2020 Best Game Story: Ross Dellenger

Comment of the judge: Writer captures the emotions in LSU’s blistering of Oklahoma in a national semifinal that was tinged with tragedy. Great job of telling the story of the day and game that was like no other in LSU history,

By Ross Dellenger

Sports Illustrated

ATLANTA, Ga. — Somewhere in a corner of LSU’s locker room here at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Tigers offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger held the hardest phone call of his life. His daughter-in-law, Carley McCord, a 30-year-old TV journalist, had perished Saturday morning in a plane crash in Louisiana while en route to this very place. His son and namesake, Steven Jr., so shaken by the news that family members rushed him to the hospital, lay in a bed in a medicated state, on sedatives, in and out of reality—until dad called.

Just before he took the field for warmups, an hour before he would call plays in his alma mater’s biggest game in eight years, Steve Ensminger, for just a brief few minutes, pushed football aside for family. He called his son. He told him that everything would be O.K., that he’d make it through this dark hour. He told him that he loved him and to be strong and have faith.

He also made him a promise. As the call ended, dad told son what was coming next. “The team is behind you, these coaches are behind you,” Steven recalls his father saying, “and we are about to go beat Oklahoma’s ass for you.”

Hours later, with LSU in the midst of a deconstruction of the Sooners, Steven’s blood pressure dipped to more normal levels. He emerged from that cloudy state and maybe most importantly, the 30-year old got to watch his father’s offense roar in LSU’s 63-28 thumping of OU. Quarterback Joe Burrow carved through the Big 12 champs and its defense with such quick ferocity that it almost seemed unfathomable. The Tigers scored a touchdown on eight of their first nine drives, led 49-14 at halftime and finished with 692 yards of offense in one of the most dominant victories in the six-year history of the College Football Playoff.

They’re bound for a national championship bout on Jan. 13 in New Orleans with Clemson, a quasi-home game for a team on a magical 2019 run. They’re the top-ranked team in the land, have the Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback and haven’t lost a game since last November. For a second time in three weeks, LSU brought a Louisiana party to this place, celebrating a playoff win days after claiming the SEC championship here. Garth Brooks’ “Callin’ Baton Rouge” blared through the stadium speakers, purple-clad LSU fans screamed from the stands and their team, high up on a platform, accepted the Peach Bowl trophy.

And then there was Steve Ensminger, the last assistant coach to arrive on the field for this celebration, having made his way from the press box.

He found wife Amy and then he found head coach Ed Orgeron, the man who had delivered to him the tragic news around lunchtime earlier Saturday. They all embraced in an emotional moment and peculiar scene—tears of sadness surrounded by a celebrating sea. Ensminger, 61, is not any other assistant here. He is a beloved figure, an LSU quarterback under famed coach Charlie McClendon, a country boy raised in the Baton Rouge area with a hilarious twang. He’s heralded as an unsung hero of LSU’s 2019 season, hidden in the darkness of the looming shadow of 30-year-old pass game coordinator Joe Brady, a former Saints assistant who helped overhaul the Tigers’ offense into a spread attack over the offseason.

Without Steve, none of this happens, Brady and others have said. During the first half, ESPN TV cameras flashed on screen Ensminger and Brady in the booth, and when the Tigers went up 42-7 in the second quarter, the two even shared a fist bump. Nothing changed about their normal, two-man play-calling system despite the tragedy, Brady says.

Meanwhile, more than 500 miles away, Steven Ensminger Jr. agreed to a text exchange interview with Sports Illustrated in the second quarter of LSU’s win, detailing one of the darkest days of his life and describing that pregame phone call from his father. “I had talked to my mom crying and couldn’t get out words and same with my cousin who was my best man in our wedding,” Steven says. “The one voice that got on the phone with me that was clear and strong and supportive and confident while I was laying in that bed was my dad right before he walked out for warm-ups. I could barely speak. I couldn’t hold myself together and he said, ‘Son, you will get through this, it’s what we do. We face the darkest times in our lives and it’s what we do, we get through it. And I will take care of you and I’ll be there for you to keep you strong. You’re my one and only son, and my namesake and I love you and I can promise you we will get through this.’”

McCord was one of six passengers on a small private aircraft that left Lafayette, La., around 9 a.m. CT bound for Atlanta. The only survivor, Stephen Wade Berzas, 37, was in critical condition as of Saturday evening. The eight-seat plane crashed in a parking lot about a mile from its take-off point, bursting into flames with such force that it blew out the windows of a nearby post office. Witnesses told a Lafayette TV station, KATC, that the plane hit a power line while presumably attempting to make an emergency landing through dense fog.

Gretchen Vincent, 51, offered a seat on the plane to McCord, who had no other route to Atlanta. Steven Ensminger had planned to drive McCord to Atlanta, but he couldn’t get off work. He’s a chemical operator at a nitrogen facility on the Mississippi River in a small town between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. A company policy prohibiting employee vacations after Dec. 22 prevented him from getting time off.

In fact, he was at work without his phone when McCord texted and called him that morning before the flight. He missed both of them. “I don’t have my phone and she sends me a message saying she loved me,” Steven says. “I was in and out of a nightmare, not being able to tell what was real and what wasn’t. I can remember laying in the hospital bed repeating myself saying it wasn’t real and then one of the hardest things I’m dealing with is that I missed her text and I missed her call. It is by far the most pain, angst and terror and just darkest time of my life and I honestly don’t know how long it will last because I still don’t believe it. I don’t want to believe it.”

While eating lunch, Steven learned of McCord’s death from his aunt. Back in Atlanta, special assistant to the head coach Derek Ponamsky informed Orgeron of the news. It was Orgeron who broke the news to Ensminger. It trickled to assistants during staff meetings and a walk-through at the team hotel in downtown Atlanta. There was never a doubt that Ensminger would coach, living up to his reputation of toughness and grit, of hard work and focus. After all, Steve sometimes sleeps in a cot in his office during fall camp. He’s a journeyman of a coach, fired three times as a coordinator or assistant, humble enough to find ways to dodge media interviews, the focus of hard fan criticism upon his promotion to offensive coordinator in 2018.

Those close to him aren’t surprised by the strong will he showed Saturday. “Only Slinger,” says LSU receivers coach Mickey Joseph, using Steve’s nickname, one that dates back to his quarterbacking college days. “For Coach E to come out and call the plays he called… somebody was watching over him,” says running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Asked in the postgame celebration how her husband did it, Amy Ensminger’s eyes begin to swell with tears and she points up to the heavens, “God,” she whispers.

Many players only learned of the news by word of mouth, some before the game and others afterward. Blake Ferguson, a senior snapper, heard about it from an equipment manager during pregame warmups. “I immediately went over to coach, hugged him and told him I loved him,” Ferguson says. “He’s strong as hell for coaching in this game. We played for him and that family.”

McCord wasn’t just a daughter-in-law to an LSU assistant. Even before she married Steven Ensminger Jr. almost two years ago, she held a close connection to those around LSU. She turned into a familiar face on many televisions in the state as a Cox Sports and ESPN sideline reporter, known for her hard-charging reporting and bubbly persona. McCord held jobs few knew about, Steven says. She woke up each morning around 4 a.m. to teach online English classes to kids in China, and she worked some with New Orleans TV station WDSU. She also served as a travel agent and spent time covering some of her favorite programs, the New Orleans Pelicans and Saints. “She was a tough minded, caring, charismatic personality who would not take no for an answer,” says Jordy Culotta, a Baton Rouge sports radio host and cousin to McCord. “She was refreshing in our business. She was also my friend. A sad day.”

McCord and Steve Ensminger had a joking relationship, one full of jesting at one another’s expense. Before McCord and Steven’s wedding, Steve told her that he might not make the ceremony because he’s “got recruits in,” Steven says. McCord would poke at her father-in-law that demons were coming for him. “She’d always give my dad a hard time,” Steven says. “These words are the hardest words I’ve ever had to speak. She will always be part of my life. I’m torn and struggling but I knew she would tell me to be strong. I love her. I miss her so much it hurts. I wish she was here with me.”

After the game, Steve Ensminger left the coaches’ suite and briskly walked directly to his family, escorted by a team spokesman. Soon afterward, he’d call his son again to check up. It’s a call Steven was waiting for since they had last talked, one he thought about as the Tigers romped to a big win.

“To sit here and watch my dad with so many emotions and a heavy heart and his worry for me and watch him do what he said we would do, there’s no question that he is my rock, my idol, my mentor, my coach, my father,” Steven says. “I’m his namesake and I wouldn’t be able to make it through anything without him there to tell me to man up and get through it.”

ROSS DELLENGER

Ross Dellenger

Sports Illustrated

Age: 36

College: Mississippi State, 2006

Background: A native of Biloxi, Mississippi, Ross drifted toward sports journalism as the son to a high school football coach. Not athletic enough to play, he started his career by filming high school games for recruiting sites and writing high school football game stories for various outlets. He joined Sports Illustrated in May of 2018 after more than a decade as a college sports beat writer, covering the likes of LSU, Missouri, Jackson State and Auburn.

He has mostly lived and worked in the Deep South, holding a passion and love for college football. However, in April of 2019, he moved with his wife to Washington, D.C., where Elizabeth works as a national political reporter covering Congress and the White House.

 

 

Deadline for nominations of Edward Aschoff Rising Star Award is June 1

DALLAS The Football Writers Association of America is accepting nominations through June 1 for the first Edward Aschoff Rising Star Award, which will recognize  one promising journalist no older than 34, who has not only the talent and work ethic it takes to succeed in this business, but also the passion to make it better.

To submit nominations for this award, please send a paragraph or two about the nominee, including why you are nominating him or her, and three links to samples of work to Heather Dinich at heather.dinich@espn.com . Please include your name, job title, and a phone number. A panel of FWAA members will choose the winner. Entries should be submitted by June 1.

Aschoff, a beloved ESPN college football reporter, died on Christmas Eve his 34th birthday from previously undetected Stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in his lungs.

Aschoff was always easy to spot in a press box not just because of his dapper suit, his unique socks or trademark lapel pin but also because of his infectious smile, his laugh and his pure love for whatever assignment he was working on.

Edward Aschoff
(Photo by Rich Arden / ESPN Images)

Aschoff, a 2008 graduate of the University of Florida, loved people, and even as his career at ESPN escalated, he still guided and befriended younger journalists along the way.

“He was someone I always looked forward to seeing when our paths crossed in a random SEC press box or elsewhere, someone who always encouraged me as a younger journalist trying to navigate my way through this business and life, someone I always admired — both for his work and his zest for life — and someone I could always count on for a laugh,” said Tom Green, who was a student at Florida when he met Aschoff in 2010 and is now the Auburn beat reporter for AL.com/Alabama Media Group. “I’ll always be grateful for his friendship, his advice and his respect, because I know I’m better for having known Ed. We all are.”

Aschoff moved to Los Angeles in 2017 to begin a more expanded national role that included television coverage. Over the past three seasons, he reported from campuses across the country for ESPN.com, SportsCenter, SEC Network and ESPN Radio, and he worked as a television and radio sideline reporter during college football games.

Jordan McPherson, a student reporter at Florida from 2013 to 2017 who is now covering the Miami Marlins for the Miami Herald, said Aschoff helped him on several occasions.

“He was a pro’s pro and touched my life with just a few brief interactions that he didn’t have to make,” McPherson said. “His positivity was infectious, his ability to mentor through simple conversation was second to none. He will be missed, but always be remembered.”

Ted Spiker, chair of the department of journalism at the University of Florida who taught Aschoff in several classes, said Aschoff  “was one of our stars — not just because he was so talented as a journalist and storyteller, but also because of everything he did to help people around him. He always had a good word of advice for young journalists, he was always willing to give back, and he always made people smile.”

Last month, the university’s College of Journalism and Communications established the Edward Aschoff Memorial Fund, which will provide support for students involved in sports journalism.

Aschoff inspired us through his storytelling, brightened our lives with his gregarious personality and uplifted our spirits with his energy. The FWAA hopes to honor his memory and his commitment to aspiring journalists with this award.

“Edward epitomized everything you want in a sports journalist: He knew how to build relationships, to gain trust, to break stories but also to tell stories,” said ESPN.com’s Andrea Adelson. “And he did it all with a flair that made you want to watch his television pieces or read his written stories right away. His dogged determination and relentless work ethic allowed him to rise to the top at ESPN, and all his exemplary qualities serve as a model for young journalists everywhere about what truly can be achieved if you go after what you want.”

Related Link:
Give to the Edward Aschoff Memorial Fund at the University of Florida

NFL Draft Bible available here in PDF format

Please find the Official 2020 NFL Draft Bible PDF version attached; an accumulation of 330 days of work in progress. I personally attended 25 college football games this past season and visited another 25+ schools, as I went on location across the nation to bring you the names that you need to know! The end result, over 600 scouting reports and more than 175 player interviews. Thank you to all my family, friends, staff but most importantly, YOU the subscriber, for supporting our mission!!!

Click these links to find the 2020 Draft Bible PDF download 2020NDB (1), along with our master rankings sheet 2020NDBrankings and our index page 2020NDBindex, which is also included in the PDF but is a nice tool to help navigate the draft guide.

We would love to hear from you; what you liked, what you didn’t like, what you would like to see more of etc., so please feel free to drop me a line. Remember, there are several ways to keep up with all our latest news and updates, be sure to make note:

Website: https://nfldraftbible.com
Twitter: https://twitter.com/NFLDraftBible
Podcasts: https://www.blogtalkradio.com/all-access-football
Videos: https://www.youtube.com/channel/allaccessfootball

Please stay safe during this time and enjoy the 2020 NFL Draft!

Ric Serritella
NFL Draft Bible Creator | NFLDraftBible.com
NFLPA Bowl Advance Scout | Collegiate.nflpa.com
PFWA Member | ProFootballWriters.org
FWAA Member | SportsWriters.net
Twitter | @NFLDraftBible

Viti receives 2019 Armed Forces Merit Award

12019 Armed Forces Merit Award recipient Mike Viti (center) with (left to right) Army West Point coach Jeff Monken, Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl executive director Brant Ringler, FWAA member Ken Kratzer (Sons of the American Legion) and AFMA coordinator.

WEST POINT, N.Y., February 7, 2020 — Army West Point coach and military veteran Mike Viti was presented the Armed Forces Merit Award presented by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) as the school’s annual football banquet here Friday at Ike Hall.

Coordinated by the staff at the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl, the Armed Forces Merit Award presented by the FWAA was created in June 2012 “to honor an individual and/or a group within the realm of the sport of football.”

Brant Ringler, executive director of the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl, and FWAA representative Ken Kratzer (Sons of the American Legion) presented the award to Viti, who was announced November 11, 2019 as the eighth recipient.

Viti was selected from a list of 38 nominations (33 individuals and five programs) as the 2019 recipient by a seven-person committee made up of FWAA members and Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl officials.

Armed Forces Merit Award

“Coach Viti has distinguished himself as a collegiate football player, an Army veteran and now as a coach,” said Ringler. “More importantly, Coach Viti has given of himself with his work with Legacies Alive in support of families of our nation’s fallen heroes.”

Viti, who completed his fourth season as an assistant coach with the Army West Point football, co-founded Legacies Alive (LA), a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. The mission of the Legacies Alive is to strengthen and support the Gold Star families of our nation’s fallen heroes and brings national awareness to the life and character of all service members who paid the ultimate sacrifice. Viti oversees the strategic and executive direction of the organization.

“Legacies Alive has allowed me to passionately honor the sacrifice and service of my heroes,” said Viti. “The interactions I have had with their Gold Star Families are some of the most powerful and influential experiences I have had in my life. It has inspired me to continue to connect our mission with more Americans so that our country’s sons and daughters forever connect the freedoms and liberties they are afforded, with the sacrifice and service our fallen and their families.”

As a student-athlete at Army West Point (2004-2007), Viti earned four varsity letters and was a team captain. As a fullback used primarily as a blocker, he carried the ball 91 times during his career for 321 yards and three scores while catching 30 passes for 198 yards. Viti also served as a Regimental Commander during his senior year.

Following graduation from the U.S. Military Academy in 2008, Viti was stationed in Oklahoma and Colorado after being commissioned as a second lieutenant in the United States Army. He served with the 4th Infantry Division as well as the 214th Fires Brigade. He served in combat in Afghanistan where he was a platoon leader in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Viti has earned a bronze star and a combat action badge.

After retiring from the military as a captain, Viti embarked on Mike’s Hike For Heroes, a cross country trek where he walked one kilometer for every service member killed in action in the global war on terror. He concluded the walk covering 7,100 kilometers or 4,400 miles beginning in Washington and wrapping up at the Army-Navy Game presented by USAA in Baltimore, Md.

Robert Morris University president Dr. Chris Howard was named last November as the seventh recipient. A 1991 graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, Dr. Howard was a Rhodes Scholar and received the 1990 Campbell Trophy, the highest academic award in the nation presented to a senior college football player. He currently serves on the selection committee for the College Football Playoffs.

Nate Boyer of the University of Texas, Austin was the initial recipient in 2012. Other recipients were Brandon McCoy of the University of North Texas in 2013, Daniel Rodriguez from Clemson University in 2014, Bret Robertson of Westminster College (Fulton, Mo.) in 2015 and Steven Rhodes from Middle Tennessee State University in 2016.

Kansas State and its football team were honored in November 2017 as the sixth recipient of the Armed Forces Merit Award for the university’s partnership with the United States Army that created a bond between the school’s athletic department and the Iron Rangers at Fort Riley.

ESPN Events, a division of ESPN, owns and operates a large portfolio of 35 collegiate sporting events worldwide. The roster includes three Labor Day weekend college football games, the FCS opening-weekend game, 16 college bowl games, 11 college basketball events, a college softball event, an esports event and two college award shows, which accounts for approximately 375-plus hours of live programming, reaches almost 64 million viewers and attracts over 800,000 attendees each year. With satellite offices in Albuquerque, Birmingham, Boca Raton, Boise, Dallas-Fort Worth, Honolulu, Las Vegas, Montgomery and Tampa, ESPN Events builds relationships with conferences, schools and local communities, as well as providing unique experiences for teams and fans. For more information, visit the official website, Facebook, Twitter or YouTube pages.

The Football Writers Association of America (FWAA, http://www.sportswriters.net) consists of the men and women across North America who cover college football for a living. Founded in 1941, the membership includes journalists, broadcasters and publicists, as well as key executives in all the areas that involve the game. The FWAA works to govern areas that include game day operations, major awards and an All-America team. Through its website, the FWAA works to improve communication among all those who work within the game. The FWAA also sponsors scholarships for aspiring writers and an annual writing contest. Behind the leadership of President Matt Fortuna of The Athletic, Executive Director Steve Richardson and a board of veteran journalists, the FWAA continues grow and work to help college football prosper at all levels. There are now over 1,400 members.

Media Contacts

  • Tim Simmons, Armed Forces Merit Award Coordinator, 720/244-6580, bfishinc@aol.com
  • Steve Richardson, Football Writers Association of America, 214/870-6516, tiger@fwaa.com
  • Greg Kincaid, Assistant AD/Communications Football, Army West Point, 786)/972-1299, gregkincaid14@gmail.com
  • Drew Harris, Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl, 254/716-8573, drew@firstpitchpr.com

Photo gallery: FWAA Annual Awards Breakfast

FWAA members and guests gathered for the organization’s Annual Awards Breakfast on Jan. 13 at the New Orleans Sheraton, before moving on to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and the College Football Playoff championship game.  Here are some scenes from the breakfast.

Photo gallery: 2020 FWAA/Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award Presentation

The FWAA/Eddie Robinson Coach of the Year Award, sponsored by the Allstate Sugar Bowl, was presented to LSU Coach Ed Orgeron on Jan. 11 in New Orleans. Two days later, his Tigers wrapped up a perfect season by beating Clemson in the College Football Playoff championship game. Here are some scenes from the Coach of the Year Award presentation.

Photo gallery: 2020 Past Presidents Dinner

Past presidents of the Football Writers Association of America and guests gathered for the annual dinner on Jan. 10 at the Riverside Hilton in New Orleans, leading up to the College Football Playoff championship game three days later. The National Football Foundation has hosted the dinner for the past 10 years. Here are some scenes from the dinner.

USC QB Slovis honored as FWAA Most Inspirational Freshman for 2019

By Ryan Young

LOS ANGELES, Calif. — At a program acclaimed for producing NFL quarterbacks and Heisman Trophy candidates at the position, where fans are always awaiting and quick to anoint the next great one, Kedon Slovis arrived on campus quietly a year ago.

A 3-star prospect from Scottsdale, Ariz., his signing withUSC produced no fanfare, no projections, no expectations.

Slovis was arriving a year behind incumbent starter JT Daniels — a 5-star prospect who had indeed been crowned USC’s next star signal-caller before he ever threw a collegiate pass — and a year ahead of 5-star QB Bryce Young, who was already committed to the Trojans in the 2020 class at the time (before later flipping to Alabama — perhaps due in part to Slovis’ emergence).

Slovis wasn’t even a part of the quarterback conversation when he took his first reps of spring practice as an early enrollee. The fan base was divided between Daniels, who had an underwhelming freshman year in 2018 amid those weighty expectations, and redshirt sophomore Jack Sears, who produced in his one lone relief start.

All of that is to say that what Slovis accomplished this season is only that much more impressive when put in context — but certainly it was incredible by any measure and perspective.

By the end of the year, Slovis’ performances had earned him the FWAA Most Inspirational Freshman Award, announced on Monday in New Orleans.

The true freshman beat out Sears and redshirt junior Matt Fink for the backup job in fall camp, took over in the second half of the season opener after Daniels sustained a season-ending knee injury, and by the end of the campaign he had passed for 3,502 yards, 30 touchdowns and 9 interceptions.

According to USC, his 71.9 completion percentage was the highest by a true freshman QB in NCAA history. His 3,502 passing yards are the ninth most in a single season by a USC quarterback — he was 129 yards away from cracking the top five on that list — and Slovis only played nine full games, plus the second half of the opener, 2 pass attempts vs. Utah before sustaining a concussion and a little more than two quarters in the bowl game before departing with an elbow injury.

He was at his best after returning from that early season concussion, which cost him most of two games. Over the final eight contests, he passed for 2,770 yards (346.3 per game), 25 TDs and 5 INTs. For that matter, he just kept getting better. Over his final four games, he averaged 403.3 passing yards and totaled 14 TDs and just 1 INT — and that passing average would be even higher if not for the injury early in the third quarter verus Iowa in the Holiday Bowl.

Slovis had four 400-yard passing games over the final five regular-season contests, which already matches Matt Barkley’s USC career record for 400-yard games. Slovis’ 515 yards vs. UCLA (with 4 TDs and 0 INTs) broke the Trojans’ single-game passing record.

All told, he finished ranked 10th nationally in passing yards per game (291.8), but again that stat is skewed is by the partial games.

He was deservedly named the Pac-12 Freshman Offensive Player of the Year, and suddenly the once-overlooked 3-star prospect is also being recognized by the odds makers as an early 2020 Heisman Trophy candidate.

As it turned out, USC indeed had its next star quarterback in the fold — it just wasn’t the one anyone expected.

“I think the sky’s the limit for that kid. He’s as talented of a kid as I’ve ever been around, and mentally he’s really, really sharp,” offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said of Slovis. “I don’t think you’re around kids like that real often, so for him the sky’s the limit and that will be the expectation for him as long as I work with him — to be really special, because he’s capable of being really special.”

As for Slovis, well, this season certainly changed the outside perception of the young QB, but it hasn’t changed him one bit.

“All the awards and things are kind of silly, I think, because it’s such a team-oriented game, and I wouldn’t be anywhere without the guys around me,” he said in December. “So I don’t get caught up in that too much.”

But what a story it has already been through just these early chapters.

Late last December, Slovis sat in a living room back in Scottsdale, Ariz., with his parents discussing his path to this point and why he was undaunted about the Trojans’ seemingly stacked QB depth chart.

His father Max Slovis put it best that evening.

“Everyone brings it up, and it’s the same answer — let’s go, let’s see what happens,” the elder Slovis said. “People are always like, ‘Why would you go there? There’s all these great quarterbacks.’ We’re a great quarterback — let’s go see what happens. …

“My sister lives in San Diego and [tells us], ‘Oh, my friend says they have this guy, this guy and this guy.’ We are this guy.”

That much is clear now.

About Stand Together
The Stand Together Foundation, presenting sponsor of the Shaun Alexander Freshman of the Year Awards, is committed to breaking the cycle of poverty by supporting the creative solutions of individuals and organizations who are driving dynamic entrepreneurship in communities across the country and helping people transform their lives. Founded in 2016, the Foundation partners with the nation’s most effective and top-performing non-profits to help them deepen and grow their impact through innovative solutions to break barriers for people in poverty so that they can realize their potential.

Arizona State QB Daniels honored for Freshman Breakout Performance of the Year

By Michael Griffith

TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona State’s season was quickly falling apart.

Four consecutive losses after a 5-1 start left the Sun Devils with just two games to secure a bowl berth — a major stepping stone for a budding program led by second-year head coach Herm Edwards.

Few thought a sixth win would be secured against then-No. 6 Oregon, which was primed for a spot in the College Football Playoff if it won out. Playing on national television, this was supposed to be a chance for the Ducks to make a statement to the college football world.

Indeed, a statement was made. However, it was Arizona State’s Jayden Daniels who dropped the mic on a cool night in the desert.

The true freshman played with ice in his veins en route to a 31-28 victory. He outdueled Oregon’s Justin Herbert, a projected first-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.

Daniels finished his signature game 22-of-32 passing for 408 yards, throwing three touchdowns without committing a turnover. At times, it appeared as if Daniels was the soon-to-be pro playing one of his last collegiate games.

No freshman had a better performance against a better opponent this season. For this reason, Daniels is the winner of the FWAA’s Shaun Alexander Freshman Breakout Performance of the Year.

“He’s just a different kid,” Arizona State offensive coordinator Rob Likens said of Daniels. “He’s really grounded. I don’t worry about him being overconfident. I think games like that give him more confidence and I think he gets into an even better mindset. He’s kind of special in that way.”

Oregon struck first midway through the first quarter to go up 7-0. The Sun Devils fired back on their ensuing possession, with Daniels launching a deep strike to Frank Darby, hitting the receiver in stride for a 57-yard touchdown to tie the game.

Daniels completed his first 12 passes of the game, finishing the first half 12-of-14 passing for 191 yards and one touchdown. More importantly, his team had a 10-7 lead.

Arizona State continued to build momentum as Oregon’s offense sputtered, entering the fourth quarter with a 13-7 lead. It soon grew larger, as Daniels hit Darby again with a perfectly thrown ball into the end zone for a 26-yard score. A field goal on their next drive further increased the lead to 24-7 with just 8:42 remaining in the game.

Then, Oregon started playing like the Pac-12 champs they would soon become.

Two consecutive touchdown drives under 60 seconds brought the Ducks back within three points, and it started to feel like the Sun Devils were running out of gas. Edwards turned to his freshman quarterback to provide the final spark they needed.

“The great thing about Jayden is he’s humble as well,” Edwards said. “He has a lot of fun playing football. I love talking to him on the sidelines, especially here towards the end of the game. I told him ‘It’s time. Can you throw a touchdown or do something? We need a score here.’”

Receiving the ball with just over five minutes left in the final frame, Arizona State’s drive appeared to be headed for disaster as a false start and a sack left Daniels with a third-and-16 from his own 19-yard line. It appeared as though a spark would have to wait. This was no time to make a critical mistake.

Of course, this is Herm Edwards we’re talking about. His team would play to win the game. Daniels dropped back to pass and fired yet another home run down the left sideline, this time to Brandon Aiyuk, who raced 81 yards for a touchdown that sent Sun Devil Stadium into a frenzy.

Arizona State held on for a 31-28 win, silencing critics and converting naysayers in the process.

As for Daniels, he played the best game of his life against the best opponent he’d ever faced.

“We should be playing like that all the time really, but we have something to prove,” Daniels said after the game. “We lost so many games in a row so this win just felt different.”

Daniels broke Arizona State’s single-season record for passing yards by a freshman during the game, but he was quick to point out that a win was the most important thing to him.

“I’m just happy we won, but it really means nothing to me,” Daniels said. “I have a long career ahead of me and I’m just happy to get these guys a win.”

He also set school records for fewest interceptions in a season with over 300 passing attempts (2) and consecutive pass attempts without an interception (157).

Florida State defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett praised Daniels before the Seminoles’ matchup with Arizona State in the Tony the Tiger Sun Bowl.

“Quarterback (Daniels) is good, for a freshman, true freshman, he’svery poised, understands the offense, does a good job of running their offense,” Barnett said. “They believe in what their system tells them to do.”

After the four-game skid, the Sun Devils finished their season with victories against the best team on their schedule (Oregon), their in-state rival (Arizona), and their bowl-game opponent (Florida State).

Arizona State deployed one of the youngest rosters in college football this season, and Daniels spearheaded the youth movement. An 8-5 finish brings excitement to the desert, where the outlook appears sunny.

About Stand Together
The Stand Together Foundation, presenting sponsor of the Shaun Alexander Freshman of the Year Awards, is committed to breaking the cycle of poverty by supporting the creative solutions of individuals and organizations who are driving dynamic entrepreneurship in communities across the country and helping people transform their lives. Founded in 2016, the Foundation partners with the nation’s most effective and top-performing non-profits to help them deepen and grow their impact through innovative solutions to break barriers for people in poverty so that they can realize their potential.

Memphis RB Gainwell named FWAA’s Shaun Alexander Freshman Player of the Year

By Geoff Calkins

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Before the Cotton Bowl, before GameDay came to Beale Street, before Memphis won the American Athletic Conference title game by beating Cincinnati on back-to-back weeks, there was a moment of high tension in the home opener against Ole Miss.

Just 3:31 remained in the game. Memphis — leading 15-10 — faced a 4th-and-2 at the Ole Miss 47.

Mike Norvell decided to go for it. But Memphis running back Patrick Taylor had just left the game with a foot injury.  So Norvell sent in a redshirt freshman running back named Kenny Gainwell, who promptly got loose for a 4-yard catch and a first down.

Gainwell went on to touch the ball seven straight plays in that final, clock-draining, game-clinching drive. Memphis went on to have the best season in program history. Norvell went on to get the head coaching job at Florida State. But it all began in that moment of high tension, when an incandescent new star emerged.

Gainwell’s incredibly consistent performances during the regular season are why he’s the recipient of the FWAA’s Shaun Alexander Freshman Player of the Year Award.

“He’s an unbelievable weapon,” is how Memphis quarterback Brady White described Gainwell. “People may not have have known how good he is before the season, but I guess they know now.”

People didn’t know about Gainwell because of the two guys in front of him. Darrell Henderson and Tony Pollard, who are now playing in the NFL.

It may be a stretch to say Gainwell is already better than those players. But it’s not at all a stretch to say he combines some of the best elements of both.

He has the soft hands and explosive, straight-away speed of Pollard. He has the uncanny cutting ability and elusiveness of Henderson.

And he has a backstory that slipped out of him almost inadvertently, after Gainwell ran the ball 18 times for 104 yards and caught nine passes for another 203 yards in a win over Tulane. It was the first time since Troy Edwards did it in 1997 that someone had run for more than 100 yards and caught passes for more than 200 yards in the same game.

“I think back to when my brother was in the hospital. He had a stroke,” Gainwell said, in the press conference after that game. “Those moments, it just all comes out of me. That emotion, it just all comes out of me at one time.”

Gainwell’s older brother — Curtis Gainwell Jr. — accepted an academic scholarship to Southern Miss. He was going to join the football team as a walk-on. At least, that was the plan until he suffered a brain bleed while lifting weights. The older Gainwell had four surgeries, lost full range of motion in his right hand and never played football again.

ESPN told the Gainwells’ story when GameDay came to a Beale Street before the team’s win over SMU. It is difficult to explain what that day meant to Memphians, to a fan base that had hung in through decades of ineptitude and ridicule.

But in many ways, Gainwell is a perfect representation of what the program has become. Overlooked by the big boys. But pure misery to deal with now.

Gainwell wound up with 1,459 rushing yards for the season. He caught 51 passes for 610 more yards.

After Gainwell and Memphis exploded all over Tulane at the Liberty Bowl, Tulane head coach Willie Fritz said, “I didn’t see it coming.”

The rest of the country knows how he feels.

Nobody saw this Memphis program coming five years ago. Nobody saw Gainwell coming as recently as this spring. That’s when Gainwell explained his philosophy of running this way: “I’m just trying to be really fast because if you’re fast you’re not going to be caught by slower people.”

Simple, right?

There’s an unmistakable humility to Gainwell. As if anyone could do what he does. Just run faster than those those slower people. It helps that nearly everyone is slower than him.

So expect to see more of the same from Gainwell. Norvell may be off to Tallahassee, but Gainwell returns under new coach Ryan Silverfield.

“You want to get him as many touches as possible,” Silverfield said.

Slower people, be warned.

About Stand Together
The Stand Together Foundation, presenting sponsor of the Shaun Alexander Freshman of the Year Awards, is committed to breaking the cycle of poverty by supporting the creative solutions of individuals and organizations who are driving dynamic entrepreneurship in communities across the country and helping people transform their lives. Founded in 2016, the Foundation partners with the nation’s most effective and top-performing non-profits to help them deepen and grow their impact through innovative solutions to break barriers for people in poverty so that they can realize their potential.