Carl Nassib’s Heisman Legitimacy: Where He Stacks Up In The 2015 Race

Since the award was first given out in 1935, there has only been one Heisman winner that primarily played defense: Michigan’s Charles Woodson, in 1997. Woodson dominated on the gridiron, tallying eight interceptions and putting up solid numbers across the board for the National Champion Wolverines.

Penn State defensive end Carl Nassib has posted stats just as dominant in 2015. Nassib leads the nation in sacks, tackles for loss, and forced fumbles, and his team’s defense as a whole ranks in the top-20 in team sacks, total defense, and scoring defense. Despite his palpable impact on the field however, Nassib isn’t getting much coverage or recognition nationally. We took a look as to why this is, and analyzed Nassib’s chances to win the nation’s top individual prize.

Looking at the stats

Nassib dominates the statistics across the country, leading to a semifinalist nod for the Chuck Bednarik Award, presented annually to the best defensive player in college football. Nassib is one of 20 semifinalists for the award — here’s the complete list.

  • Kendell Beckwith, ILB, LSU
  • Andrew Billings, NT, Baylor
  • Joey Bosa, DE, Ohio State
  • Jonathan Bullard, DE, Florida
  • Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State
  • Jeremy Cash, S, Duke
  • Su’a Cravens, OLB, USC
  • Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M
  • Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida
  • Shaq Lawson, DE, Clemson
  • Jourdan Lewis, CB, Michigan
  • Tyler Matakevich, ILB, Temple
  • Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Mississippi
  • Emmanuel Ogbah, DE, Oklahoma State
  • Reggie Ragland, ILB, Alabama
  • Jalen Ramsey, CB, Florida State
  • A’Shawn Robinson, DL, Alabama
  • Joe Schobert, OLB, Baylor
  • Jaylon Smith, OLB, Notre Dame

Nassib isn’t the most recognizable name on the list, but he’s one of the most productive. Here is a breakdown of how his statistics match up against the other semifinalists.

Sacks: Sacks: Nassib vs. Nation

Nassib dominates this statistic more than any other player leads any other statistical category. He leads Myles Garrett by five sacks, or 47.6 percent. Let’s compare that percentage to a major category on the offensive side of the ball: passing yards.

Washington State’s Luke Falk leads the nation with 3,736 yards through the air, beating Bowling Green’s Matt Johnson (3,686 yards) by 50 yards, or 1.36%. If we give Falk the lead by Nassib’s 47.6%, he’d have an astounding 5,541 yards.

Forced fumbles:

Nassib FF

Nassib leads all other Bednarik semifinalists, and the nation, in total forced fumbles and forced fumbles per game. Only four semifinalists average more than 0.25 forced fumbles per game. Nassib has recorded multiple forced fumbles in two different games — the first time a Nittany Lion has done that since 2007 (Maurice Evans).

Tackles for loss:

nassib tfl

In tackles for loss, Nassib continues to dominate his peers. His 19.5 tackles for loss outpace the fellow semifinalists by 0.2 per game.


nassib int

Nassib doesn’t lead this category, but it’s important to note that only four semifinalists have more interceptions than he does. While Temple’s Tyler Matakevich leads the contenders with five — good for eighth in the country — and probably won’t be caught, he’s a linebacker and has more opportunities to defend passes. The fact that Nassib has one as a defensive end only adds to his case.


nassib tackles

This is the category Nassib’s doubters will point to. Out of the 20 Bednarik semifinalists, Nassib ranks 12th with 4.6 tackles per game (46 overall). It’s important to note that only two players ahead of Nassib on this list (Schobert, Nkemdiche) have played ten games, so he may drop on this list during Penn State’s bye this weekend depending on how the other candidates perform.

Heisman moments

For every Heisman winner, there are usually a few plays throughout the year that are “Heisman moments.” Each player’s Heisman moment is different — it could be a crushing hit, a huge score, or a game-changing moment — but they’re those select few plays that simply stick out over the course of the season.

In his first season as a starter, Nassib’s highlight film is littered with Heisman moments. Nine of his 15.5 sacks have been on third downs for the opposing offense, and the two turnovers he’s responsible for have led directly to Penn State points. Let’s look at a few of Nassib’s Heisman-worthy moments this season.

Interception against Buffalo

Nassib grabbed his first career interception in the second quarter of the second start of his football career. With his team leading the Bulls by just seven points in the second quarter, Nassib grabbed a batted pass and returned it ten yards into the Buffalo red zone. Penn State would score a field goal on the ensuing drive.

Back-to-back sacks against Buffalo

Buffalo tried to mount a comeback late in the fourth quarter of the Nittany Lions, but Nassib almost single-handedly shut down the Bulls’ offense on its final drive. With the visitors on Penn State’s side of the field, Nassib sacked Buffalo quarterback Joe Licata, forcing a fumble in the process, for a four-yard loss on second down. Nassib did the same exact thing on the next play, strip-sacking Licata and giving the Bulls a fourth down. Penn State would force a turnover on downs on the next play, and take a knee to end the game on the ensuing offensive drive.

Sack/forced fumble against San Diego State

The Nittany Lions led San Diego State by just six points at the start of the fourth quarter, but Nassib helped more than double that lead. On third and 11 from the Penn State 25-yard line, Nassib swallowed SDSU’s Maxwell Smith and forced a fumble, one that was returned by Austin Johnson for a 74-yard touchdown.

Record-setting sack against Northwestern

It’s a common cliché that big-time players step up in big-time situations, but that’s exactly what Nassib did against Northwestern. The first play of the fourth quarter was a third and 13 for the Wildcats and, with the team trailing by six points, was arguably the most important play of the game at that point. Nassib came through the line and crushed Zack Oliver, forcing a fumble that Northwestern would recover for an 8-yard loss, and a punt on the next play. That sack was Nassib’s 15.5th of the season, a new Penn State single-season record.

Why isn’t Nassib getting more Heisman hype?

It’s easy to see that Nassib is one of the most qualified candidates to win the Bednarik Award, and he should be named a finalist when they’re announced on November 24. If his stats continue to climb, and he continues to lead in so many categories, it isn’t out of the realm of possibility that he’s named in the top-10 of Heisman voters across the country.

Nassib has been recognized as a candidate by the Heisman Trust according to head coach James Franklin, and confirmed by the Penn State athletic department. He received a letter from the Trust last week, acknowledging his spectacular play and the fact that he could be a candidate for the award. Franklin talked about telling Nassib about the letter last week at his weekly radio show.

“I got a letter today,” Franklin said. “It says James Franklin, so I open it up and it says Heisman. I’m reading it, and I thought maybe they wanted me to get involved in voting, I don’t even know how it all goes. But I’m reading the letter, and I look at the top, and it’s [addressed]  to Carl Nassib. So I go to see Carl today and I say, ‘Did you get the letter?’ He says, ‘Yeah, yeah, I got the letter.’ I say, ‘You got it?’ He thought I was talking about something else, so I told him to come up to my office, and I show it to him. I said, ‘Even if it goes no further than this, that’s a cool letter to get! You need to frame it.’ It’s an amazing story. To think, a guy just got a letter for the Heisman, and the guy didn’t even start in high school.”

The problem is, Nassib has a long way to go before he garners enough recognition to realistically be a finalist. College football analysts making Heisman predictions on ESPN, Bleacher Report, Sports Illustrated, and Newsday don’t have a single defensive player in their top-5 or -10. Only CBS Sports’ Jerry Hinnen gave a defensive player a Heisman vote. Hinnen ranked Nassib fifth in his ballot through ten weeks.

“What stands out [about Nassib]  is that he’s got 15.5 sacks in a season where no one else has more than 10.5,” Hinnen told Onward State. “If [LSU running back] Leonard Fournette was leading the rushing race by the same percentage margin over [Florida State’s] Dalvin Cook (i.e., a 46.7 percent advantage on the No. 2 guy), he’d already have more than 1,800 yards, and would have been canonized by now. You also have to be amazed by Nassib’s consistency. Plenty of star pass-rushers have inflated their totals with huge games against lousy competition, then have been merely okay versus better teams. For Nassib to record a sack in every game this season is remarkable.”

Hinnen says he gave Nassib a vote in his predictor poll because he disagrees with the idea that only offensive players should be considered for the award.

“The Heisman-perpetuated idea that not just the best player, but the best 10 players in college football, all happen to be offensive skill players is a bit ridiculous, frankly,” Hinnen said. “If I feel comfortable a case can be made for a defender on my silly little weekly fake Heisman vote, I’m going to make it. And Nassib has one.”

Nassib matches up well with previous defensive linemen considered for the award. Five linemen have finished in the top-10 of Heisman voting in the last ten years, and Nassib’s stats through ten games are comparable to the final stats of Jadeveon Clowney (2012), Ndamukong Suh (2009), Glenn Dorsey (2007), Chris Long (2007), and Elvis Dumervil (2005). The highest a defensive lineman has finished in the Heisman vote, however, is just fourth.

Nassib Heisman

Hinnen thinks Nassib’s biggest hurdle may be Penn State’s schedule, and the season-opening loss to Temple. He says Penn State “exited the national consciousness” after the 27-10 loss, and didn’t really re-enter it until the Ohio State game, which the Nittany Lions also lost. But the perfect recipe for a defensive player to win it all has only happened once — for Woodson.

“Heisman chatter for a defender needs an extraordinary set of circumstances,” Hinnen said. “Either an offseason of hype built around big numbers and a few choice highlights (Clowney), a truly monstrous season for a championship contender so dominant even college football-at-large can’t ignore it (Suh), or — if you’re going to actually win it — both of the above combined with impact on offense or special teams (Woodson). It’s human nature — we like watching the guys with the ball in their hands. That’s where the excitement usually is. Nassib has been terrific, but especially with the Nittany Lions’ low profile this season, it doesn’t surprise me there hasn’t been more awards chatter surrounding him.”

So, while he may be one of the most dominant defensive players in the country, Nassib is unlikely to win college football’s top individual prize. There’s no reason to believe, however, he won’t be a finalist and legitimate contender to join LaVar Arrington (1999), Paul Posluszny (2005, 2006), and Dan Connor (2007) and become the fourth Nittany Lion to win the Bednarik Award.

Hinnen agrees that Nassib is the favorite to win the Bednarik. He says that, while there are other worthy candidates including Ragland, Lewis, Garrett, Cash, and Lawson, Nassib’s domination and consistency is too much to ignore.

“If I was picking today, it would have to be Nassib,” Hinnen said. “No defender in college football has better numbers, and that the Nittany Lions are still top-15 in both total defense and yards-per-play allowed despite their injuries speaks to his impact.”

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About the Author

Alex Robinson

Alex Robinson was Onward State's Acting Managing Editor/Resident Old Man. He lived in Harrisburg almost his whole life, but he says he's from California -- where he was born -- because that's more fun. He loves cats and Chinese food, but only separately. He met both Ben Affleck and Kanye West within a half hour, so the three of them are basically best friends. If you want to hear his #scorching #hot #takes, you can follow him at @ARobinsonPSU or email him at [email protected].

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