Stats Perform announced the finalists for the four national FCS awards: Walter Payton (best offensive player), Buck Buchanan (best defensive player), Jerry Rice (best freshman), and Eddie Robinson (coach of the year).
Voters are asked to choose their top five among the finalists, with No. 1 being their top choice.
Here’s my top five for each award:
RELATED: Sam’s Votes
5. Jakob Herres, VMI, WR
One of the biggest reasons VMI won the SoCon and got its first automatic playoff bid in school history is a guy with the surname Herres. The 6-foot-4 pass target tested the transfer waters last spring when the COVID-19 scourge hit, but after a few weeks, he decided to come back and help the Keydets and his long-time buddies achieve new heights. This guy is a baller, and he proved it this spring.
4. Eric Barriere, Eastern Washington, QB
I’ll never forget standing on the sideline during the FCS national championship game in Jan. 2019 (for the 2018 title game) and Barriere driving to get Eastern Washington within seven points of the North Dakota State Bison — with two minutes remaining. He drove the Eagles 80 yards in four big plays and capped it with a 5-yard TD run himself. This guy is a classic FCS playmaker, and he will always be remembered as such in my book.
3. Liam Welch, Samford, QB
You know, we’re not too far removed from Devlin Hodges having won this award after 2018. Liam is a guy I got to know during recruiting early on, also, and he got a big-time chance this spring and threw for nearly 2,300 yards in just six games, with 12 TDs and 5 rushing TDs. When Samford needed clutch, he provided it.
2. Tyler Hudson, Central Arkansas, WR
Tyler Hudson was only a sophomore this past year. Want me to repeat that? Tyler Hudson was only a sophomore. Central Arkansas was one of the FCS renegades who said in the fall that they’d take on anybody and everybody and they wanted to fill the schedule. Hudson made the best of the opportunity and caught a staggering 50 balls in nine games for 845 yards. Against stiff competition (FBS, NDSU, etc.). His punt return game was also just as stellar. Again, he’s only a sophomore.
1. Cole Kelley, Southeastern Louisiana, QB
The Lions were pretty impressive in the spring, and Kelley was one of the big reasons. He threw for nearly 2,700 yards in just seven games and threw 17 touchdowns and rushed for seven more. Oh, and he caught another two TDs. Again, the Lions were good this spring … and nobody had a bigger stake in that success than Kelley.
5. Colby Campbell, Presbyterian, LB
When it comes to tackling machines, this is your guy. When you post an eye-popping 96 tackles in just seven games? You’re going to turn some heads. The senior also registered seven tackles-for-loss, which is another massive defensive measure of worth.
4. La’akea Kahoohanohano-Davis, Southern Utah, LB
La’akea was a wrecking ball this year, who are we kidding? The junior was good for nine tackles for loss in his team’s six games, but also racked up 9 tackles for loss and made big plays galore.
3. Kordell Jackson, Austin Peay, DB
A true ballhawk (and always has been since arriving as a freshman), Jackson did it again. The senior was disruptive, piling up 9.5 tackles for loss, harassing quarterbacks (five PBUs and four hurries) and in general, he was one of the biggest reasons APSU was tough in the fall and in the spring.
2. Stone Snyder, VMI, LB
Just like with Jake Herres on offense, there was a reason VMI has had its best season since the 1970s (and still going). Snyder was one of those reasons, posting 76 tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks — in just seven games so far. And he’s not done yet. He’s only a sophomore.
1. Jordan Lewis, DE, Southern, DE
What a monster. Lewis piled up 15 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks in only five games for the Southern U. Jaguars. The junior was especially annoying when playing against a good Alabama State team and Deion Sanders’ Jackson State team. Sheesh.
5. Ty French, Gardner Webb, DE
Gardner-Webb is poised to make a splash in the fall and this guy is one of the big reasons it’ll happen. The defensive end was a wrecking ball in just four games, posted 8 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, and 9 hurries. Bottom line? He’s a pain in the rump for FCS quarterbacks. Keep an eye on this guy.
4. Tony Muskett, Monmouth, QB
Coach Cal, or Coach Kevin Callahan as he is known in more formal circles, has to be in love with his freshman signal-caller. With stud junior RB Juwon Farri balancing out the offense, Muskett flourished and for the second straight “full” season, Monmouth pushed past Kennesaw State to nail down the Big South automatic playoff berth. Folks, he threw for 742 yards and 8 TDs in just three games, and he lit up KSU. Oh, and he’s thrown zero interceptions. He’ll have his shot at Sam Houston in the playoffs this weekend. This could be a signature moment not only for Muskett but for the New Jersey-based program.
3. Mark Gronowski, South Dakota State, QB
The Jackrabbits secured the No. 1 playoff seed and they have a true stud under center. This freshman has been a big-time trooper during a gauntlet of a spring schedule, throwing for more than 1,000 yards in just six games and rushing for six touchdowns and nearly another 400 yards for Coach Stig. The Jacks wouldn’t be “here” without this guy.
2. Isaac Dowling, Mercer, LB
Mercer did some special things in the fall and then came back in the spring and did the same. Dowling was one of the biggest reasons. Hey, he posted 90 tackles. Yes, 90 tackles. The Bears were able to cobble together a 10-game schedule when some programs couldn’t put five games together and truly tried. Dowling made the best of it and was a playmaker. And he’s only a freshman?
1. Cameron Ward, UIW, QB
Incarnate Word has made the FCS playoffs recently, and they have a stud quarterback on board to continue the momentum. Ward threw for 2,260 yards in just six games, and 24 touchdowns with only four INTs. Oh, and he rushed for two scores. Brace yourselves, gang. He’s going to be around for years and may challenge FCS records if all goes well for him and UIW.
5. Dean Hood, Murray State
Hood has a solid FCS reputation from his days at Eastern Kentucky. He won two Ohio Valley Conference titles there in 2008 and 2011, with three playoff appearances. Now with Murray State, Hood’s Racers went 5-2 this spring and look like they have a bright future ahead of them. Former Racers coach Mitch Stewart and his staff recruited well at Murray State, and Hood and his staff did a great job on the field this spring. That combination bodes well.
4. Doc Gamble, Arkansas-Pine Bluff
All Arkansas-Pine Bluff has done is win this spring, and now it finds itself in the SWAC Championship game for the first time in nine years. APB has gone 10-5 overall the past two seasons, and Gamble has been a big part of that as an assistant coach and a head coach. This spring the Golden Lions are 4-0 and won the Western Division of the SWAC. People are excited about this program.
3. Connell Maynor, Alabama A&M
Usually in the SWAC, we’re talking about Grambling, Alcorn State, and Southern U. — you name it. This spring? We have new school names. Maynor’s Alabama A&M teams have gone 12-5 against SWAC competition since he took over three years ago. This spring, he had to deal with a bevy of cancellations and still led this program to the SWAC title game on May 1.
2. Scott Abell, Davidson
What more can we say more about Abell and the job he’s done at Davidson since coming over from a successful six-year run at Division III Washington & Lee? There’s a special place in gridiron heaven for coaches who find a way to win big in non-scholarship college football. Abell and his staff have been gangbusters in recruiting.
And it’s no big shock honestly that he and his staff led the Wildcats to the FCS playoffs for the first time in school history, even though the team has been mostly FCS/I-AA for more than 40 years. Kudos to Coach A. Davidson is in the football postseason for the first time since President Nixon lived in the White House.
1. Scott Wachenheim, VMI
Folks, when I was a kid growing up in the South Carolina foothills, there was one Southern Conference guarantee win on Furman’s schedule every year — it was VMI. And usually? It wasn’t even close. The Keydets always fought valiantly but always lacked the talent to push around all of the other SoCon studs. Well, that has changed. We saw it coming a year or two ago when VMI QB Reece Udinski began shredding the competition. And now?
Even with Udinski sadly succumbing to a knee injury before ultimately planning to transfer to Maryland, the Keydets have secured the SoCon’s automatic playoff berth and have made the FCS playoffs for the first time ever. Coach Wach has been building this since coming on board in 2015 — and if he doesn’t win the Eddie Robinson Award this year, there’s something massively flawed about this voting system. That’s my opinion.