blessing. They all say hard work pays, and it is. Having my parents with me … it's all incredible. The other night, the Nagurski, being called the best defensive player in college football … incredible.”

If he'd have been a QB at Northern Illinois, maybe the Heisman people would have thought so, too.

Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at dkovacevic@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.

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