The Walter Payton Award has been given to the most outstanding offensive player at the FCS level since 1987 and is a crowning achievement for any player at the FCS level. The award is named after Jackson State legend Walter Payton, who was a two-time FCS All-American and is a Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee. Notable past winners include Alcorn State QB Steve McNair, Eastern Illinois QB Tony Romo, Eastern Illinois QB Jimmy Garoppolo, & Eastern Washington WR Cooper Kupp.
Below we breakdown the top candidates for the Walter Payton Award going into the 2022 season.
Xavier Gipson (Stephen F. Austin; WR)
Gipson was named a finalist for the 2021 Walter Payton Award, but ultimately finished tied for 7th with Montana State RB Isaiah Ifanse. The standout wide receiver led the FCS in receiving yards (1,367), ranked 3rd in receiving touchdowns (14), & 7th in receptions per game (6.8) in the 2021 season. Gipson was named a consensus 1st Team FCS All-American last season and is now a conference All-American selection in both the Southland and WAC. Gipson was an intricate piece to Stephen F. Austin’s run to the FCS Playoffs in 2021 and is primed to help the Lumberjacks compete for their 1st FCS National Championship.
Jason Shelley (Missouri State; QB)
Shelley was named a finalist for the 2021 Walter Payton Award and finished tied for 10th with former Northern Iowa OL Trevor Penning. Shelley was named the MVFC Offensive Player of the Year and the MVFC Newcomer of the Year last season. He set the school record for passing yards (3,347) and total offense (3,789); both of which led the Missouri Valley Conference in 2021. The offense returns multiple top contributors from the 2021 season and the Bears added some important pieces this offseason, which should help Shelley take his play to another level.
Xavier Shepherd (Kennesaw State; QB)
Shepherd was named a finalist for the 2021 Walter Payton Award and finished tied for 14th with former Morehead State WR BJ Byrd. Shepherd was named the 2021 Big South Offensive Player of the Year and a 1st Team FCS All-American by both HERO Sports & STATS Perform. He led the FCS in rushing touchdowns (23) and ranked 2nd in points generated per game (11.5) for the 2021 season. Shepherd was a huge piece to the Owls making a run to the 2nd round of the FCS Playoffs and his return has Kennesaw State primed for a potential run to the 2022 FCS National Championship.
Mark Gronowski (South Dakota State; QB)
Some may have forgotten the name, but Gronowski was one of the hottest names in the FCS throughout the 2020-21 spring season for South Dakota State. Gronowski missed the 2021 season due to an injury suffered late in the spring season, but was a huge reason the Jackrabbits were one play away from winning their 1st FCS National Championship. Gronowski was named the MVFC Offensive Player of the Year, MVFC Newcomer of the Year, MVFC Freshman of the Year, & the Phil Steele FCS Freshman of the Year. In only 10 games during the spring season, Gronowski produced over 2,100 yards of total offense and 22 total touchdowns. Gronowski is fully healthy for the Jackrabbits entering the 2022 season and has expectations at an all-time high in Brookings, SD.
Shedeur Sanders (Jackson State; QB)
Sanders was a crucial piece to Jackson State winning their 1st SWAC Championship since 2007 and making their 1st appearance in the Celebration Bowl last season. Sanders claimed the 2021 Jerry Rice Award and was named the SWAC Freshman of the Year, while being selected as a 2nd Team SWAC All-American. Sanders ranked 7th in completion percentage (66%), 8th in passing touchdowns (30), & 11th in passing efficiency (151.7) for the 2021 season. He also led the SWAC in completions (272) and completion percentage in his first season at Jackson State. Sanders has the Tigers primed to repeat as SWAC Champions for the first time since the 1995-1996 seasons.