3 SEC Heisman hopefuls meet in Tide-Vols showdown

The odds are pretty good that Tennessee’s Eric Berry will go one-on-one with the leading Heisman Trophy candidate for the second time this season.

The Volunteers dynamic defensive back, who took on Florida’s Tim Tebow earlier this season, is bracing for another high-impact collision – this time with No. 1 Alabama’s 212-pound tailback Mark Ingram.

“I’ll probably just take a few Advil before the game,” Berry said.

Berry and Ingram will be two of three players taking the field on Saturday who are on the Heisman watch list. They will be joined by Crimson Tide All-America linebacker Rolando McClain.

The trio is among several names being bandied about for the award, the others being mostly quarterbacks: Tebow, Jimmy Clausen and Colt McCoy. The field might be wide-open enough this season for a dominant defensive star to earn serious consideration for the Heisman, which hasn’t gone to a defender since Michigan defensive back/return man Charles Woodson won in 1997.

Berry is the only one from Alabama or Tennessee being actively promoted for the award, with music videos and berry4heisman.com. While McClain and Ingram publicly downplay the hoopla, Berry embraces it.

“I feel like with the videos, it’s really helping Tennessee get onto that radar again,” said Berry, a junior who is just 14 yards shy of Terrell Buckley’s NCAA career record of 501 interception return yards. “Soon we’ll be getting right back on the right track and everybody’s going to know who Tennessee is.”

Berry has the hype and the flamboyant style. But he only has one interception this season after picking off 12 passes his first two, and he plays for a .500 team. Still, Tide coach Nick Saban called him “maybe the best defensive player in our conference” and an “absolutely phenomenal football player.”

McClain is a mobile, 258-pound inside linebacker who is the leader of the nation’s No. 1 defense. He has a team-high 49 tackles, two sacks, two interceptions and a forced fumble.

Does he enjoy seeing a fellow defender getting pushed for the Heisman? “I mean, I don’t really care,” McClain said, shaking his head and quickly ending that line of questioning.

Both might have to take a back seat to Ingram, who jumped to the top of some pundits’ Heisman watch lists this week with a 246-yard rushing effort against South Carolina. He also shares the team lead with 19 catches and his 30 runs of 10-plus yards leads the nation.

He’d certainly be on Berry’s list.

“Yeah, that’s hands down,” he said. “He’s one of the best backs in this country. He’s a complete back. He runs, blocks and he can catch out of the backfield, and he breaks a lot of tackles. You could just go back and look at his tape, his film – that’s his resume, and I feel like his resume is pretty darn good.

Ingram isn’t quite as dismissive of the Heisman question as McClain. But the sophomore insisted it’s not something he’s going to get carried away with.

“It’s an honor to be considered as one of the top candidates for that award, but I’m not too worried about it,” he said. “I’m really just worried about helping this team win and get better everyday as a player. You know, if we just keep winning and I keep performing, everything else will take care of itself.”

It worked for Woodson. He led the Wolverines to a share of the national championship with Nebraska, collecting eight interceptions while also playing some receiver and returning punts.

The Green Bay Packers veteran follows the Heisman chase, because past winners have a vote. He likes Florida’s middle linebacker Brandon Spikes – though he knows Spikes was injured last weekend (groin) – but says “the numbers factor, that’s pretty overwhelming.”

Is it time for another defender to win the Heisman?

“I don’t see why not. But the guys, they’re just not going to get the (publicity),” Woodson said. “I tell people all the time, I was very fortunate to play offense and get some of that notoriety. It’s going to be hard for a guy that only plays defense to have any numbers that’s going to rival an offensive player. So that’s just a tough deal.”

Besides Berry and McClain, another potentially Heisman-worthy defensive player is Nebraska tackle Ndamukung Suh, who has racked up across-the-board stats including nine tackles for loss, three sacks, seven pass breakups, a forced fumble and an interception.

“You have to be a dominating factor in probably every game,” said former Auburn defensive tackle Tracy Rocker, the first SEC player to capture both the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award. “(Suh) is doing probably everything possible you can do.”

The Auburn assistant had 100 tackles in 1988, but didn’t get any Heisman votes.

Suh isn’t counting his votes.

“It’s more an offensive predicated award,” he said. “It’s all good and gravy now, but I have to keep playing and stay focused on this team and helping this team win. If the time comes and I’m still in the race, I’m more than happy to have my name up there.”

Saban says stats are key, and that someone who is racking up sacks or interceptions or returning punts and/or kicks would have a shot. But the odds are definitely in favor of offensive players.

“There’s a lot of different awards for a lot of different players,” he said. “I think that offensive players because of fan interest and crowd appeal, probably … have a little bit of an advantage.”