Decided to read a story about the preseason candidates to win the Harlon Hill Award, given annually to the best player in Division II football.
It’s interesting to check out some of the talented players across the nation, whom folks around here never get a chance to see.
Minnesota State fans got too good of a look at Ferris State quarterback Jayru Campbell, who was dynamite on the frozen Blakeslee Stadium turf last December in leading his team to a semifinal victory.
He’s back, though he had offseason surgery on his non-throwing arm, so we’ll have to see if he can duplicate last season’s numbers: 2,931 yards and 27 touchdowns passing and 1,460 yards and 21 touchdowns rushing. He would be only the fifth player in Harlon Hill history to win consecutive awards.
Valdosta State quarterback Rogan Wells returns for the defending national champions. He was runner-up to Campbell in the Harlon Hill voting last season after gaining 3,832 yards of total offense and accounting for 50 touchdowns.
Running back Jaleel McLaughlin of Notre Dame College finished third in the Harlon Hill voting after rushing for 2,421 yards rushing with 18 touchdowns.
Closer to home, Sioux Falls running back Gabriel Watson was a first-team All-American last season, setting program records by rushing for 1,957 yards and 26 touchdowns. He’s the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference’s preseason player of the year in the South Division.
Augustana quarterback Kyle Saddler passed for more than 3,400 yards and 30 touchdowns last season, and it looks like he’ll be asked to do the same thing this season. He lit up Minnesota State for 451 yards and three touchdowns last season, shocking the Mavericks’ defense in Week 2.
Unfortunately, Harlon Hill candidates will be rare at Minnesota State, given the depth of the program. No player is counted on too heavily, with quality backups ready at almost every position to make sure everyone stays fresh and healthy.
Senior running back Nate Gunn has the best chance to get some Harlon Hill attention. In two seasons, the powerful Gunn has rushed for 3,255 yards and 37 touchdowns, gaining notoriety in the national-tournament victory over Tarleton State when he carried 50 times for 261 yards in the snow. Given the strength of the offensive line, and the Mavericks’ power-running scheme, it’s a good bet that Gunn will become the all-time rushing leader at Minnesota State sometime this season.
Senior receiver Shane Zylstra is another player who could get more national attention. Last season, he had 66 receptions for 1,261 yards and 14 touchdowns, bringing his career totals to 146 receptions, 2,621 yards and 36 touchdowns. His size, speed and athleticism make him a match-up nightmare in the Northern Sun, but the Mavericks probably won’t throw the ball enough for his stats to be considered with the other top receivers in Division II.
If Harlon Hill would recognize an entire unit, the Mavericks’ offensive line would be a worthy candidate. With all five starters returning for an offense that averaged 39.6 points and 461 yards of offense, the Mavericks’ front five is as good as any in Division II. All five backups from last season’s final game are also back, making that position group less likely to be hurt by injury.
It would be fun for local fans if more Minnesota State players would have a chance to win national awards, but the trade-off might be team success. Minnesota State has many talented players that don’t get maximum snaps because of depth and the many lopsided games in the Northern Sun.
Pretty sure the players would trade individual honors for victories. That’s what has made Minnesota State so successful in the last decade and a key reason the Mavericks are a top-5 team in almost every preseason national poll.
Chad Courrier is a Free Press staff writer. To contact him, call 507-3446353, email at ccourrier@ mankatofreepress.com or follow his Twitter feed @ChadCourrier.