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Wayne Cavadi | | August 27, 2023

22 players that could be the DII football player of the year

Ferris State wins 2022 DII football championship over Colorado School of Mines

The 2023 DII football season is here. Colorado School of Mines’ star quarterback John Matocha is back under center to try and get the Orediggers back to the finals. He is also looking to become the first repeat Harlon Hill Trophy winner since Ferris State’s Jason Vander Laan did it in 2014-15.

He will have some serious competition though. Now, the official Harlon Hill Trophy watchlist comes out right around Thanksgiving and has 48 players on it. While this one isn’t as extensive, consider this your preseason player of the year watchlist.

EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW: Harlon Hill Trophy: An essential guide to the DII football award

10 Harlon Hill Trophy hopefuls for the 2023 DII football season

John Matocha, Colorado School of Mines

This is a no-brainer. Matocha had an absurd 2022 season, putting up 5,221 combined yards with a silly 52:8 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Last year’s top target, wide receiver Max McLeod, is back after an 18-touchdown season, as is the majority of Matocha’s offensive line. He is exactly 40 touchdowns shy of tying Tyson Bagent’s all-time career mark of 159, and having thrown for 38 and 53 touchdowns in each of the past two seasons, we have a real chance of seeing that record fall. Colorado School of Mines' quarterbacks have won two of the past six Harlon Hill awards because the Orediggers have one of the best offenses on an annual basis. Matocha should have an absolute monster season once again.

Brandon Alt, Bemidji State

Alt is another highly-decorated DII football quarterback, having been named a Harlon Hill Trophy finalist list two years in a row. Since becoming the Beavers' starting QB in 2021, Alt has simply thrown for 8,109 yards and 84 touchdowns, which are averages of 4,055 yards and 42 touchdowns over the past two years. Those are some pretty eye-popping numbers, and although he’s minus one of the best wide receivers in DII (Brandon Beaulieu, who caught more than 2800 of those yards and 32 of those touchdowns, graduated), Alt should be just fine.

Jada Byers, Virginia Union

Byers broke out last year to become one of DII football’s most feared running backs. After an impressive freshman debut when he amassed 910 yards and 12 touchdowns, Byers erupted for 1,920 yards on the ground and 21 total touchdowns in 2022. He led DII football in all-purpose yards and like Matocha, has the bulk of his offensive line back to make life a little easier for him. At 5-foot-7 and 180 pounds, Byers is one of the most elusive backs in DII and should tango with the 2,000 mark again this season.

PRESEASON RANKINGS: Check out the DII football Power 10

TJ Davis, Nebraska-Kearney

There isn’t much Davis hasn’t accomplished on a personal level since he stepped on the field in 2019. He was the MIAA freshman of the year that season and since then, Davis has piled up two MIAA player of the year awards, two All-American honors and two Harlon Hill Trophy finalist campaigns (and was also the first DII football player to ever appear on the DII Nation podcast). To see him win the coveted trophy wouldn’t surprise anyone. One of the premier dual-threat quarterbacks — he has 4,791 career passing yards to go along with 3,664 rushing yards — Davis may become more of a passer under new head coach Ryan Held. It could be his biggest season yet.

Devon Garrison, Pittsburg State

You know how many tight ends have won the Harlon Hill Trophy? Zero, zip, zilch. All that is to say: If there’s ever been a tight end ready to win it, meet Devon Garrison. He’s got the size — standing at 6-6 and 228 pounds — and he has the accolades, earning All-American honors last year, and preseason All-American honors this year. The Gorillas are real contenders for the DII football championship this year, and Garrison should build on his huge 2022 breakout when he totaled 614 yards and seven scores.

Braden Gleason, Emporia State

Gleason is a guy who seems on the verge of a monster season. Emporia State is a team that looks like it can do serious damage, and Gleason’s best season yet could be the reason why. He certainly has the arm strength and accuracy, leading the MIAA with 3,404 yards passing in 2022 while completing 68-percent of his passes, a mark topped only by Northwest Missouri State’s Mike Hohensee on more than 200 fewer attempts. Emporia State has the weapons at his disposal and key returners on the line that Gleason should have a monster year.

Marquis Gray, Southeastern Oklahoma State

Gray was another breakout player in 2022, improving from 684 yards and four touchdowns to a 1,463-yard and 17-touchdown campaign. His quarterback from 2022 has graduated, so it will be interesting to see what he can do this year. Still, with his route running and speed, he should be peppered with targets from start to finish and find himself on the Harlon Hill Trophy watchlist.

DII FOOTBALL: Rankings, news, scores, and stats

Jack Mangel, Concord

There has been a lot of change at Concord, including a new head coach and the loss of Mangel's favorite target, All-American wide receiver Jarod Bowie. But if everything else falls back into place, Mangel had a huge 2022 and could be better. Last year, he threw for 3,667 yards (338.5 per game) and 39 touchdown passes. He had three games with five or more touchdown passes, and in two of those games, he didn’t throw an interception. There isn’t much defense in the MEC, so be prepared to see Mangel come out slinging.

Tre Stewart, Limestone

The 2022 breakouts continued with Stewart, who was pivotal in one of the biggest turnarounds in recent memory. Limestone improved from 0-9 to 8-4 with a playoff appearance and Stewart was a large reason why. After rushing for 116 yards as a freshman in 2021, he erupted for 1,517 yards and 15 touchdowns last year and added another 270 yards and three touchdowns in the receiving game. Versatile and athletic, with so much talent returning for Limestone, Stewart is poised for another huge season.

Jordan Terrell, Barton

Terrell had a huge debut season in 2021, rushing for 1,843 years and 15 touchdowns as a freshman. Expectations were through the roof last year, and after opening with a 178-yard performance in Game 1, Barton went quiet (by his standards, at least) with three-straight sub-100-yard games. Of course, he finished the season on a tear, averaging 250.7 yards rushing over his last three games for a total of 1,632 yards and another 15-touchdown season. The SAC is stacked with some tricky defenses, but Terrell proved he can run with the best of them and should be full steam ahead once again in 2023.

5 dark horse defenders

Since the award’s inception in 1986, one defender (North Alabama’s Ronald McKinnon) has won a Harlon Hill Trophy. In fact, last year, Ferris State’s Caleb Murphy was the first defender to even finish as high as runner-up since McKinnon won in 1995. When you consider Murphy set the NCAA single-season sack record last season in his top-two finish, it shows how hard it is for defenders to get recognition. That said, of the five below, at least one, if not more, should find their way onto the initial watchlist later this year.

  • Loobert Denelus, DL, Benedict: The Tigers were the surprising No. 1 seed in Super Region Two last year because of a strong defense. Denelus led the way with 21 tackles for a loss, 14 sacks, and three forced fumbles.
  • Deshawn McCarthy, DL, East Stroudsburg (pictured above): Do not be surprised one bit if you see McCarthy in an NFL camp next summer. He’s an athletic 6-4, 265-pounder that is a sack machine and can be a nuisance in both the passing and rushing game.
  • Abe Swanson, LB, Grand Valley State: The Lakers may have the best defense in the nation this season, and Swanson right smack in the middle is a large reason why. He can get to the quarterback as well as make plays in the second level that are invaluable to the Lakers’ championship aspirations.
  • Clay Schueffner, LB, Winona State: The Warriors’ man in the middle had 122 tackles and three interceptions last year. He’s athletic and smart and though he dominates in pass defense as a linebacker, he should see more chances for a few sacks this season.
  • Trey Vaval, DB, Minnesota State: Vaval gets a nod because of his versatility. Not only does he help the Mavericks secondary, but he should be one of the premier returners in DII football this season for a Mavericks team set to contend for a playoff run once more.

7 question marks to watch

These seven players have the ability and talent to hear their name called on the initial watchlist, but there are some questions to be answered throughout the season.

  • Kendel Givens, Ouachita Baptist (pictured above): Givens was a perfect complement to DII football beast TJ Cole the past two seasons. Now that Cole has graduated, can Givens shoulder the load as lead back?
  • Karst Hunter, Indiana (PA): Hunter had a good start to his career with Colorado Mesa, picking up RMAC freshman of the year honors in his debut. How quickly will he adjust to the PSAC and being a leader for one of the best teams in DII football?
  • Jayden Johannsen, South Dakota Mines: The dual-threat quarterback was third in DII football last year in total offense per game, but with the loss of two 1,000-yard receivers, can he match the numbers from that 2022 breakout season?
  • Jon Lewis, UIndy:  The Greyhounds are known for great running backs, and Lewis is just that, one year removed from leading DIII in yards rushing per game. Will the DIII transfer be a superstar at the next level in his DII debut?
  • Dwayne McGee, Lenoir-Rhyne: Lenoir-Rhyne should take a huge step forward after transitioning in some youth and style last year. Can McGee get back to his monster 2021 freshman season (when he reeled off 1,669 yards and 19 scores) or will he be the more modest version he was last year?
  • Cade Peterson, Grand Valley State: The Lakers could go undefeated and score a lot of points per game, but they share the ball a lot. Will their star QB have the stats to earn a few votes?
  • Gage Porter, Southern Nazarene: Porter is a true dual-threat quarterback and puts up massive numbers, throwing for more than 1700 yards and rushing for over 1200 last year while scoring 40 total touchdowns. There are some new faces on offense; can the Storm win enough ball games to get Porter the recognition he deserves?

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