The Sports Network released their preseason Walter Payton Award watch list last month, featuring twenty of the most outstanding FCS players from a season ago. The list includes nine quarterbacks, six running backs, four wide receivers, a tight end, and two sets of teammates: Vernon Adams Jr and Cooper Kupp from Eastern Washington, and the dynamic quarterback/receiver tandem from Fordham, Michael Nebrich and Sam Ajala. We’re going to talk about both pairs, starting with the Rams, Nebrich and Ajala.
Michael Nebrich, Quarterback
2013: 353/480 (73.5%), 4,380 yards, 35 TDs, 7 INTs, 154 carries, 513 yards, 9 TDs
In 2011, the Rams finished 1-11 and in last place in the Patriot League. They hired a new head coach the following offseason, and the former UConn quarterbacks coach Joe Moorhead turned things around almost immediately in the Bronx. He brought with him a new attitude and a new quarterback, Michael Nebrich, who left UConn the same offseason as Moorhead after he failed to win the Huskies’ starting job as a freshman.
Moorhead started his tenure at Fordham with a bang, matching the Rams’ win-total from the season before in week one with a 55-0 stomping of Lock Haven. Nebrich saw some playing time in that first game, as well as the next two, and looked good as the backup to senior QB Ryan Higgins. But then, in the Rams’ week three game against Cornell, Nebrich twisted his knee and tore his ACL, he would miss the rest of the season.
After a long offseason of rehab, study, workouts, and seven on seven tournaments, Nebrich came back to the team on a mission to show everyone why Moorhead had recruited him to go to UConn in the first place. He didn’t disapoint. His 73.5% completion rate broke the single-season FCS record. His 353 completions, 480 attempts, 4,380 passing yards, and 35 passing touchdowns were all single-season Fordham records. He also set school single-game marks for passing yards (524 vs Holy Cross), all purpose yards (566 vs Holy Cross), and passing touchdowns (5 vs Colgate). In case stats don’t impress you, he was also prone to late-game heroics. Against Temple, he got the ball down six with 4:29 to play, and led the Rams on a 14-play, 71-yard drive culminating in a 29-yard TD pass to Sam Ajala with four seconds on the clock to win 30-29. It was Fordham’s first win ever against an FBS school.
The Rams’ success and failure this season depends on Nebrich’s health. Fordham scored an average of 40.75 points per game when he was on the field last season, but only 17.6 per game when he wasn’t. He led the Rams to a touchdown in the first quarter against Bucknell, but left with an injury shortly after. The team scored 16 points the rest of the way and pulled out the win 23-20. The next week, with Nebrich on the sidelines, the Rams only managed 14 points against Lafayette and suffered their first loss of the season, 27-14. When he came back the following week for the regular season finale against Colgate, Nebrich threw five TDs in the Rams’ 56-19 win.
Although Fordham lost top running back Carlton Koonce this offseason, they retained all three of their top wide receivers. Sam Ajala, Brian Wetzel, and Tebucky Jones each caught 85+ passes for 1,000+ yards last year and have every reason to believe they can do so again. He might not get the same production from the run-game, but Nebrich still has the weapons to dominate. Fordham will go as far as Nebrich and the offense can carry them.
Sam Ajala, Wide Receiver
2013: 93 receptions, 1,646 yards, 14 TDs
Sam Ajala’s 1,646 receiving yards were good for second in the FCS last season, just 45 yards behind fellow Walter Payton Award watch list wide receiver Cooper Kupp of Eastern Washington. Ajala might have overtaken Kupp if he didn’t have to share targets with the two other 1,000+ yard receivers on his team: Tebucky Jones (1,154 yards) and Brian Wetzel (1,088 yards).
The 6-foot, 200-pound burner set the single-season Fordham record for receiving yards last season and tied the touchdown mark with 14 (three way tie with 2003 Javarus Dudley and teammate Brian Wetzel’s 2013 season). He made it a habit of getting behind defenders for huge chunks of yards, and finished the season with an impressive 17.7 yards per reception.
His highlight reel doesn’t have much in the way of acrobatics or hard-fought catches in traffic, but that’s not a knock on him as much as a testament to his speed and route-running ability. He doesn’t make many catches in traffic because he doesn’t have to — he’s the fastest guy on the field and can use his speed to get open.
Although it might not seem that way at first glance, Ajala will benefit from being one of three legit receiving threats on his team. Jones and Wetzel will get some targets that otherwise would have been his, but they’ll deal with defensive coverage that would have been his as well. It’s a trade-off, but one that the Rams (and their quarterback) are happy to make.
Watch for huge numbers from all three Rams receivers during their repeat run to the playoffs this season. The Patriot League just isn’t on their level, so they’ll have to remain focused during the conference season to be ready for their return to December. They might have the Walter Payton Award winner with them when they get there, but which Ram star it might be is anyones guess.
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