July 7, 2014
Walter Payton Award Watch List
CENTER VALLEY, Pa. - After setting Patriot League records as juniors, Fordham quarterback Mike Nebrich and wide receiver Sam Ajala both enter their senior season among the top players in the nation after being named to the Walter Payton Award Watch List by The Sports Network on Monday.
Nebrich finished fifth in the voting last season for the award given to the Most Outstanding Player in the FCS, and is the second-highest returning vote-getter this year. Nebrich is one of six returning finalists from 2013, and one of nine quarterbacks on the list. Ajala is one of four wide receivers to make the 20-player candidate pool.
Both players are being recognized by The Sports Network for the second week in a row, as Ajala was on the first team and Nebrich made the second team on the organization's Preseason FCS All-America squad. Ajala and Nebrich were each second-team All-Americans by The Sports Network following the 2013 season.
Nebrich finished the year with Patriot League single-season records for passing yardage (4,380), passing touchdowns (35), total offense (4,893), touchdowns responsible for (44), completion percentage (73.5) and passing efficiency (171.3), and his 353 completions were just five off the League record. Ajala was his top receiver with 93 catches for a Patriot League single-season record 1,646 yards and 14 touchdowns. He came in fourth in League history in receptions and tied for second in touchdown catches.
Fordham is one of two teams with a pair of representatives on the watch list, joining Eastern Washington with quarterback Vernon Adams and wide receiver Cooper Kupp as candidates.
Adams was the second-place finisher last year, and is the only returnee who placed ahead of Nebrich in the voting. Other candidates who were among the finalists last season were South Dakota State running back Zach Zenner (6th) Southeastern Louisiana quarterback Bryan Bennett (8th), Villanova quarterback John Robertson (9th) and Princeton quarterback Quinn Epperly (10th).
Also nominated to the Watch List were quarterbacks Jacob Huesman of Chattanooga, Jordan Johnson of Montana, Alex Ross of Coastal Carolina and Michael Strauss of Richmond; running backs Rob Hollomon of Central Connecticut State, DaMarcus James of Jacksonville State, David Johnson of Northern Iowa, Shepard Little of Eastern Illinois and Keshaudas Spence of Sacred Heart; wide receivers Kenny Cook of Gardner-Webb and R.J. Harris of New Hampshire; and tight end MyCole Pruitt of Southern Illinois.
All are seniors except Huesman, Robertson and Ross, who are juniors, and Kupp, a sophomore who was named the 2013 Jerry Rice Award winner as the FCS freshman of the year.
The breakdown by position: nine quarterbacks, six running backs, four wide receivers and one tight end.
The Walter Payton Award Watch List can undergo revision during the 2014 season. Ballots will be sent to a national panel of over 150 sports information and media relations directors, broadcasters, writers and other dignitaries following the regular season. The top three vote-getters will be invited to the presentation of the award on Dec. 15 at the national awards banquet.
The Sports Network also presents the Buck Buchanan, Jerry Rice and Eddie Robinson awards. The Buchanan Award honors the outstanding defensive player in the FCS, the Rice Award goes to the FCS freshman of the year and the Robinson Award is bestowed upon the FCS coach of the year.
Patriot Leaguers have won major FCS awards five times. Colgate running backs Kenny Gamble (1987) and Jamaal Branch (2003) claimed Walter Payton Awards, while Holy Cross' Mark Duffner (1987), Lafayette's Bill Russo (1988) and Lehigh's Pete Lembo (2001) are Eddie Robinson Award winners.
The Patriot League and Colonial Athletic Association are the only conferences with top-five finishers for the Walter Payton Award in each of the last three seasons. In addition to Nebrich, Colgate quarterback Gavin McCarney placed fifth in 2012 and Lehigh quarterback Chris Lum was the runner-up in 2011. In addition, Colgate running back Nate Eachus placed sixth in the voting in 2010 and Holy Cross quarterback Dominic Randolph finished fifth in 2009 as the Patriot League has fared well for the past five years.
The full release of the Walter Payton Award Watch List from The Sports Network is available here, with candidate information here