football-fcs flag

Stan Becton | | December 18, 2021

FCS football awards: Breaking down the 2021 Walter Payton Award finalists

North Dakota State's football dynasty

The 2021 FCS Award finalists have been named, with 25 players making the final cut for the Walter Payton Award. The Walter Payton Award is given each year to the most outstanding offensive player in FCS football. The award is in its 35th season and the winner will be announced ahead of the FCS Championship game on January 7 in Frisco, Texas.

Before the announcement of the winner of the 2021 Walter Payton Award, take a look at 10 notable finalists and their case for hoisting the trophy.

MORE: Jerry Rice Award watchlist Buck Buchanan Award watchlist

2021 Walter Payton Award Finalists

Update: On Dec. 7, Cole Kelley, Eric Barriere and Quay Holmes were invited to the Jan. 7 announcement of the Walter Payton Award as the top three vote-getters.

Cole Kelley | QB | Southeastern Louisiana

In 2021, Cole Kelley has a chance to become the first back-to-back Walter Payton Award winner since 2017 and just the third player to win the award in consecutive seasons. As the 2020-21 winner of the Walter Payton Award, Kelley led the FCS in passing yards, completions, total offensive yards and total touchdowns. In his follow-up season, he again leads the FCS in passing yards, total offensive yards and total touchdowns, adding to the list the FCS passing efficiency crown. With Kelley at the helm, Southeastern Louisiana has the nation's top-scoring offense and the Lions secured an at-large FCS playoff bid.

Statistics: 339 of 457 (74.2 percent), 4,382 pass yards, 38 pass TDs, 6 INTs, 442 rush yards, 16 rush TDs
Best game: 55-52 loss to UIW | 50 of 68 (73.5 percent), 647 pass yards, 3 pass TDs, 50 rush yards, 3 rush TDs

AWARD HISTORY: Complete history of the Walter Payton Award

Eric Barriere | QB | Eastern Washington

Eastern Washington quarterback Eric Barriere repeats as a Walter Payton Award finalist after falling six votes short of winning the award last spring. This year, Barriere finished the regular season leading the FCS in passing touchdowns, becoming a unanimous selection for Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year in back-to-back seasons. Barriere led Eastern Washington to its 15th playoff appearance with a 9-2 record. As the starting quarterback of one of the country's best offenses, he has a strong case to be this year's Walter Payton Award winner.

Statistics: 294 of 438 (67.1 percent), 4,257 pass yards, 40 pass TDs, 6 INTs, 224 rush yards, 3 rush TDs
Best game: 71-21 win over Idaho | 26 of 35 (74.3 percent), 600 pass yards, 7 pass TDs; 1 rush TD

Eastern Washington Athletics Eric Barriere

Quay Holmes | RB | ETSU

Quay Holmes leads the FCS in rushing yards, averaging more than six yards per carry. This season, Holmes became ETSU's all-time leading rusher and single-season leading rusher and has the Buccaneers as the seven seed in the FCS playoffs. In true bell-cow fashion, Holmes has been pivotal to the SoCon champion's success.

Statistics: 238 carries, 1,431 rush yards, 16 rush TDs, 20 receptions, 204 rec yards, 1 rec TD
Best Game: 56-35 win over Western Carolina | 30 carries, 212 rush yards, 3 rush TDs

Cameron Ward | QB | UIW

Cameron Ward proved last year's Jerry Rice Award-winning season for top freshman was no fluke, tossing for 38 touchdowns and over 3,800 yards this fall. Ward commanded a UIW offense that averaged 39.6 points per game, good for fourth-best in the nation. Moreover, Ward helped the Cardinals win the Southland title outright for the first time in program history. His performance against conference rival Southeastern Louisiana was one for the ages, setting a school record for single-game passing yards and touchdowns.

Statistics: 306 of 475 (64.4 percent), 3,839 pass yards, 38 pass TDs, 10 INTs
Best Game: 55-52 win over Southeastern Louisiana | 34 of 52 (65.4 percent), 610 pass yards, 7 pass TDs

STAR QBS: These are the top-5 QBs to watch entering the FCS playoffs

Aqeel Glass | QB | Alabama A&M

Aqeel Glass owns almost every passing record in Alabama A&M's storied history and turned in another remarkable season this fall. The reigning Deacon Jones Award winner threw 36 touchdowns to just seven interceptions, setting new individual records along the way. While Glass' midseason struggles prevented Alabama A&M from repeating as SWAC champions, he finished the season on a high note, passing for 450-plus yards and five or more touchdowns in his final two games.

Statistics: 259 of 414 (62.6 percent), 3,568 pass yards, 36 pass TDs, 7 INTs, 1 rush TD
Best Game: 52-24 win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff | 26 of 33 (78.7 percent), 450 pass yards, 6 pass TDs

HBCU: Keep up with scores and updates from the HBCU football season

Xavier Shepherd | QB | Kennesaw State

Xavier Shepherd is one of the more unique players named a finalist for the Walter Payton Award, playing quarterback in a triple-option offense. Shepherd has run for an FCS-leading 19 touchdowns, but has also thrown 14 passing touchdowns. As an old-school dual-threat quarterback that finds success from designed runs, Shepherd led Kennesaw State to an undefeated season against FCS opponents and a Big South title.

Statistics: 69 of 113 (61.1 percent), 1,181 pass yards, 14 pass TDs, 3 INTs, 836 rush yards, 19 rush TDs 
Best Game: 49-17 win over Monmouth | 52 pass yards, 29 carries, 118 rush yards, 4 rush TDs

Pierre Strong Jr. | RB | South Dakota State

South Dakota State running back Pierre Strong Jr. has had a great career, but this season might be his best yet. Strong has rushed for a career-high in touchdowns and yards, picking up the third 1000-yard season of his career. Strong's standout performance of the season came in a dominating victory over rival North Dakota State and the top defense in the FCS to win the Dakota Marker trophy. Strong could add another trophy to his collection if he can win the Walter Payton Award.

Statistics: 190 carries, 1,317 rush yards, 15 rush TDs, 20 receptions, 133 rec yards, 3 pass TDs
Best Game: 27-19 win over North Dakota State | 23 carries, 156 rush yards, 2 rush TDs, 1 pass TD

South Dakota State Athletics Pierre Strong Jr.

2021 DAKOTA MARKER: How South Dakota State beat North Dakota State

BJ Byrd | WR | Morehead State

Morehead State wide receiver BJ Byrd can stake his claim as the best wide receiver in the FCS, leading the division in receiving yards and receptions after the regular season. Byrd has eight games with 100-plus yards, including a 223-yard performance against Stetson. In that game, Byrd scored the game-winning touchdown with 20 seconds left, a season-defining play.

Statistics: 90 receptions, 1,313 rec yards, 13 rec TDs 
Best Game: 36-35 win over Stetson | 12 receptions, 223 rec yards, 4 rec TDs

Xavier Gipson | WR | Stephen F. Austin

Xavier Gipson is a dynamic wideout that has Stephen F. Austin in the playoffs for the first time since 2014. His 14 receiving touchdowns lead the country as it's never a dull moment with Gipson on the outside. Gipson also changes games on special teams, taking a punt return to the house earlier this season.

Statistics: 68 receptions, 1,266 rec yards, 14 rec TDs, 1 punt return TD 
Best Game: 58-13 win over Mississippi Valley State | 3 receptions, 131 rec yards, 2 rec TDs, 1 punt return TD

SFA Athletics Xavier Gipson

PREDICTIONS: Predictions, picks for every FCS playoff game and round

Trevor Penning | OT | Northern Iowa

There aren't any statistics to demonstrate the dominance of Northern Iowa offensive tackle Trevor Penning, but ask around the Missouri Valley and you'll quickly find he's one of the best players in the FCS. Illinois State head coach Brock Spack described Penning as "as good of a player as I've seen in this league. He's an absolute finisher." Spack is one of many opposing coaches and players that have had difficulties getting by the 6-7 lineman. Penning's dominance is why he's arguably the top FCS prospect in the 2022 NFL Draft, with a chance to go in the first round.

Here are the other players to make the Walter Payton Award finalist list

  • Cole Johnson | QB | James Madison
  • Juwan Carter | QB | Norfolk State
  • Eric Schmid | QB | Sam Houston
  • Liam Welch | QB | Samford
  • Jason Shelley | QB | Missouri State
  • E.J. Perry | QB | Brown
  • Keon Howard | QB | UT Martin
  • Davis Cheek | QB | Elon
  • Tim DeMorat | QB | Fordham
  • Geno Hess | RB | Southeast Missouri
  • Malik Grant | RB | Sacred Heart
  • Jake Chisholm | RB | Dayton
  • Isaiah Ifanse | RB | Montana State
  • Dai'Jean Dixon | WR | Nicholls
  • Tyler Hudson | WR | Central Arkansas

FCS game of the week: No. 7 Weber State hosts No. 21 Eastern Washington in Big Sky clash

Weber State puts its undefeated record on the line against Eastern Washington in a ranked FCS matchup.

Shedeur Sanders leads the FCS quarterback power rankings after Week 1

Shedeur Sanders checks in at No. 1 in the FCS quarterback power rankings after he showed great accuracy and efficiency in Jackson State's victory against Florida A&M.

Jerry Rice vs. Cooper Kupp: Comparing the college careers of FCS legends

Legendary FCS athletes. Both all-time greats. But who’s the better FCS legend between Jerry Rice and Cooper Kupp? It's time to compare.

Subscribe To Email Updates

Enter your information to receive emails about offers, promotions from and our partners