The regular season is complete, with the first round of the FCS playoffs already in the books.
A handful of players have shined for their teams throughout 2019, but only a select few will be honored at next month’s STATS FCS Awards Banquet in Frisco. Here’s a look at The Item’s picks for the Walter Payton (offensive player of the year), Buck Buchanan (defensive player of the year), Jerry Rice (freshman of the year) and Eddie Robinson (coach of the year) awards:
WALTER PAYTON AWARD
Kevin Thomson, QB, Sacramento State
Sacramento State’s Big Sky title run might be the biggest surprise in the FCS this season, and no player has been more instrumental in this success than junior quarterback Kevin Thomson.
After putting up respectable numbers during his first two years with the Hornets (passing for 3,208 yards and 25 touchdowns), Thomson burst onto the national scene with a prolific 2019 season. Thomson was named the Big Sky Offensive Player of the Year after passing for 2,910 yards and 25 touchdowns with eight interceptions and a 61.5% completion rate, while also adding 532 yards and 10 scores on the ground.
Boosting Thomson’s résumé over honorable mentions such as North Dakota State QB Trey Lance and Illinois State RB James Robinson is the signal-caller’s performance in his team’s three biggest games. During a three-week stretch that included wins over No. 22 Eastern Washington, No. 6 Montana State and No. 5 Montana, Thomson compiled 1,104 total yards and 16 touchdowns while throwing only two interceptions.
BUCK BUCHANAN AWARD
Sully Laiche, DL, Nicholls
Without the one-man wrecking crew of Sully Laiche on the defensive line, Nicholls might be watching the playoffs at home instead of preparing to face defending national champion North Dakota State in the second round.
Laiche beat out teammate and reigning winner Chase Fourcade for Southland Conference Player of the Year, becoming the first defensive player to receive the honor since McNeese's Bryan Smith in 2007. Despite missing the first two games, Laiche racked up 10 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss during the regular season. The FCS’ active career sacks leader also forced three fumbles, ranking sixth in the country.
This was by far our toughest selection, as Montana linebacker Dante Olson — who was the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year and ranks second in all of Division I with 151 tackles — is an equally worthy candidate.
JERRY RICE AWARD
Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State
It’s difficult to argue anyone other than Trey Lance as the nation’s top freshman, despite prolific performances from players such as Albany quarterback Jeff Undercuffler and UC Davis linebacker Nick Eaton.
Lance quickly dispelled any notion of a down year for defending national champ NDSU, and the freshman QB went on to earn Missouri Valley Conference Freshman, Newcomer and Offensive Player of the Year honors. Lance, who became the first freshman to win the league's top offensive award, is the FCS leader in passing efficiency (187.5) and yards per passing attempt (9.99), and ranks second in completion percentage (.689). He's thrown 220 passes with 23 touchdowns and zero interceptions, while accumulating 2,187 yards through the air.
The Bison are 12-0 and the No. 1 seed in the FCS playoffs entering this week’s showdown with Nicholls.
EDDIE ROBINSON AWARD
Troy Taylor, Sacramento State
Following a seven-win turnaround that has transformed Sacramento State from a Big Sky afterthought into a national title contender, Troy Taylor made it an easy choice for the FCS’ top coaching honor.
The first-year head coach inherited a Hornet team that went 2-8 with one Division I win last season. 2019 has been a much different story, with Taylor leading Sacramento State to a 9-3 record, a No. 4 seed and the school’s first Big Sky championship and FCS playoff appearance.
Three consecutive Top 25 wins — including two over national seeds Montana and Montana State — by a combined 61 points proved the Hornets belong among the best in the country, with their only FCS loss coming against No. 3 Weber State.