It’s only June but as we inch ever closer to the 2022 season, speculation is running rampant on who’ll finish where and what players will walk away with hardware. Last year both the Walter Payton Award and Buck Buchanan Award races were as tight as ever in the FCS and we expect much of the same this time out. In no particular order, these are the players that, at least as of right now, are best poised to claim the accolades.
Walter Payton Award
Given annually to the FCS’ best offensive player.
Xavier Gipson, WR - Stephen F. Austin
Gipson may very well be the best returning offensive player this season. He led the FCS in receiving yardage last year with 1,377 yards on 75 catches and he averaged nearly six snags per contest for SFA in 2021. He has the rare distinction of being an All-American selection in two separate conferences in the Southland and the WAC as the Lumberjacks recently moved leagues. All of Gipson’s efforts last year resulted in him being a finalist for the Walter Payton Award but ultimately he came in 7th overall in the voting. This time around he looks to be the first receiver to get 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 rushing scores also led the nation. Shepherd racks up those crazy numbers because he pilots a lethal triple option attack that averaged over 400 yards per contest last season. He was last year’s Big South Offensive Player of the Year and got KSU tantalizingly close to the quarterfinals before falling in dramatic fashion to ETSU. If those stats are any indication, though, Shepherd is on pace to do even bigger things in his sophomore year.
Shedeur Sanders, QB - Jackson State
Sanders was tremendous for the Tigers as a freshman last year and he was justly rewarded with the Jerry Rice Award (an accolade given annually to the FCS’ best freshman player). He threw for 3,231 yards and 30 touchdowns while leading JSU to their first ever Celebration Bowl appearance. He finished 2021 with a 65.9 completion percentage and had three 300-yard passing games. All those efforts earned Sanders the SWAC Freshman of the Year honors as well. If that’s just the start then it’s scary to think of what he may have in store this season and beyond.
Jason Shelley, QB - Missouri State
Shelley had an outstanding season for the Bears last fall, throwing for well over 3,000 yards and 22 touchdowns. In a Missouri Valley that was loaded with offensive talent last year, Shelley was the one to walk away with 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’s happened for the program since 1989 and 1990. Shelley will be aided greatly by the fact that MSU is returning First-Team All-MVFC receiver Tyrone Scott who led the Bears with over 1,100 receiving yards and 8 receiving touchdowns. With his biggest weapon back also, Shelley seems to be in for a big year.
Isaiah Ifanse, RB - Montana State
It may be more of a long shot simply because a running back hasn’t come away with 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 through a leg injury but gutted it out 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 undoubtedly rely heavily on Ifanse again this time out meaning that the senior could be poised for another career year.
Malik Grant, RB - Sacred Heart
Grant entered 2021 listed as a backup on Sacred Heart’s roster but finished the season as one of the country’s best running backs with over 1,300 yards and nine scores. He led the Pioneers with an average of 112.5 rush yards per game. Grant is a big part of what Sacred Heart wants to do on offense as evident by his 240 carries 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 why he can’t be a finalist for the award by the end of the year.
Honorable Mentions: Mark Gronowski, QB - South Dakota State; Taylor Grimes, WR - Incarnate Word; Hunter Luepke, FB - North Dakota State; Tim DeMorat, QB - Fordham
Buck Buchanan Award
Given annually to the FCS’ best defensive player.
Patrick O’Connell, LB - Montana
The engine that galvanized Montana’s defense in 2021 was without a doubt star Patrick O’Connell. The standout linebacker authored 105 total tackles as a junior last year and led the team in tackles for loss with 21.5. O’Connell also recorded 14 sacks and forced four fumbles. He All of that landed 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 chance to join former teammate Dante Olson as the second ever Griz linebacker to claim the award.
Isaiah Land, LB - Florida A&M
Land is looking to become the first player to win the Buck Buchanan Award in back-to-back years since Appalachian State’s Dexter Coakley did so in 1995 and 1996. It was unclear for a while this offseason if he would return to FAMU but in May Land announced he would withdraw his name from the transfer portal and remain with the Rattlers. For a guy that led the country in solo sacks last year (19), that’s huge news. Land also forced three fumbles last year and had 25.5 tackles for loss. Another season like that and surely it’ll be hard to top him for this honor again.
Justin Ford, CB - Montana
There is no defensive player in the nation more dangerous than Ford. The Grizzlies' speedy, ball-hawking DB snagged an FCS best nine interceptions last year and notched a takeaway in 10 straight games. He found the end zone three times and led Montana’s tenacious defense with 11 defended passes. Ford is a big reason why the Griz are favorites to win the Big Sky this season and picked by many to make another deep run in the playoffs. If he can do anything close to what he did a year ago he may be the first cornerback to get the Buck Buchanan award since Rashean Mathis in 2002.
Stone Snyder, LB - VMI
Snyder finished last season with a whopping 120 total tackles in just 11 games for VMI (that’s an average of over 10 tackles per outing), good for sixth in the nation. He also led the team with three fumble recoveries, four sacks and 11 tackles for loss. To say Snyder is the Keydets’ do-it-all guy is an understatement. He’s the defending back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year in the SoCon and now as a senior he’s looking to put one final stamp on his impressive career in Lexington.
Titus Leo, DE - Wagner
Last season may have been one to forget for the Seahawks but if there was one bright spot it was Leo. Everyone thought for a while, however, that he would be gone this season and make a push for the NFL. Instead Leo opted to come back for one last go at Wagner and that’s big news. He’s a two-time consecutive NEC Defensive Player of the Year recipient and rightfully 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 one pass break up. Leo certainly seems to be on the fast track to once again being a finalist for this award.
Anthony Adams, CB - Portland State
Adams is a dark horse here but he does have what it takes to earn a spot as a finalist come seasons’ end. He’s started all 35 games in his career for the Vikings and has the most career passes defended of any returning FCS player with 40. He also comes into this season with 165 career stops and 13 takeaways. Adams has already been named a top NFL prospect from the FCS for this season as well as earning a spot on Athalon Sports’ Preseason All-American team. In a Big Sky Conference that likes to throw the football, Adams could certainly see the necessary work to be a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award this year.
Honorable Mentions: Devonnsha Maxwell, DL - Chattanooga; Jacob Dobbs, LB - Holy Cross; Zy Alexander, DB - Southeastern Louisiana; Brevin Allen, DE - Campbell