Former North Dakota State coach Chris Klieman made no bones about promoting his quarterback, Easton Stick, for the most prestigious award in the Football Championship Subdivision last season. Klieman called the senior, at first, "the best player in FCS." As the year wore on, the coach modified it to the "best player in college football."
Klieman must've figured a little hyperbole couldn't hurt.
It made little difference when the votes were tallied for the Walter Payton Award. Stick, the quarterback with the most wins in FCS history and an eventual fifth-round NFL draft choice, was one of three finalists invited to the Payton announcement in Frisco, Texas, but the award went to Samford quarterback Devlin Hodges.
New Bison head coach Matt Entz will not boost his guys the same as his predecessor, it appears.
When I asked Entz at his Monday press conference whether redshirt freshman quarterback Trey Lance should be in the discussion for this year's Payton Award, given to the best offensive player in FCS, the coach shut me down quicker than it takes Jalen Bussey to sprint 40 yards.
"I think he needs to be worried about winning the football game this week," Entz said. "And I'm going to worry about that."
Lance will have to do the talking and promoting with his play in the final two games of the regular season. Given the way he's performed through the first 10 games, that shouldn't be a problem.
In leading the No. 1-ranked Bison to a 10-0 start going into this Saturday's game against South Dakota at the Fargodome, Lance is putting together a season to rival the best years of former NDSU Division I quarterbacks Stick, Carson Wentz, Brock Jensen and Steve Walker.
Lance is 126 of 181 passing for a nation-leading completion percentage of 69.6 percent. He's thrown zero interceptions and 21 touchdowns. Lance has been sacked only seven times for a total of 20 yards, a credit to NDSU's offensive line for sure, but also indicative of the quarterback's elusiveness and strength. Did you see the play at Youngstown State when he avoided a sure sack by shedding a defensive lineman to throw an easy TD pass? In my mind, it's his signature play of the season.
Trey. Phoenix. Touchdown.— NDSU Football (@NDSUfootball) October 12, 2019
Bison up 8-0. pic.twitter.com/BtjdIDq2Fz
Lance has 1,792 passing yards. He's also rushed for 637 yards and nine touchdowns, meaning he's accounted for 2,429 total yards and 30 TDs through 10 games.
He is, as a first-year player, the best offensive player on the best team in the country. He is a main reason why the Bison, expected to be more vulnerable this year with the loss of Stick and two dozen other seniors, haven't missed a beat.
That most likely will win him the Jerry Rice Award as the best freshman in FCS, as voted on by a panel of 160 sports information and media relations directors, broadcasters, writers and other dignitaries. It's the same group that votes on the STATS FCS Top 25 poll each week.
Those same folks vote on the Payton Award.
They should strongly consider Lance for that honor, too.
It's a heavy lift, considering no freshman has ever won the Payton and the passing and total yards numbers aren't staggering like they are with other quarterbacks. It's entirely possible voters will look strictly at statistics and believe Lance, like they believed with Stick before him, is a simply product of NDSU's dominance, that he's a game manager. It's not true — the Bison's offense is as explosive as anybody's — but that's how voters might view it.
Or the voters might look at Lance's youth and say, "Wait your turn. You can win the Rice, but the Payton will have to wait."
If there was ever a year when a freshman should have a shot at the Payton Award, this is it. If you combine Lance's exceptional season with the rare lack of a clear front-runner, there's no reason the NDSU quarterback shouldn't get a serious look.
In recent years, quarterbacks like Hodges and Jeremiah Briscoe of Sam Houston State and receiver Cooper Kupp of Eastern Washington were deemed before the season as players to oust in the race for the Payton. They won the award after big-statistic seasons. This year is different. There was no anointed Payton leader to start the season, meaning the award is as wide open as it's been this decade.
Sacramento State quarterback Kevin Thomson and Montana quarterback Dalton Sneed were both in the thick of the Payton race, but both have had their seasons sidetracked by injuries. Eastern Washington quarterback Eric Barriere will approach 4,000 passing yards in the regular season, but the Eagles have had a disappointing year and won't make the playoffs. UC Davis quarterback Jake Maier, too, can sling it, but the Aggies haven't lived up to expectations.
Ben DiNucci, the senior quarterback on second-ranked James Madison, is improved and having an excellent year, but hasn't generated much buzz as a top QB. Maybe he deserves a closer look, but like NDSU the Dukes are well-balanced without shocking statistics.
Or maybe it's the year when a running back wins the Payton, something that hasn't happened since 2003. But who would it be? James Robinson of Illinois State? Pierre Strong Jr. of South Dakota State? Pete Guerriero of Monmouth, who is the fourth-leading rusher in FCS? All are horses critical to their team's success and all have good stats, but nothing earth-shaking.
It's a weird year. A freshman might be the best all-around quarterback in the nation, worthy of consideration for the FCS's top award. It's unlikely to happen, considering the all-time great Stick didn't win it. It might even be unlikely voters will seriously consider Lance for the Payton when they submit their ballots Thanksgiving weekend. That'd be a shame, because the youngster deserves at least that.