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The Most Promising Chuck Bednarik Award Prospects for 2024

Updated: May 21

Chuck Bednarik Award
© David Boss-USA TODAY Sports

The Chuck Bednarik Award, the annual accolade recognizing the most outstanding defensive player in college football, is a prestigious honor presented by the Maxwell Football Club, based in Philadelphia.

Named after legendary Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Chuck Bednarik, a two-time NFL Champion and 10-time First Team All-Pro, the award has celebrated the exceptional talents of college football’s defensive elite since its inception in 1995. Past recipients include luminaries such as Charles Woodson, LaVar Arrington and Ndamukong Suh.

The Chuck Bednarik Award

The Bednarik Award is one of the most esteemed recognitions in college football, celebrating players who exhibit extraordinary skill, leadership and sportsmanship on the field. The MFC, a non-profit organization renowned for its contributions to the sport, oversees the selection process. The voting panel consists of NCAA coaches, members of the MFC, and a diverse group of sportswriters and sportscasters from across the nation. The award not only honors individual excellence but also upholds the legacy of its namesake, Bednarik, whose storied career with the Eagles remains a benchmark of defensive prowess in the NFL.

The award has honored many of college football's finest defensive players through the years. Notable winners include Woodson of Michigan (1997), Arrington of Penn State (1999) and Suh of Nebraska (2009). Penn State boasts multiple award winners including Paul Posluszny (2005, 2006) and Dan Connor (2007). Recent recipients include Chase Young of Ohio State (2019), Zaven Collins of Tulsa (2020) and Payton Wilson of North Carolina State (2023). This prestigious award highlights the exceptional talent and impact of these players on the field, solidifying their legacies in college football history.

Top 5 Players to Watch

Mason Graham , DT, Michigan

In the heart of Ann Arbor, a force to be reckoned with is emerging on the football field and his name is Mason Graham. Hailing from the sunny streets of Los Angeles, Graham's journey to gridiron glory is marked by dominance and determination. As a defensive tackle for the Wolverines, his impact reverberates throughout the college football landscape.

Graham's ascent to prominence was swift and undeniable. In his first year donning the maize and blue, he wasted no time making his mark, leading all FBS true freshmen interior defensive linemen with an impressive 80.3 Pro Football Focus (PFF) grade. However, it was his sophomore campaign that truly solidified his status as a force to be reckoned with.

According to PFF, Graham emerged as the fourth-most valuable defensive tackle in the nation, showcasing his prowess on both ends of the spectrum. His 15.9 percent pass-rush win rate placed him among the elite, while his tenacious run defense earned him accolades as one of only two interior defensive linemen to boast top-10 grades in both categories.

What sets Graham apart is not just his physical prowess, but his relentless determination and unmatched agility. Standing tall at 6-foot-3 and weighing 318 pounds, he possesses the perfect blend of power and finesse. Even when faced with a formidable offensive line, Graham's ability to shed blocks and disrupt plays is second to none.

As he enters his junior year, the anticipation surrounding Graham continues to grow. With a laundry list of accolades already under his belt, including a College Football Playoff National Championship and being named to the Freshman All-America Team, Graham's trajectory points skyward. His recent recognition as the Rose Bowl Defensive MVP further solidifies his status as a game-changer on the field.

But Graham's journey is far from over. With sights set on the 2025 NFL Draft, he remains focused and driven to leave an indelible mark on the Wolverines and the world of football as a whole. While his eligibility for the 2024 draft is out of reach, there's no doubt that Graham would be a top prospect if given the opportunity.

Chuck Bednarik Award
James Pearce Jr., Edge, Tennessee

Pearce, a sophomore majoring in sociology at the University of Tennessee, has emerged as one of the most formidable pass rushers in college football. Standing tall at 6-foot-5 and weighing 242 pounds, Pearce boasts a remarkable 21.3 percent pressure rate, ranking third among all edge defenders in the nation in the previous season. Additionally, his impressive 92.4 pass-rush grade solidified his status as a force to be reckoned with on the field.

In his freshman year, Pearce made his mark by appearing in all 13 games, demonstrating his potential with 5 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, and 2 sacks. However, it was during his sophomore season that Pearce truly shone, earning accolades as one of the Southeastern Conference's top pass rushers. His outstanding contributions, including 27 tackles, 9.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles and a pick-6, propelled him into the spotlight as an elite prospect ahead of the 2025 NFL Draft.

Pearce's remarkable athleticism and explosiveness, combined with his ability to convert speed to power, make him a coveted asset for NFL teams. With the upcoming draft predicted to feature a weaker quarterback class, there is speculation that Pearce could even be selected as the No. 1 overall pick.

Despite his accomplishments, Pearce remains grounded and focused on refining his skills. While he exhibits impressive traits such as quickness off the line and fluid athleticism to bend the edge, he acknowledges areas for improvement. Pearce acknowledges that he remains raw in some aspects, including inconsistent hand use and a lack of violence in his hands. Furthermore, he strives to enhance his take-on skills and pursuit ability to become an even more well-rounded player.

As Pearce continues to garner attention as one of the sport's rising stars, he remains humble and dedicated to his craft. With his determination and talent, Pearce is poised to make a significant impact both in college football and the NFL, solidifying his legacy as a true powerhouse on the gridiron.

Chuck Bednarik Award
© Brianna Paciorka/News Sentinel/USA TODAY NETWORK
Harold Perkins, LB, LSU

In the storied halls of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a rising star has emerged, and his name is Harold Perkins. From his inception as a top-10 recruit, Perkins has captivated audiences with his raw talent and unparalleled athleticism. As a linebacker for the Tigers, his impact reverberates across the gridiron, leaving opponents in awe and fans clamoring for more.

Perkins burst onto the scene in his true freshman season, showcasing his prowess as a relentless pass rusher. With a staggering 91.0 PFF pass-rushing grade, he led all Power Five linebackers, while his 18 quarterback knockdowns solidified his status as a defensive force to be reckoned with. However, it was his sophomore year that truly highlighted his versatility and adaptability.

Tasked with a more off-ball role, Perkins seamlessly transitioned, earning an impressive 81.1 PFF coverage grade—a testament to his ability to excel in any situation. While the Tigers may benefit from unleashing his pass-rushing prowess once again, Perkins has proven that he's capable of thriving in any role thrown his way.

But Perkins is more than just a stat sheet standout—he's a multifaceted player with a bright future ahead. Named First-Team All-SEC in his freshman season, his accolades speak volumes to his impact on the field. Praised for his versatility and skill, Perkins has even been mentioned as a dark horse candidate for the Heisman Trophy award, a testament to his undeniable talent.

Under the guidance of LSU coach Brian Kelly, Perkins' development continues to soar, with aspirations of reclaiming his role at inside linebacker. With impressive statistics to his name, including 72 total tackles and 7.5 sacks in his sophomore season, Perkins' impact on the Tigers is undeniable.

Chuck Bednarik Award
© Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch/USA TODAY NETWORK
Caleb Downs, S, Ohio State

Downs, the standout safety who made waves during his freshman year at Alabama, is now set to make an impact at Ohio State after transferring in January. Downs' remarkable talent and versatility have earned him widespread acclaim, making him one of the most highly anticipated players in college football.

During his freshman campaign for the Crimson Tide, Downs quickly established himself as a force to be reckoned with on the field. His impressive performance earned him recognition as a First-Team PFF All-American, highlighting his exceptional coverage skills and playmaking ability. Despite being just a year removed from his senior prom, Downs displayed maturity beyond his years, showcasing a well-rounded game with no glaring weaknesses.

The decision to transfer to OSU reflects Downs' commitment to furthering his career and maximizing his potential. His arrival has sparked excitement among fans and pundits alike, with many hailing him as one of the best safeties in the nation. In fact, CBS Sports personality Josh Pate lauded Downs as a potential difference maker for the Buckeyes, citing his extraordinary talent and work ethic.

Pate's sentiments are echoed by Downs' impressive statistics from his time at Alabama, where he led the Crimson Tide in tackles, setting a new standard for true freshmen. His impact on the field was undeniable, demonstrating his ability to single-handedly influence the outcome of games.

As Downs embarks on this new chapter in his collegiate career, all eyes will be on him to see if he can live up to the lofty expectations. With his unmatched talent, dedication and determination, Downs is poised to leave an indelible mark on the Buckeyes defense and cement his legacy as a true defensive dynamo in college football.

Chuck Bednarik Award
© Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch/USA TODAY NETWORK
Will Johnson, CB, Michigan

In a remarkable collegiate football career at Michigan, Johnson has consistently demonstrated exceptional skill and performance on the field. Notably, he achieved career highs in tackles and solo tackles with 8 and 7, respectively, during a game against Ohio State in 2022. He also recorded his highest number of interceptions in a single game with 2 against Purdue in 2022. Over his two seasons, he has appeared in 25 games with 16 starts, showcasing his abilities as a key defensive player.

As a sophomore in 2023, he played in 12 games with 11 starts, accumulating 27 tackles, including one for loss, 4 interceptions and 8 pass breakups. His stellar performance earned him multiple accolades, including First-Team All-American honors from Sports Illustrated and consensus First-Team All-Big Ten Conference selection by both coaches and the media. He was also named Defensive MVP in the 2023 National Championship game. Highlights from this season include an interception returned for a touchdown against Minnesota and multiple games with significant defensive contributions.

From his debut as a true freshman in 2022, Johnson's impact was undeniable. Leading all Power Five cornerbacks in man coverage grade, his sophomore season solidified his status as a defensive standout. With a remarkable 29.1 passer rating allowed into his coverage, Johnson's dominance thwarted even the most formidable opponents, securing interceptions and limiting receptions.

Standing tall at 6-foot-2 and 202 pounds, Johnson's physical prowess is matched only by his agility and strategic acumen. Despite his impressive on-field achievements, Johnson remains grounded, fueled by a desire to lead the Wolverines to further triumphs on the gridiron.

Chuck Bednarik Award

In examining the top five players to watch, it is clear that the future of college football defense is in capable hands. From Graham’s dominance at Michigan to Pearce's explosive potential at Tennessee, Perkins’ versatility at LSU, Downs’ transfer impact at Ohio State and Johnson’s consistent excellence at Michigan, these athletes are set to leave indelible marks on the sport. Their individual achievements and relentless pursuit of excellence embody the spirit of the Bednarik Award, ensuring that the legacy of college football’s defensive greats continues to flourish.


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