CHARLOTTE, N.C. (FWAA) – Five finalists for the 2023 Bronko Nagurski Trophy representing three different conferences plus Notre Dame, one of them from the top team in the current College Football Playoff rankings and one who has the sixth-most tackles in the FBS, were named Wednesday by the Football Writers Association of America and the Charlotte Touchdown Club as candidates for the award honoring the nation’s top defensive player.
Three members from the secondary, a linebacker and a defensive tackle compose the list. Three of the schools represented have had Bronko Nagurski Trophy winners in their past.
In alphabetical order, the finalists are Iowa cornerback Cooper DeJean, Illinois defensive tackle Jer’Zhan Newton, Georgia safety Malaki Starks, Notre Dame safety Xavier Watts and N.C. State linebacker Payton Wilson.
The Bronko Nagurski Trophy recipient will be chosen from these five finalists. The FWAA All-America Committee selects the defensive player of the year who is part of the 2023 FWAA All-America Team and presented with the trophy at the Bronko Nagurski Awards Banquet on Dec. 4 in Charlotte, N.C. where TCU head coach Sonny Dykes will be the keynote speaker.
Here is more information on the five Nagurski Trophy 2023 finalists:
Cooper DeJean, CB, Iowa (#3, 6-1, 207, Jr., Odebolt, Iowa): DeJean is one of the nation’s top cornerbacks and one of Iowa’s most experienced players. He has 41 tackles on the season, two interceptions and five pass breakups. The ball is not thrown to his side of the field often. DeJean had 10 tackles against Iowa State, a rarity for a corner, marking his third career 10-plus tackle effort. Iowa’s defense currently is third nationally, giving up 12.3 points per game, and has allowed only one touchdown over its last four games; it’s fresh off its first Big Ten shutout since 2019 following a 22-0 home win over Rutgers last week.
Iowa has never had a Bronko Nagurski Trophy winner but has two recent finalists in defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon in 2020 and linebacker Josey Jewell from 2017. Linebacker Pat Angerer was also a finalist in 2009.
Jer’Zhan Newton, DT, Illinois (#4, 6-2, 295, Jr., St. Petersburg, Fla.): A constant force in the middle of Illinois’ defense, Newton is the national leader in quarterback pressures among interior defensive linemen with 39 according to Pro Football Focus and leads all FBS defensive tackles in snaps played at 61.1 per game. He has two standout games with seven pressures against Wisconsin and six against then-No. 7 Penn State. Newton is sixth on Illinois’ season tackles chart with 42 and leads the Illini with 6.5 tackles for loss. He is also a special teams force with three blocked kicks this season, tied for the national lead.
Illinois has never had a Bronko Nagurski Trophy winner, but has had three previous finalists in defensive end Whitney Mercilus in 2011, linebacker Kevin Hardy in 1995 and linebacker Dana Howard in 1994.
Malaki Starks, S, Georgia (#24, 6-1, 205, So., Jefferson, Ga.): An imposing safety and one of the top underclassmen in the country, Starks lists fifth on the team with 33 tackles, ties for second with five pass breakups and has two interceptions. He has led the Bulldogs in tackles in two games this year against UT-Martin and Kentucky. Starks had 10 tackles against Tennessee last year, a career high, and faces the Vols again this weekend. Georgia, the top team in this week’s College Football Playoff rankings, is on a school record 27-game winning streak that is third in SEC history.
Georgia is well represented in Bronko Nagurski Trophy history. A fellow Bulldog defensive back, cornerback Champ Bailey, is the lone winner from 1998. But the Bulldogs have now had a finalist in three consecutive seasons and in five of the last six seasons (safety Chris Smith in 2022, defensive tackle Jordan Davis in 2021; safety J.R. Reed in 2019; linebacker Roquan Smith in 2017) and now nine finalists all-time. Eight of their nine finalists now have been in-state recruits.
Xavier Watts, S, Notre Dame (#0, 5-11, 204, Jr., Omaha, Neb.): A disrupter to opponents, Watts is the nation’s interceptions leader with seven, with five of them in the Irish’s last three games. He is the first Irish player to post multiple interceptions in consecutive games (vs. USC and Pitt) and the first FBS player to do it since 2020 – he was the Bronko Nagurski National Defensive Player of the Week following both wins. The USC game was a career highlight for him; in addition to seven tackles, Watts intercepted reigning Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams twice, forced a fumble and recovered another and returned it for a touchdown. His seven picks – half of the team’s 14 – have led directly to Notre Dame points in every occurrence totaling 41 points, or 11 percent of the Irish’s team scoring. He has 42 tackles, fourth at Notre Dame.
Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o won the Bronko Nagurski Trophy in 2012. He is the Fighting Irish’s lone previous winner. Fellow linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah was a finalist for the award in 2020, as was cornerback Shane Walton in 2002.
Payton Wilson, LB, N.C. State (#11, 6-4, 238, Gr., Hillsborough, N.C.): Nicknamed by his head coach as a “wrecking ball,” Wilson leads the ACC and is fifth nationally with 11.2 tackles per game and has led the team in tackles in eight of NCSU’s 10 games. Wilson is 13th nationally in solo tackles and has 49 more tackles than any other Wolfpack player at 112 total, the highest mark by a Wolfpack player since 2012. N.C. State leads the ACC in scoring defense in league play at 14.5 ppg. In its last eight games Wilson has led the Wolfpack defense to allow just 84.1 rushing yards per game. He was a four-time ACC Linebacker of the Week and has 20 double-figure tackle outputs for his career, including five in 2023.
N.C. State defensive end Bradley Chubb won the Bronko Nagurski Trophy in 2017. Linebacker Levar Fisher is the Wolfpack’s only other finalist from the 2000 season.
The FWAA has chosen a National Defensive Player of the Year since 1993. In 1995, the FWAA named the award in honor of the legendary two-way player from the University of Minnesota. Nagurski dominated college football, then became a star for professional football’s Chicago Bears in the 1930s. Bronislaw "Bronko" Nagurski is a charter member of both the College Football and Pro Football Halls of Fame.
The Bronko Nagurski Trophy is a member of the National College Football Awards Association. Founded in 1997, the NCFAA includes college football’s most prestigious awards and its 24 awards have honored more than 900 recipients dating back to 1935. This season, 12 NCFAA awards will honor national players of the week each Tuesday.
For more information about the NCFAA and its award programs, visit the redesigned NCFAA.org or follow on Twitter at @NCFAA.
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