Plenty of talent to choose from for FCS Freshman of the Year
(STATS) - There has been no shortage of freshman standouts in the FCS this season, but some of their performances have been downright surprising given their first-year status.
Who expected Northern Arizona's Case Cookus to lead the nation in touchdown passes in the regular season? Or North Dakota's John Santiago to burst onto the scene as one of the country's top running backs?
How about a freshman quarterback who entered camp listed third on the depth chart leading his school to its first playoff appearance?
All 20 candidates for the STATS FCS Freshman of the Year award have had quite an impact for their respective teams, but only one can take home the honor. A national panel of sports information and media relations directors, broadcasters, writers and other dignitaries will cast their ballots based on the regular season. The winner will be honored at the STATS FCS Awards Banquet and Presentation on the eve of the Jan. 9 FCS championship game in Frisco, Texas.
Here are the candidates, listed alphabetically by last name:
Ian Berryman, P - Western Carolina=
Berryman wasn't just one of the best freshman punters, he was one of the best overall in FCS. He ranked second in the Southern Conference and ninth nationally with an average of 43.7 yards on 58 punts for the Catamounts, his farthest traveling 65 yards. He also forced 11 fair catches and placed 20 inside the opponents' 20-yard line.
Dominick Bragalone, RB - Lehigh=
Bragalone become the first freshman in Lehigh history to rush for 1,000 yards, finishing with 1,008 for the Mountain Hawks (6-5), which ranks 20th among FCS running backs. Bragalone ran for seven touchdowns and had the second-most yards among freshmen behind North Dakota's John Santiago (1,459). Bragalone's 5.6 yards per carry ranks 11th among freshmen, and he added 14 catches for 254 yards and a touchdown. He gained four Patriot League rookie of the week awards.
Solomon Brown, LB - Charleston Southern=
Brown's solid freshman season helped the Big South champion Buccaneers rank second in the FCS in total defense on their way to earning the No. 8 seed in the playoffs. Brown finished with 49 tackles (26 solo), with 10 of them going for a loss. He broke up a pass, forced one fumble, recovered another and had five sacks. He also intercepted a pass and returned it 28 yards for a touchdown against Gardner-Webb.
Kyle Buss, WR - Robert Morris=
Buss' 50 catches and 742 yards were freshman school records and led Robert Morris by wide margins while ranking third among FCS freshmen, helping the Colonials to a three-game improvement from 2014 with a 4-7 mark. He had three 100-yard games, including a 160-yard effort against Central Connecticut on Oct. 31. Buss had the fourth-most catches in the Northeast Conference and finished fifth in yards.
Jabari Butler, CB - Abilene Christian=
Butler's six interceptions topped the Southland Conference and ranked second among FCS freshmen while tying for fifth-most in the country. His 114 returns yards from INTs also led the conference and all FCS freshmen while ranking 10th in the nation. Butler, who picked off two passes twice, added 40 tackles - 33 solo - with nine pass breakups and a fumble recovery for the Wildcats (3-8).
Taryn Christion, QB - South Dakota State=
The dual-threat Christion saw action in seven games during the Jackrabbits' 8-3 season, helping them earn a playoff berth while splitting time with pocket passer Zach Lujan. Christion completed 60.2 percent of his throws for 1,056 yards and six touchdowns with a rating of 147.0. He also rushed 70 times for 293 yards and four more touchdowns, accounting for an average of 192.7 total yards per game.
Case Cookus, QB - Northern Arizona=
Few FCS quarterbacks put up better numbers than Cookus - freshman or otherwise. Cookus' 37 touchdown passes led the nation and set an FCS freshman record, and he tossed only five interceptions while being under constant pressure that resulted in him being sacked 27 times. His 184.9 rating ranked second in FCS and his average of 9.66 yards per attempt ranked third. Cookus threw for at least four touchdowns four times, including an FCS season-best seven-TD effort against Northern Colorado on Oct. 31. He also rushed for 209 yards and three touchdowns for the Lumberjacks (7-4).
Julian Cox, LB - Albany=
Cox was arguably Albany's best player on defense, recording 94 tackles - 57 solo - and three sacks with two quarterback hurries. He added six tackles for loss and forced two fumbles while recovering a pair. He also was solid in the passing game, breaking up two passes and intercepting another for the Great Danes (3-8).
Marquis Green, S - Mississippi Valley State=
Green made quite an impact in his first season despite the Delta Devils finishing with a 1-10 record. His seven interceptions led the SWAC and ranked fourth in the FCS, and he also broke up another pass. Green also finished with 47 tackles - 34 solo - and had one tackle for loss.
Derrick Griffin, WR - Texas Southern=
Griffin's SWAC-leading 11 touchdowns came on only 35 receptions that went for an average of 20.4 yards, which ranked second in the conference. He tied for sixth in FCS in TDs for the Tigers (3-6).
Thomas Jefferson, RB - Delaware=
Jefferson's 890 yards were the third-most among FCS freshman running backs and his seven touchdowns tied for third. He also added 10 receptions for 64 yards for the Blue Hens (4-7).
Alex Jeske, QB - Dayton=
Dayton's first playoff appearance came with Jeske guiding the way despite him entering camp as the third-string quarterback. He completed 60.3 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns and rushed for five more for the Flyers (10-1).
Zak Kennedy, K - Youngstown State=
Kennedy set a school record and tied for second in FCS in field goals made, hitting 19 of his 23 attempts for an 82.6 percentage that ranked third among freshman kickers. His seven makes on nine attempts from 40-49 yards led the nation and he also converted 34 of 36 PATs.
Anthony Lawrence, QB - San Diego=
Lawrence earned the starting job in the second game of the season and led the Toreros to a 9-1 mark in his starts. He led the Pioneer League with a 153.5 passer rating and 63.7 completion percentage while ranking second in the league with 23 touchdown passes. Lawrence tossed four TDs three times and had a season-high 453 yards against Stetson on Oct. 31.
Dorrel McClain, RB - North Carolina Central=
McClain finished second in the MEC with 958 yards and 102.6 yards from scrimmage per game while finishing third in the conference with eight rushing touchdowns. He had five 100-yard rushing games, including a season-high 167 in the finale for the Eagles (8-3).
John Santiago, RB - North Dakota=
Santiago quickly established himself as one of the best running backs in FCS as North Dakota (7-4) barely missed the playoffs. Santiago averaged 6.5 yards per carry and finished fourth in the nation with 1,459 yards and fifth with 16 touchdowns. His 140.0 yards from scrimmage per game ranked eighth in FCS. Santiago also acted as UND's main kickoff returner, averaging 27.7 yards on 21 returns.
Justice Shelton-Mosley, WR/RS - Harvard=
Shelton-Mosley did a little bit of everything for the Crimson (9-1) in his first season, catching six touchdown passes, rushing for a touchdown, throwing for another TD and returning a punt for a score. He averaged 114 all-purpose yards per game.
Andrew Van Ginkel, DE, South Dakota=
Van Ginkel was a force defensively for the Coyotes (5-6). He led FCS freshmen with 18 tackles for loss and nine sacks while also recovering three fumbles and forcing two. Van Ginkel finished with 54 tackles - 40 solo - with six quarterback hurries and a blocked kick.
Dylan Weigel, LB, East Tennessee State=
Weigel was all over the field for the ETSU defense, recording 127 tackles - 79 solo - and 10 1/2 for loss. He had two sacks, a pair of forced fumbles and two recoveries for the Buccaneers (2-9).
Micah Wright, WR, Maine=
Wright led all freshmen and finished second in the CAA with 61 receptions, and he was second among freshmen and in the conference with 818 yards. His five touchdowns tied for fifth among FCS freshmen for the Bears (3-8). Wright had four 100-yard games, including a 198-yard effort against Elon on Nov. 14.