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Wayne Cavadi | | December 20, 2021

DII football player of the year: Tyson Bagent wins the 2021 Harlon Hill Trophy

Back-to-back last-second TDs have Shepherd, miraculously, in DII football semis

Tyson Bagent, the 2021 DII football passing leader, is the 2021 Harlon Hill Trophy winner. The announcement was made on Friday, Dec. 17. He is the first recipient of the trophy since the 2019 season and the 19th quarterback to win the award. 

The Harlon Hill Trophy is named after the North Alabama superstar that went on to an illustrious NFL career. It has been given to the DII football player of the year annually since 1986, minus the 2020 season that wasn't played due to COVID-19.

You can find everything you need to know and the complete history of the award by clicking or taping here:

HARLON HILL TROPHY: An essential guide to the DII football award

Now that we know the winner, let's take a look at each of the eight finalists for the 2021 Harlon Hill Trophy.

FOLLOW THE 2021 CHAMPIONSHIP: News, updates, score and schedule from championship week

2021 Harlon Hill finalists from Super Region One: Tyson Bagent and Henry Litwin

Tyson Bagent, Shepherd: Bagent had been one of the surest arms in DII football for the past three seasons. As a freshman, he stepped in and set several Mountain East records before the Rams shifted to the PSAC. Since moving to the PSAC, Bagent has thrown for 9,349 yards, finishing second in DII in 2019 and first this past season with 5,000 yards. His 53 touchdown passes also led DII in 2021.

The Rams are 30-8 with Bagent at the helm. He added to his lore this postseason by orchestrating three comebacks in the 2021 DII football championship, throwing last-second, game-winning touchdowns in back-to-back weeks that helped the Rams reach the semifinals for the first time since 2016.

Henry Litwin, Slippery Rock: Talk about a warrior. Litwin had yet another strong season in 2021, posting totals of 1,042 yards and 13 touchdowns. It was revealed at season’s end that he did this all with a broken collarbone. Along the way, he became The Rock’s all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns while being named the only DII football finalist for the William V. Campbell Trophy.

Slippery Rock Athletics Henry Litwin is a Harlon Hill finalist.

For his career, Litwin posted 3,392 receiving yards and 42 touchdowns. His 1,509 yards and 21 touchdowns were second in DII in 2019, when he was Roland Rivers III’s top target en route to a spot in the semifinals for The Rock. Slippery Rock has made the DII football tournament every year that Litwin has been a full-time starter and won four playoff games over that span.

2021 Harlon Hill finalists: Austin Reed and Calil Wilkins

Austin Reed, West Florida: Reed has had quite the career for the Argos. In just two seasons, the quarterback has led them to their first national title in 2019 and followed it up with the Argos’ first-ever Gulf South Conference championship. Along the way, he threw for 7,502 yards, earned the GSC freshman of the year honors and is now a Harlon Hill finalist.

Watch all 6 touchdown passes from West Florida's Austin Reed in DII football championship

This season, Reed averaged 310.73 yards passing per game, nearly a 40-yard improvement from his sensational 2019 debut. He threw for 300 or more yards in six of his 11 games while tossing four touchdowns seven times. He threw just eight interceptions, three of which came in the first-round stunner to Newberry. This is a rather remarkable stat considering Reed threw the ball well more than 30 times a game this season.

Calil Wilkins, Bowie State: Bowie State has had two legitimate rushing threats at quarterback the past few seasons, starting with two-time Harlon Hill-nominee Amir Hall and currently Ja’rome Johnson. Wilkins showed he was more than capable at the bell cow role in 2021 rushing for 1,322 yards — at 5.1 yards per carry, mind you — and nine touchdowns. The senior had a run of six-straight 100-yard performances in 2021, including a 163-yard day in the CIAA championship game.

The Bulldogs were a balanced team in 2021, leading DII in defensive scores as well as having that tough offense. Wilkins was an unquestioned leader in a historic Bowie State season as the Bulldogs ran off a 12-2 record, claiming a third straight CIAA title and the program’s first trips to both the national quarterfinals and semifinals.

2021 Harlon Hill finalists: TJ Davis and Al McKeller

Before we jump into Super Region Three’s Harlon Hill candidates, let’s acknowledge another award winner in the region. Ferris State’s offensive lineman Dylan Pasquali was the recipient of the 2021 Gene Upshaw Award, presented annually to the best lineman, offensive or defensive, in DII football. Pasquali is a multiple-time All-American and anchored the offensive line for one of the best offenses in the nation. He is the second consecutive Bulldog to win the award.

TJ Davis, Nebraska-Kearney: What a special talent. Davis finished the season as one of two quarterbacks at any level to finish the season with 2,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing. He threw for 2,234 yards and rushed for 1,139 with 40 total touchdowns — one of which came as a receiver — as the Lopers made the DII football tournament for the first time since 2011.

Davis has become the face of the “Last Second Lopers” since he stepped on the field in his 2019 freshman debut. He led UNK to an upset of Northwest Missouri State and a bowl appearance as a freshman in 2019. This season, he not only pulled off several last-second victories but led the Lopers on the road to upset Western Colorado in the first round of the DII football playoffs… a game won, of course, in the final seconds.

Al McKeller, Northwest Missouri State: McKeller is no stranger to hearing his name called this time of year. This is the running back’s third nomination for the Harlon Hill Trophy, with the previous two coming at UIndy. There, he rewrote the record books, leaving the GLVC as the conference’s all-time leading rusher and rushing touchdown leader.

He took his talents to Maryville this season and had yet another monster year. He ran for 1,601 yards for the Bearcats, scoring 19 touchdowns on the ground and one more through the air. McKeller went on to earn an invite to the 2021 FCS Bowl where he earned Overall MVP honors. He is one of the most decorated running backs of the 2000s and the Harlon Hill is just about the only individual accolade he is missing.

2021 Harlon Hill finalists: Brandon Alt and Michael Zeman

Brandon Alt, Bemidji State: What a season for Alt and the Beavers. Alt not only led Bemidji State to its first-ever DII football tournament appearance but orchestrated an upset in the first round once there. Alt is the first Bemidji State player to ever be a Harlon Hill Trophy finalist, and his numbers and the Beavers’ historic season are the large reason why.

Bemidji State Athletics Brandon Alt is a Harlon Hill finalist.

Alt threw for 4,245 yards and 46 touchdowns this year as Bemidji State went 10-3. He threw for 300 yards eight times in 13 games with back-to-back six touchdown games on Oct. 23 and 30. One of those games was against regionally ranked Minnesota Duluth. His 46 touchdown passes are the new NSIC standard and he rewrote the single-season program records in his monster campaign. Alt threw for 326 yards and three scores in the Beavers' historic playoff win against NSIC rival Augustana (SD).

Michael Zeman, Colorado School of Mines: It was another strong campaign for the Orediggers’ bulldozing running back. It’s hard to imagine improving on Zeman’s breakout 1,400-yard, 12-touchdown 2019, but that is exactly what the Mines’ star back did in 2021. He rushed for 1,608 yards and 21 touchdowns, both of which were top-5 marks in DII football. He also added five receiving touchdowns to his resume, one of which — a 39-yard catch-and-run screen — was pivotal in securing the Orediggers’ first-ever win in the national quarterfinals.

Zeman and Mines’ quarterback John Matocha were one of the toughest backfield combos in DII, leading the Orediggers to a season of historic proportions. It was the Mines’ first-ever trip to the semifinals, where an inspired 14-0 fourth-quarter comeback fell just short of advancing to the championship game. Zeman ran for 105 yards in that game, his 11th 100-yard performance of the season. Should Zeman win the award, he will be the third Oredigger to do so, joining Chad Friehauf in 2010 and Justin Dvorak in 2016.

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