It’s only June, but as we get closer to the 2022 season, speculation is rife about who will finish where and which players will walk away with gear. Last year the Walter Payton Prize and Buck Buchanan Prize races were as close as ever in the FCS and we expect the same this time around. In no particular order, these are the players who, at least for now, are in the best position to claim the accolades.
Walter Payton Award
Awarded annually to the best offensive player in the FCS.
Xavier Gipson, WR – Stephen F. Austin
Gipson could very well be the best offensive player returning this season. He led the FCS in receiving yardage last year with 1,377 yards on 75 catches and he’s averaging nearly six snags per contest for the SFA in 2021. He has the rare distinction of being an All-In selection. -American in two separate conferences in Southland and WAC. as the Lumberjacks recently moved leagues. All of Gipson’s hard work last year led to him being a finalist for the Walter Payton Award, but he ultimately came in 7th overall in the voting. This time around, he appears to be the first receiver to receive the accolade since Cooper Kupp in 2015.
Xavier Shepherd, QB – Kennesaw State
There’s no signal caller in the country quite like KSU’s Xavier Shepherd. Last year, he led the Owls in a variety of stats, including rushing yards (867), rushing touchdowns (23), passing yards (1,341) and passing touchdowns ( 15). His 23 scores on the ground also led the nation. Shepherd racks up those crazy numbers because he pilots a deadly triple-option offense that averaged over 400 yards per contest last season. He was last year’s Great Offensive Player of the Year and brought KSU closer to the quarter-finals before falling in dramatic fashion to ETSU. If those stats are any indication, however, Shepherd is set to do even bigger things in his sophomore year.
Shedeur Sanders, QB – Jackson State
Sanders was terrific for the Tigers as a rookie last year and he was rightly honored with the Jerry Rice Award (an honor given annually to the FCS’s best freshman). He threw for 3,231 yards and 30 touchdowns while leading JSU to its first-ever Celebration Bowl appearance. He finished 2021 with a 65.9 completion percentage and had three 300-yard passing games. All of these efforts also earned Sanders SWAC Freshman of the Year honors. If this is just the start, it’s scary to think what he may have in store this season and beyond.
Jason Shelley, QB – Missouri State
Shelley had a stellar season for the Bears last fall, throwing for over 3,000 yards and 22 touchdowns. In a Missouri valley teeming with offensive talent last year, Shelley was the one to take home the conference’s Offensive Player of the Year award as well as the Newcomer of the Year award. He led Missouri State to a second straight trip to the playoffs, the first time that had happened for the program since 1989 and 1990. Shelley will be greatly helped by MSU returning the first-team All-Star receiver. MVFC Tyrone Scott who led the Bears with over 1,100 receiving yards and 8 receiving touchdowns. With his biggest weapon back as well, Shelley looks like he’s in for a big year.
Isaiah Ifanse, RB – State of Montana
It might be longer, simply because a running back hasn’t won the award since 2003, but Ifanse could be the guy to do it if he can stay healthy. Last season, the Bobcats’ star running back battled a leg injury but gutted it to play in some of MSU’s playoff games and the national championship. Ifanse finished only behind Pierre Strong Jr. in total yards last year with 1,623. His 3,461 career rushing yards are the most of any returning FCS player. Montana State will no doubt rely heavily on Ifanse this time around, which means the senior could be set for another career year.
Malik Grant, RB – Sacred Heart
Grant entered 2021 on Sacred Heart’s backup roster but finished the season as one of the top running backs in the nation with over 1,300 yards and nine scores. He led the Pioneers with an average of 112.5 rushing yards per game. Grant is a big part of what Sacred Heart wants to do on offense, as evidenced by his 240 runs last year. He could play an even bigger role in 2022 and, if he’s able to put up the same kind of numbers, there’s no reason he can’t be a finalist for the award by the end of the year.
Honorable mentions: Mark Gronowski, QB – State of South Dakota; Taylor Grimes, WR – Word Embodied; Hunter Luepke, FB – State of North Dakota; Tim DeMorat, QB – Fordham
Buck Buchanan Award
Awarded annually to the best defensive player in the FCS.
Patrick O’Connell, LB – Montana
The engine that galvanized Montana’s defense in 2021 was undoubtedly star Patrick O’Connell. The standout linebacker made 105 total tackles as a junior last year and led the team in tackles to loss with 21.5. O’Connell also recorded 14 sacks and forced four fumbles. It all earned him a finalist spot for the award last fall, but he finished third in the voting when all was said and done. This year, he again has a good shot at joining former teammate Dante Olson as Griz’s second linebacker to win the award.
Isaiah Land, LB – Florida A&M
Land is looking to become the first player to win the Buck Buchanan Award two years in a row since Appalachia State’s Dexter Coakley did it in 1995 and 1996. It was unclear for some time this offseason if he would return to FAMU but in May Land announced that he would remove his name from the transfer portal and remain with the Rattlers. For a guy who led the country in solo sacks last year (19), this is huge news. Land also forced three fumbles last year and had 25.5 tackles for loss. Another season like this and it will surely be hard to beat him for that honor again.
Justin Ford, BC – Montana
There is no defensive player in the country more dangerous than Ford. The Grizzlies’ fast, peddling DB notched the FCS’s nine best interceptions last year and has had a takeaway in 10 straight games. He found the end zone three times and led Montana’s tenacious defense with 11 passes defended. Ford is a big reason the Griz are favorites to win the Big Sky this season and chosen by many to make another deep run in the playoffs. If he can do something close to what he did a year ago, he could be the first cornerback to receive the Buck Buchanan Award since Rashean Mathis in 2002.
Stone Snyder, LB – VMI
Snyder finished last season with 120 total tackles in just 11 games for VMI (that’s an average of over 10 tackles per outing), good for sixth place in the nation. He also led the team with three fumble recoveries, four sacks and 11 tackles for loss. To say that Snyder is the Keydets’ handyman is an understatement. He’s the reigning SoCon Defensive Player of the Year and now, as a senior, he’s looking to mark his impressive Lexington career one last time.
Titus Leo, DE – Wagner
Last season may have been a season to forget for the Seahawks, but if there was one bright spot, it was Leo. However, everyone thought for a while that he would be gone this season and making an effort for the NFL. Instead, Leo opted to return to Wagner for one last time and that’s big news. He is the recipient of the NEC Defensive Player of the Year twice in a row and deservedly so. Leo led Wagner with 71 tackles in 2021 as well as 18.5 tackles for loss. He sacked opposing QBs seven times and even recorded a pass breakup. Leo certainly seems to be on the fast track to being a finalist for this award again.
Anthony Adams, BC – Portland State
Adams is a dark horse here, but he has what it takes to earn a spot as a finalist at the end of the seasons. He has started all 35 games of his career with the Vikings and has the most career assists defended of any returning FCS player with 40. He also enters this season with 165 career saves and 13 takeaways. Adams has already been named one of the NFL’s top prospects by the FCS for this season and has also earned a spot on Athalon Sports’ All-American preseason team. In a Big Sky conference that loves throwing football, Adams could definitely see the work needed to be a Buck Buchanan Award finalist this year.
Honorable mentions: Devonnsha Maxwell, DL – Chattanooga; Jacob Dobbs, LB – Holy Cross; Zy Alexander, DB – Southeast Louisiana; Brevin Allen, DE-Campbell