The 2021 DII football season is upon us. Along with the hunt for the national championship, the quest for the next Harlon Hill Trophy winner begins.
The Harlon Hill Trophy is DII football’s rendition of the Heisman, given annually to the top player since 1986. The award has been offense heavy over the years, with the quarterback in particular dominating the illustrious trophy’s history. Eighteen winners have been quarterbacks, including the last six in a row.
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With that said, here is a look at some strong preseason contenders for the 2021 Harlon Hill Trophy. Keep in mind — the past year has been like no other. Several of DII’s top players — quarterback Rogan Wells and defensive back Christopher Jefferson, for example — used their extra year of eligibility to try the Division I waters. Quite a few teams known for excellent quarterback play — Ferris State, Slippery Rock and Valdosta State come to mind — have new faces under center that could explode in the right system. Some record-setting running backs and wide receivers have switched jerseys since the last time we saw them play.
This is a very preliminary list, but it focuses on the DII players we very much expect to be in the hunt come December.
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Players to watch in 2021 (in no particular order)
6 must-watch quarterbacks
Austin Reed, West Florida — The Argos quarterback threw for 523 yards and six touchdowns… in the national championship game against one of DII football’s best defenses. Reed posted a 149.40 quarterback rating as a freshman in 2019 with 4,084 yards and 40 touchdowns in 15 games. He has plenty of quick and athletic wide receivers to throw to that he should only be better in his sophomore campaign.
Tyson Bagent, Shepherd — Last time we had an official DII football championship season, Bagent was shredding defenses through the air. He led the division in yards per game (362.4) and was second in total passing yards (4,369) to 2019 Harlon Hill Trophy winner, Roland Rivers III. He eclipsed the 400-yard mark three times in 2019 with two of those instances coming against nationally ranked teams. This offense is built for Bagent’s accurate cannon of an arm, and he should be a Harlon Hill nominee once again.
Cade Brister, Lindenwood — Brister had a breakout season in 2019. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the Lions did as well, improving from a four-win team to nine-win team, including a playoff victory over Ouachita Baptist. Brister threw for 3,779 yards in 2019 with 21 touchdowns while breaking six school records along the way. The Lions have a brutal non-conference stretch to begin the season, so we’ll see how the time off affects Brister right out of the gate.
Miklo Smalls, Texas A&M-Commerce —Smalls is an exciting quarterback, able to get it done through the air and on the ground. In his breakout 2019 campaign, he threw for 3,010 yards and 23 touchdowns while rushing for another 488 yards and adding three touchdowns on the ground. The Lions have one of the longest active playoff streaks in the division and this offense is tailored to Smalls to help him continue that postseason run.
John Matocha, Colorado School of Mines — Matocha edges out his teammate, running back Michael Zeman, on our preseason watchlist. The quarterback had a tremendous freshman season and is back to helm one of DII’s most explosive offenses. In 2019, Matocha threw for 2,825 yards and 29 touchdowns to just five interceptions. He also added 598 yards rushing with 11 touchdowns. And just so we understand exactly how athletic he is, he also had a receiving touchdown. That’s 3,441 total yards and 41 touchdowns… as a freshman.
Chance Fuller, Fort Hays State — We’ll know a lot right out of the gate about Fuller as he faces off against Northwest Missouri State in Week 1. He fared well last time out against the Bearcats, throwing for 342 yards and a touchdown in 2019. He also threw two interceptions in that game. Why is that a big deal? Because he only threw six all season. Fuller can chuck it (he threw for 3,344 yards in 2019), he’s accurate (completing passes at a 65 percent rate in 2019) and dependable, throwing 35 touchdowns to just those six interceptions.
6 running backs to keep up with in 2021
Al McKeller, Northwest Missouri State — McKeller is already a two-time Harlon Hill nominee, and he should easily make it No. 3 in 2021. He transferred to the Bearcats from UIndy at the beginning of August and leaves as the GLVC’s all-time leader in rushing yards and touchdowns. He is in an absolute machine and is joining an offense with stability under center and at the wide receiver position. He should be a focal point for the Bearcats offense and a nightmare for opposing offenses.
Michael Roots, CSU Pueblo — Roots was a monster for Central Washington in 2019 when he ran for 1,515 yards and 14 touchdowns. Now he comes to a run-heavy offense that his style of play is an ideal fit. This is one of the more opportunistic defenses in the nation the past few seasons, and strong running back play is vital for long drives to keep the defense rested. Roots should fill that role and is in a system where he can easily replicate his 2019 numbers.
Justin Felder, Stonehill — Felder had a huge breakout in 2019, rushing for 1,513 yards and 16 touchdowns in 10 games, both of which were single-season program records. He was an All-American and the NE10 most valuable player. With Anton Stoneking back at quarterback and Matthew Marvin and Joe Bastante — both of which were all-conference in 2019 — anchoring the offensive line, expect more great things from Felder in 2021.
Jalen Frye, Bemidji State — Want a bold prediction? If Frye can play the full season, he’ll lead DII in rushing in 2021. The Beavers don’t have any problem scoring and putting up yards, and Frye is the focal point of the offense. In just nine games in 2019, Frye rushed for 1,337 yards, and his 148.6 yards per game were good for fifth in DII. He also scored 10 touchdowns, so he clearly has a nose for the end zone.
Cole Chancey, Harding — Running backs simply do not come more consistent than Chancey. Over the past three seasons, Harding’s lead back has averaged 1,228 yards and 14 touchdowns. You know exactly what you are going to get from him in an offense that is built to run, run some more and then run it again. In Chancey’s three seasons, Harding has finished first or second in rushing yards in all DII football. The Bison are wise to follow the adage: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
SLEEPER ALERT! Gei’vonni Washington, Ashland —Washington quietly put up a strong freshman campaign in 2019, rushing for 1,130 yards and nine touchdowns. The reason we’re boosting him up is because of how he ended that 2019 season — with eight-consecutive 100-yard rushing games. Ashland is now in the G-MAC and defenses will not have ever faced Washington. He could be on the verge of a huge season.
Eye-catching receivers to watch
Receivers haven’t had much success in the annals of the Harlon Hill Trophy. Just one, Ronnie West of Pittsburg State way back in 1991, has claimed the honor. This year, there are quite a few transfers that could make a huge impact and find their way onto this list at midseason, but it is too early to tell. That doesn’t mean we don’t have an excellent crop of returners in 2021 that will contend.
David Balint III, Shippensburg — Let's start with some tight end love. Balint had a big 2019 both on the field and physically (he stands at 6'3 and 240 pounds). He's simply a target machine and reeled in 64 catches last season. He could very well finish as the top tight end in DII this season.
L’liott Curry, Henderson State — The GAC has been known for power running games the past few seasons, but don’t tell Curry that. He had 84 receptions for 1,167 yards and 14 touchdowns last time out and can easily replicate that in 2021.
Henry Litwin, Slippery Rock — Litwin reeled in 103 receptions for 1,509 yards and 21 touchdowns in 2019. His biggest obstacle may be his own teammate, Jermaine Wynn Jr., who had 95 grabs and 1,339 yards in 2019.
Dareke Young, Lenoir-Rhyne — There is already NFL draft buzz surrounding Young, who is super athletic and paired with Grayson Willingham for one final run at a title with the Bears.
Standout defensemen that have a chance
Not since North Alabama linebacker Ronald McKinnon has a defender won the Harlon Hill Trophy. McKinnon was the anchor of a defense that led North Alabama to three-straight national championships with the run concluding in his 1995 award-winning campaign. Thus far, he is the first and last defender to win the trophy.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t contenders on the defensive side of the ball. Keep an eye on these defenders who have as good a chance as any to hear their name called.
- Dameyun McDonald, DL, Ouachita Baptist
- Demetri Morsell, DB, Bowie State
- Rondrow Peebles, LB, Carson-Newman
- Dominique Ramsey, DB, Texas A&M-Commerce
- Drew Seers, LB, Lindenwood
- Nazir Streater, DB, Indiana (Pa)
- Shawn Turber-Ortiz, DB, Kutztown
* Note: Chowan's Deshaun Wethington was highly considered for this list. One of the best all-purpose players in DII, Wethington was named to the pre-season All-CIAA team back in July. However, as of this publication, he is no longer listed on the Chowan 2021 roster. Due to the unprecedented number of late transfers, he was left off this list. Should he return, he is one all eyes should be upon.