Quarterbacks have come to dominate the Walter Payton Award, the Heisman of FCS college football which Stats Perform annually presents to the national offensive player of the year.
It wasn’t always that way.
Starting with Colgate’s Kenny Gamble racing off with the first Payton in 1987, running backs (nine winners) delivered a stiff-arm to quarterbacks (seven) and wide receivers (one) through 2003 – the first half of the award’s history. Since then, a quarterback has received the Payton in 16 of the last 17 seasons, including Southeastern Louisiana’s Cole Kelley in the unprecedented spring campaign earlier this year. Eastern Washington wide receiver Cooper Kupp was the exception, winning in 2015.
To put it in perspective, when a running back last won the Payton, K.C. Keeler hadn’t even completed the first end of being the only coach to guide two different schools to FCS national championships – Delaware in 2003 and Sam Houston this spring.
OK, that’s true by one day. After a 2,000-yard regular season, Colgate running back Jamaal Branch received the 2003 Payton the night before Keeler’s Delaware squad limited him to 55 yards on 20 carries in a 40-0 blowout of the Raiders in the national championship game.
11 of 14 Conferences Boast Former 1,000-Yard Rusher
Football has become a quarterback’s game over the last two decades, but the running back position will be at the forefront of veteran FCS lineups everywhere this fall.
There are 25 returning players who have produced a combined 27 1,000-yard rushing seasons – at least one school in all but three of the 14 conferences (the MEAC, Ohio Valley and SWAC do not return a former 1,000-yard rusher). In comparison, the FCS returns six quarterbacks who have combined for seven 3,000-yard seasons and 11 wide receivers each with one 1,000-yard season.
Yes, even Walter Payton may have called this the year of the running back in the FCS.
Two of the 1,000-yard seasons belonged to quarterbacks – Montana State’s Troy Andersen, who had 1,412 yards in 2018, but now plays linebacker, and Villanova’s Daniel Smith, who had 1,272 in 2017, while playing at Campbell.
The deep list of running backs includes two two-time 1,000-yard rushers, Weber State’s Josh Davis and South Dakota State’s Pierre Strong Jr. – both in 2018 and ’19. Two spring first-team All-Americans, James Madison’s Percy Agyei-Obese and Sacred Heart’s Julius Chestnut, were 1,000-yard rushers in 2019. There weren’t any 1,000-yard rushers in the 2020-21 season because few schools played enough games to give their players a realistic chance for it.
The Big Sky leads all FCS conferences in returning six different former 1,000-yard rushers (and seven overall seasons because of Davis), although Montana’s Marcus Knight is expected to redshirt due to a knee injury.
FCS Returning 1,000-Yard Rushers
Big Sky: Montana State’s Troy Andersen (1,412 in 2018), Weber State’s Josh Davis (1,362 in 2018 and 1,136 in 2019), UC Davis’ Ulonzo Gilliam Jr. (1,249 in 2019), Sacramento State’s Elijah Dotson (1,154 in 2018), Montana’s Marcus Knight (1,030 in 2019) and Montana State’s Isaiah Ifanse (1,025 in 2018)
Big South: North Carolina A&T’s Jah-Maine Martin (1,446 in 2019) and Monmouth’s Juwon Farri (1,024 in 2018)
CAA: Albany’s Karl Mofor (1,290 in 2019), Villanova’s Daniel Smith (1,272 at Campbell in 2017) and James Madison’s Percy Agyei-Obese (1,216 in 2019)
Ivy: Yale’s Zane Dudek (1,133 in 2017) and Harvard’s Aaron Shampklin (1,053 in 2018)
Missouri Valley: South Dakota State’s Pierre Strong Jr. (1,116 in 2018 and 1,018 in 2019) and Southern Illinois’ Javon Williams Jr. (1,038 in 2019)
Northeast: Sacred Heart’s Julius Chestnut (1,495 in 2019)
Patriot: Fordham’s Zach Davis (1,013 in 2019)
Pioneer: Dayton’s Jake Chisholm (1,129 in 2019), San Diego’s Emilio Martinez (1,033 in 2017) and Stetson’s Jalen Leary (1,013 in 2019)
Southern: Furman’s Devin Wynn (1,182 in 2019), ETSU’s Quay Holmes (1,143 in 2019) and Chattanooga’s Ailym Ford (1,081 in 2019)
Southland: Nicholls’ Julien Gums (1,232 in 2019)
WAC-ASUN: Sam Houston’s Ramon Jefferson (1,037 yards at Maine in 2018)