In the FCS Huddle: Running start to Payton Award race

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Updated: 7/07 11:55 am

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Remember when everybody was nervous about the calendar turning to 2000?

That feeling describes defensive coordinators in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.

South Dakota State senior running back Zach Zenner has set his sights on surpassing 2,000 rushing yards for the third straight season, which has never been done before on the FCS level. He enters the 2014 campaign as one of the favorites to win the 28th Walter Payton Award, and the only two-time finalist among the 20 players who were nominated Monday to the Watch List for the FCS' outstanding player. The Sports Network will present the Heisman of the FCS on Dec. 15 at the national awards banquet.

Past winners of the Payton include Steve McNair, Tony Romo, Brian Westbrook, Brian Finneran, John Friesz, Armanti Edwards and the 2013 recipient, Jimmy Garoppolo, this year's second-round draft choice of the New England Patriots.

Returning as finalists to the Watch List besides Zenner, who finished seventh in 2012 and sixth last year, were five quarterbacks: Eastern Washington junior Vernon Adams, who was the runner-up to Garoppolo; Fordham senior Michael Nebrich, fifth; Southeastern Louisiana senior Bryan Bennett, eighth; Villanova junior John Robertson, ninth; and Princeton senior Quinn Epperly, 10th.

Also nominated to the Watch List were quarterbacks Jacob Huesman of Chattanooga, Jordan Johnson of Montana, Alex Ross of Coastal Carolina and Michael Strauss of Richmond; running backs Rob Hollomon of Central Connecticut State, DaMarcus James of Jacksonville State, David Johnson of Northern Iowa, Shepard Little of Eastern Illinois and Keshaudas Spence of Sacred Heart; wide receivers Sam Ajala of Fordham, Kenny Cook of Gardner-Webb, R.J. Harris of New Hampshire and Cooper Kupp of Eastern Washington; and tight end MyCole Pruitt of Southern Illinois. All are seniors except Huesman, Robertson and Ross, who are juniors, and Kupp, a sophomore who was named the 2013 Jerry Rice Award winner as the FCS freshman of the year.

The breakdown by position: nine quarterbacks, six running backs, four wide receivers and one tight end.

Zenner, who is 6 feet, 215 pounds, rushed for an FCS-high 2,044 yards in 2012 and then 2,015 yards a year ago to join former Sacramento State tailback Charles Roberts as the second FCS player with a pair of 2,000-yard seasons. A two-time first-team FCS All-American, Zenner leads all active FCS players in rushing yards (4,529) and all-purpose yards (5,871), and is second in touchdowns (43).

Among the other returning finalists, Adams passed for 4,994 yards and 55 touchdowns a year ago, which both rank third all-time in an FCS season. He finished second nationally in total yards per game (373.3), just behind the national leader, Nebrich (376.4), who threw for 35 touchdowns against only seven interceptions.

Bennett ranked fourth in the FCS in total yards (4,211), while Robertson led all quarterbacks with 1,405 yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground. Epperly was responsible for 26.2 points per game, which was the national high.

The Walter Payton Award Watch List can undergo revision during the 2014 season. Ballots will be sent to a national panel of over 150 sports information and media relations directors, broadcasters, writers and other dignitaries following the regular season. The top three vote-getters will be invited to the presentation of the award.

The Sports Network also presents the Buck Buchanan, Jerry Rice and Eddie Robinson awards. The Buchanan Award honors the outstanding defensive player in the FCS, the Rice Award goes to the FCS freshman of the year and the Robinson Award is bestowed upon the FCS coach of the year.

The 2014 FCS Awards package can be found at http://tinyurl.com/n5ysh8x.

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