NEW YORK (AP) — Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh bulled past the guys who play the glamour positions and proved you don’t have to score touchdowns or toss passes to be the player of the year.
Spurred by a dominant performance against Texas in the Big 12 title game, Suh became the first defensive player voted The Associated Press College Football Player of the Year on Tuesday.
Suh had already won two defensive player of the year awards — the Nagurski and Bednarik — and two for best lineman — the Lombardi and Outland. He also finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting.
“Just being recognized as player of the year is a huge accomplishment,” Suh said in a recent phone interview from Lincoln, Neb.
He received 26 of a possible 59 votes from AP college football poll voters to edge Stanford running back Toby Gerhart, who received 20 votes.
Heisman winner Mark Ingram finished tied for third with Texas quarterback Colt McCoy, each getting six votes. Florida quarterback Tim Tebow received one vote.
Since the AP started handing out a player of the year award in 1998, all the winners have been quarterbacks or running backs.
“It’s a great choice,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. ” I give (the voters) a lot of credit. I’m not taking anything away from Ingram or McCoy or any of the other guys. I just think at his position, you would be hard-pressed to say there’s a better player than Suh. He’s had a tremendous year.”
It’s the fourth time the AP award went to a player other than the Heisman winner and first since Iowa quarterback Brad Banks beat out USC’s Carson Palmer in 2003.
Suh finished behind Ingram, Gerhart and McCoy in the Heisman voting, though he did receive more points than any fourth-place finisher in the 75-year history of the award.
Suh, a 6-foot-4, 300-pound senior, was already having an All-America-caliber season before the Cornhuskers played Texas on Dec. 5 at Dallas Cowboys Stadium.
He nearly led Nebraska to a stunning upset, with 12 tackles and 4½ sacks. The Longhorns kicked a last-second field goal to escape with a 13-12 victory, but Suh was so utterly unblockable he earned a trip to New York as one of five finalists for the Heisman.
He finished the season with 12 sacks and was the pillar of the ninth-ranked defense in the country.
“I think I had a good year,” he said. “I definitely got better in a couple of areas. I won’t say I’m satisfied by any means, because we still have a big game left to play against Arizona in the Holiday Bowl.”
He’ll tell you he’s still learning to play the game.
“I haven’t played a perfect game yet so let’s try and see if I can do that against Arizona,” he said.
Suh got a relatively late start to football. Soccer and basketball were his thing growing up in Portland, Ore., the son of a Jamaican mother and father from Cameroon. His name means “House of Spears” in the language of the Ngema tribe.
But Suh literally outgrew soccer. His mother, Bernadette, was apprehensive about allowing her son to play football, but eventually gave her permission.
Ball carriers have been dealing with the repercussions of that decision ever since.
Suh went through some tough times in his first two seasons at Nebraska, being part of one of the worst defenses in school history in 2007. Then Pelini became the Huskers coach and Nebraska’s defense began to turn around with Suh leading the charge.
Physically, Suh is everything an NFL team could want in a defensive linemen. Big, strong, quick and agile, he’s projected to be one of the first players taken in April’s draft.
Suh credits the coaching of Pelini and defensive coordinator Carl Pelini, Bo’s brother, for his development.
“Mentally, being able to pick up on different reads and formations and what things can be run out of certain formations and tendencies of teams,” Suh said.
Carl Pelini’s first chance to coach Suh came with the player unable to play. It was spring practice of 2008 and Suh was recovering from surgery. Without ever putting on pads, Suh impressed his coach.
“I was coaching the other guys, and he was just watching,” Pelini said. “He was shoulder to shoulder with me. He hadn’t practiced a snap but he was a better football player coming out of that spring.
“He’s a very cerebral guy. He wants to know why, and it’s made him a great football player.”
Academics always came before sports in Suh’s home. That can happen when your mom is a teacher.
“They know coming from Third World countries that education is the key,” he said.
The 22-year-old graduated last weekend with a degree in construction management engineering. He said he plans to take some postgraduate courses while he prepares for the NFL combine.
“The main focus is, now that I’m done with school, just worry about football and go from there,” he said.
Suh seems set to go far.