Stellar early season play has led to the addition of quarterbacks Jimmy Garoppolo of Eastern Illinois and Wynrick Smothers of Central Arkansas, and running back Zach Zenner of South Dakota State to the 2012 Walter Payton Award Watch List.
The Payton Award, presented by The Sports Network, and in its 26th year, is presented to the outstanding player in the Football Championship Subdivision.
Each of the three newcomers announced Tuesday may not yet be a household name, but all have stepped up their play and provided leadership when their team needed it most.
This year's winner will join a list of Payton Award greats such as Steve McNair, John Friesz, Brian Westbrook, Tony Romo, Brian Finneran, Armanti Edwards and 2011 recipient Bo Levi Mitchell.
Garoppolo, a 6-foot-3, 206-pound junior, has followed in the footsteps of Romo at Eastern Illinois. In first-year coach Dino Babers' wide-open passing offense, Garoppolo has teamed with the FCS' leading receiver, Erik Lora, to produce incredible numbers. Garoppolo has averaged 365.4 passing yards per game in the Panthers' 3-2 start to the season - surpassing their two wins in each of the past two seasons. He has thrown for 18 touchdowns with five interceptions. In an Ohio Valley Conference win over Austin Peay, all five of his TD tosses went for at least 50 yards, and he added one touchdown run while totaling 501 yards of offense.
Smothers, a 6-foot-1, 208-pound junior, has burst on the scene in his first full season as a starter, able to exploit defenses with both his arms and legs. His 281.2 yards of total offense per game rank 12th in the FCS. One of the nation's more efficient passers, Smothers ranks 16th in passing efficiency (165.54 rating) and has completed over 66 percent of his passes. He has led the Bears to a 3-2 record, including a win over then-No. 2 Sam Houston State, avenging his team's only Southland Conference loss last year.
Zenner, a 6-foot, 215-pound sophomore, has been perhaps the FCS' biggest surprise early in the season, having rushed for a national-high 215.4 yards per game at nearly eight yards per carry. He has scored six touchdowns and is a threat anytime the Jackrabbits have the ball. Amazingly, he has long runs of 87, 88 and 99 yards in his first five games. South Dakota State has moved into the FCS Top 25 for the first time since 2010.
Other nominees on the Watch List are quarterbacks Casey Brockman of Murray State, Taylor Heinicke of Old Dominion, Kurt Hess of Youngstown State, Jeff Mathews of Cornell, DeNarius McGhee of Montana State and Brad Sorensen of Southern Utah; running backs Zach Bauman of Northern Arizona, Shakir Bell of Indiana State, Jamaine Cook of Youngstown State, Matt Denham of Eastern Kentucky, Timothy Flanders of Sam Houston State, Miguel Maysonet of Stony Brook, Andrew Pierce of Delaware and Terrance West of Towson; fullback Eric Breitenstein of Wofford; and wide receivers Aaron Mellette of Elon and Ryan Spadola of Lehigh.
Bios of all 20 players can be found at http://tiny.cc/264bhw.
The Payton Award will be voted on by a national panel of sports information and media relations directors, broadcasters, writers and other dignitaries following the regular season on Nov. 19. The top three vote-getters will be invited to the FCS Awards Banquet and Presentation on Dec. 17 in Philadelphia.
The Sports Network also presents the Buck Buchanan, Jerry Rice and Eddie Robinson awards. The Buchanan Award honors the FCS defensive player of the year, the Rice Award goes to the FCS freshman of the year and the Robinson Award honors the FCS coach of the year.