Right after Montana running back Eli Gillman crossed the goal line following his 85-yard touchdown run at UC Davis two months ago, he immediately raised his right index finger to symbol “No. 1” – not uncommon for any football celebration.

Little did Gillman know, however, it was the longest touchdown run in the Grizzly program’s storied history and a prelude to him being No. 1 in a handful of ways during his standout redshirt freshman season.

Gillman ranked No. 1 in rushing yards and tied for the most touchdowns among Division I FCS freshmen during the regular season, and it’s all led to Stats Perform announcing on Wednesday he is the 2023 recipient of the Jerry Rice Award, which honors the national freshman player of the year and is presented by FedEx Ground.

Like his record-setting touchdown run, Gillman was a runaway winner of the 13th annual award, named after legendary wide receiver Jerry Rice, who starred at Mississippi Valley State as part of his Hall of Fame career. A national, 56-member panel voted on the award, with Gillman’s 203-point total No. 1 among 22 finalists, including Eastern Illinois running back MJ Flowers, the runner-up with 119 points.

“Eli’s a terrific young man who does everything right on and off the field. He’s a pleasure to coach, he’s a great teammate, and he’s an outstanding running back,” Montana coach Bobby Hauck said. “His physical style of running and production have helped us be the number two team in the nation at this point.”

The 6-foot, 206-pound Gillman, from Dassel, Minnesota, earned the Big Sky Conference’s freshman of the year award, carrying the ball 152 times for 857 yards (5.6 yards per carry) and 10 touchdowns while going over the century mark three times in 11 regular-season games. He also caught 11 passes for 103 yards for the Big Sky championship squad.

In Montana’s playoff win against Delaware this past Saturday, he rushed for 42 yards.

The Jerry Rice Award’s rich history of recipients includes Cooper Kupp, Chase Edmonds, Trey Lance and Shedeur Sanders. To be eligible for the award, a player must be considered a freshman athletically by his conference in his first or second academic year.

Gillman will be feted at the Stats Perform FCS National Awards Banquet on Jan. 6 in Frisco, Texas – the eve of the FCS championship game. In addition, the winners of the Walter Payton Award (FCS offensive player of the year), Buck Buchanan Award (FCS defensive player of the year), Eddie Robinson Award (FCS coach of the year) and FedEx Ground Doris Robinson Scholar-Athlete of the Year Award will be honored at the banquet.


2023 Jerry Rice Award Voting Results

Following is a breakdown of the voting results. A first-place vote was worth five points, a second-place vote four points, a third-place vote three points, a fourth-place vote two points and a fifth-place vote one point. The final number is the combined point total.

1. Eli Gillman, RB, Montana: 31-6-6-2-2-203

2. MJ Flowers, RB, Eastern Illinois: 6-11-6-10-7-119

3. Jawarn Howell, RB, South Carolina State: 6-6-2-10-1-81

4. Tye Niekamp, LB, Illinois State: 3-6-8-3-6-75

5. Griffin Woodell, RB, UAlbany: 3-4-8-5-2-67

6. Conner Moore, LT, Montana State: 2-3-6-6-6-58

7. Jaylen King, QB, Gardner-Webb, QB: 2-6-4-3-5-57

8. Carter Glassmyer, LB, Saint Francis: 0-5-4-6-9-53

9. Beau Sparks, WR, Utah Tech: 1-3-4-3-7-42

10. VJ Wilkins, WR, Campbell: 0-3-1-0-1-16

11.(tie) Hunter Green, PK/P, Northern Colorado: 0-0-2-2-4-14

11.(tie) Malachi Hosley, RB, Penn: 0-3-0-1-0-14

13. Jaylon Joseph, DE, Lafayette: 0-0-3-1-2-13

14. Anthony Johnson, WR, Stony Brook: 1-0-1-1-1-11

15.(tie) Dom Nankil, QB, San Diego: 1-0-0-0-1-6

15.(tie) Ty’Jarian Williams, QB, Mississippi Valley State: 0-0-1-1-1-6

17. Owen Zalc, PK, Dartmouth: 0-0-0-1-1-3

18. Brendan Jenkins, WR, Samford: 0-0-0-1-0-2

19.(tie) Gavin Lochow, WR, Dayton: 0-0-0-0-0-0

19.(tie) Rasheed Lovelace, DT, Nicholls: 0-0-0-0-0-0

19.(tie) Aaron Sears, CB, Stephen F. Austin: 0-0-0-0-0-0

19.(tie) Luke Yoder, RB, Lehigh: 0-0-0-0-0-0