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McFeely: Time for Valley, FCS to give Youngstown State's McLaughlin some love

Record-setting running back deserves to win some postseason awards after remarkable career

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North Dakota State’s Courtney Eubanks (1) and James Kaczor (26) take down Youngstown State’s Jaleel McLaughlin during their football game on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, at the Fargodome.
Alyssa Goelzer/The Forum
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FARGO — Yearly awards are not supposed to be for lifetime achievements. We're aware. But Jaleel McLaughlin has done enough in 2022 that the Youngstown State running back doesn't need to stand on what he's done over the course of his five-year college career.

But as voters in the Missouri Valley Football Conference and the Football Championship Subdivision submit their award ballots in the coming days, let us offer some unsolicited advice.

Give McLaughlin the love he's earned. For this year and his career. Vote him as the Valley offensive player of the year and give him enough votes to be one of the three finalists for the Walter Payton Award so he can travel to Frisco, Texas, and be honored at the banquet on the Friday night before the championship game.

The 5-foot-9, 185-pound running back from North Carolina is, literally, the player who has rushed for the most yards in the history of the NCAA.

That figure stands now at 8,161 yards.

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Yes, McLaughlin played five seasons thanks (or no thanks) to COVID and the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA because of it. Yes, McLaughlin compiled more than 4,700 of those yards in Division II while playing two seasons for Notre Dame College in North Carolina.

McLaughlin averaged 2,369 yards per season at Notre Dame College.

But 8,000 yards are 8,000 yards, and McLaughlin's excelled with Youngstown State in the FCS's best defensive conference. In three seasons with the Penguins he ran for 3,424 yards in 28 games. That includes the COVID shortened season in which the Penguins played only seven times.

This is all regular season. The Penguins have yet to play a postseason game in McLaughlin's career because, until this season, they haven't been good.

They're better this season, 7-4 and in the mix for a playoff spot, and McLaughlin's led the way. He's rushed for a Valley-high 1,588 yards on 227 carries for a league-best 7.0 yards. Those numbers far outstrip the league's No. 2 rusher Isaiah Davis of South Dakota State, who admittedly has far fewer carries and plays a lesser role in the Jackrabbits' much better and more diversified offense.

NCAA Football: Youngstown State at Kentucky
Youngstown State Penguins running back Jaleel McLaughlin (8) runs the ball during the first quarter against the Kentucky Wildcats last week at Kroger Field.
Jordan Prather/USA TODAY Sports

But still, Davis has 932 rushing yards in 10 games, 656 fewer than McLaughlin.

McLaughlin is averaging 144.36 yards per game, Davis 93.20. Combined with his receiving, McLaughlin leads the Valley in all-purpose yards at 171.64 per game.

He's had four 200-plus ground games, and 150 against North Dakota State in Fargo.

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These are POY numbers. Is Davis the back who has the size, speed and potential to play in the NFL? Yes. Is McLaughlin having a better season? Yes, also.

It's a year in which there is no league quarterback standing above the rest, unlike the last three when North Dakota State's Trey Lance, South Dakota State's Mark Gronowski and Missouri State's Jason Shelley were pretty clearcut players of the year.

Shelley was good again for Missouri State, but the Bears were bad and Shelley couldn't rescue them like in 2021. Gronowski was good, too, and plays for the conference champion, but he wasn't eye-popping.

Northern Iowa's Theo Day posted big numbers and Southern Illinois' Nic Baker was mostly excellent. Both should and will get some votes, but neither carried their teams anywhere.

There are no receivers blowing the lid off the league, SDSU standout tight end Tucker Kraft missed too many games and NDSU All-American fullback/unicorn Hunter Luepke didn't put up the numbers to be considered. Luepke, too, was hurt late in the year.

One could make the case that NDSU left tackle Cody Mauch deserves consideration for the award, just as UNI's Trevor Penning did last season. Mauch was as dominant on the offensive line as anybody in FCS. Just a force for the Bison's world-class running game. But ... he's an offensive lineman.

The panel of coaches, sports information directors and media who determine the all-conference teams and individual awards have a job to do — vote for McLaughlin for POY.

The Payton Award is a bit trickier. The voters are spread across the country and, frankly, aren't going to be wowed by a running back from a 7-4 Youngstown State team who gained 1,588 yards. The Payton usually is a hype, gargantuan-stats award. Quarterbacks who throw for a zillion yards (other than Lance, who I'm convinced only won the Payton because he didn't throw on interception) always have the advantage.

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That means Jackson State's Shadeur Sanders, Incarnate Word's Lindsay Scott and Fordham's Tim DeMorat are likely going to garner the most attention from national voters.

Scott has thrown for 3,791 yards and 50 TDs. DeMorat's thrown for 4,561 yards and 53 touchdowns. Sanders has thrown for 3,083 yards and and 32 TDs, and he plays for media favorite Jackson State and is head coach Deion Sanders' son. That'd be Prime Time. Had a notable NFL career and dabbled in MLB.

All three play on teams with good records — albeit in less-than-powerful conferences — and UIW and Fordham are playoff teams. Jackson State will play in the HBCU national championship game.

That makes it tough for McLaughlin. But if there was ever a time to give a player a bump for lifetime achievement, it'd be now. Even if McLaughlin isn't first on voters' ballots, he could be third. Give him a shot. Allow the NCAA's all-time leading rusher to get some attention in Frisco, to be honored as someone who ran for 8,161 yards (and perhaps more if the Penguins get a playoff game or two).

It's tough, I get it. But McLaughlin should surely be the MVFC offensive player of the year, with a Payton finalist as a possible cherry on top.

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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