An early watch list for the inaugural (and totally unofficial) Football Player of the Year award
It’s a rare distinction in its most broad meaning. Technically, you can be a strong safety on your freshman “B” team and still classify yourself as “football player” (speaking from experience). Even if you want to limit it to those who either play in college or professionally, the title “football player” is still pretty universal.
But dig a little deeper and you’ll understand why we need to appreciate those who truly embody that distinction. In fact, it needs its own award.
What do I mean by that? And isn’t that just the Paul Hornung Award given to the most versatile player in college football?
Keytaon Thompson’s listed position last year was “FBP.” As in, “football player.” The former Mississippi State quarterback now rocks No. 99 and plays basically every offensive skill position for Virginia.
That’s exactly what we’re looking for. It’s a throwback. It isn’t just picking a receiver who doubles as a returner. It’s not just picking a running back who catches passes out of the backfield. It’s 2022. Unless you’re playing running back at a service academy, you have to be able to catch passes. Being a running back who catches passes doesn’t make one worthy of the “FBP” distinction. Being a linebacker who can pass rush and drop in coverage doesn’t make someone an “FBP,” either.
These are the guys who will play anything. Quarterback? Receiver? Running back? You name it, they’ll do it.
Call them throwbacks. Call them lunchpail guys. Call them “Football Player.”
To be the 2022 Football Player of the Year, you don’t need to be some All-American. Too often, the Paul Hornung Award defaults to guys like Saquon Barkley and DeVonta Smith, who are phenomenal players, but they’ll never be listed as “Football Player.” They play 1 offensive skill position and they also return punts or kicks.
It’s possible that the Football Player of the Year isn’t even a first-team all-conference selection. That’s totally fine. This award is about highlighting players who line up and can essentially play 3 different non-special teams positions. It doesn’t have to be offense, though admittedly, offensive versatility often stands out in a unique way compared to defense.
Here’s our early watch list:
Keytaon Thompson, Virginia
This is the early leader in the clubhouse. If we wanted to just make this “The Keytaon Thompson Award,” I’d allow it. The former Mississippi State quarterback once beat Lamar Jackson in the TaxSlayer Bowl for a Dan Mullen-coached team (Mullen was technically off to Florida by then but he was MSU’s coach that season). That’s how long he’s been around.
But we’re not here to highlight Thompson’s longevity. We’re here to highlight him embracing this do-it-all role that he’s been in since transferring to Virginia and donning No. 99. In 2021, that all came together. He finished the season 1,237 scrimmage yards (990 receiving, 247 rushing) on just 117 touches. He’s not really used as a quarterback anymore, though he did attempt 4 passes.
Once you see Thompson’s snap count, it makes sense why he’s truly an “FBP.”
- Slot receiver: 350 snaps
- Wide receiver: 100 snaps
- Backfield: 44 snaps
- Inline: 43 snaps
- QB: 17 snaps
Chef’s kiss. That’s what we’re talking about.
If we want to break that down by a 12-game season, that means Thompson’s average snap count at each spot is:
- Slot receiver: 29 snaps
- Wide receiver: 8 snaps
- Backfield: 4 snaps
- Inline: 4 snaps
- QB: 1 snap
That’s why the guy is nicknamed “trick bag.” Former Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall said during the season that “(Thompson) is UVA football. If anyone wants to see what I like, or love, and what we’re trying to become, it’s him” (via 247sports).
The question now becomes how new Virginia coach Tony Elliott will use Thompson. This will be Thompson’s 4th different head coach in his college career, so adjusting is nothing new. I wouldn’t expect to see him used a ton as a quarterback with Brennan Armstrong’s emergence as one of the top returning signal-callers in the country, but that wouldn’t take away Thompson’s chance at the award if he continued to play WR/TE/RB for the Cavaliers.
Whatever the case, he’s a nightmare to game plan for as a 6th year guy who can seemingly do everything on the football field. He’s the reason we had to create this award because for some bizarre reason, Thompson wasn’t even a finalist for the Paul Hornung Award. Madness, I tell you.
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DK Joyner, South Carolina
If you’re sensing a theme here, you’re wise. Converted dual-threat quarterbacks are excellent “FBP” candidates because of that foundation as guys who move well in space and can beat you deep if you don’t respect their arm. We saw the latter scenario play out in the Mayo Bowl when Joyner dropped a dime from the heavens into the arms of fellow Swiss Army Knife Jaheim Bell.
— SportsGrid (@SportsGrid) December 30, 2021
That play was part of a Mayo Bowl MVP performance from Joyner, which apparently prompted teams to reach out to him to see if he wanted to play quarterback. Instead, Joyner turned them down for Year 5 at South Carolina, where he’ll be an FBP weapon in Marcus Satterfield’s offense.
Joyner’s transition to receiver has had twists and turns along the way, but last year saw him really come into his own as a route-runner and as a blocker. He had a career high 24 catches for 221 yards (along with 18 carries for 77 yards), but he played an average of 32 snaps a game because of how willing he was to block in the ground game. On top of that, the former 4-star quarterback became a regular contributor on the punt and kickoff coverage/return teams (83 total snaps there). That’s FBP stuff through and through.
So what if Joyner likely won’t attempt double digit passes this year with Spencer Rattler on board? He’s still a threat to do that every time he touches the ball, whether that’s with a bubble screen thrown backwards behind the line of scrimmage, or on a jet sweep.
I actually told Shane Beamer that he should just list Joyner and Bell as “Football Player” on the depth chart and not worry about position. Here’s what he said to that (14:13 is where the question starts):
If Joyner doesn’t get enough volume to win FBP of the Year, let’s not forget that he technically has a 6th year of eligibility available if he wants to return and make a serious push in 2023.
Malik Hornsby, Arkansas
If you haven’t been paying attention to Arkansas in the offseason, you might be scratching your head at this one. Hornsby’s snap count in 2021 was 80 snaps at quarterback and 1 at slot receiver playing as KJ Jefferson’s backup. That’s not FBP material.
But the reason he’s on the watch list is because after briefly entering the transfer portal in January, the former 4-star dual-threat quarterback settled on an agreement with the Arkansas coaching staff that he’s going to play some receiver. We saw him line up there and in the backfield in Arkansas “spring game” (it got rained out so it was played in front of recruits and their families at the team’s indoor facility).
There’s absolutely a world in which Hornsby’s role in Kendal Briles’ offense becomes must-see TV. Remember that teammates liken his speed to Tyreek Hill. Unfortunately for Hornsby’s future as a quarterback, his accuracy is still an issue. But over the course of a game, we could likely see Hornsby:
- A) Throw a pass as a quarterback
- B) Run zone read as a quarterback or tailback
- C) Run a jet sweep as a receiver
- D) Catch a pass as a receiver
- E) All the above
It’s “E.” It’s always “E.” That’s why he’s got major FBP potential.
My ideal role for Hornsby would be letting him get his feet wet as a receiver in the first 3 quarters and then let him play as a run-first quarterback in the 4th quarter while Arkansas is preserving a 2-possession lead. That would take some potential hits off Jefferson, who invites plenty of contact with his running style.
Hornsby is electric in space. There needs to be a legitimate effort to feed him the rock in unique FBP ways in a post-Treylon Burks world.
Johnny Langan, Rutgers
It feels perfectly fitting that a Greg Schiano-coached player would make the FBP watch list. We might have to make this the official image of FBP of the Year:
Langan embodies toughness, and not just because he was willing to get bloody for a 2-win Rutgers team in a late-November game. Originally a quarterback at Boston College, Langan transferred and was initially just another struggling Scarlet Knights quarterback who was playing more by necessity than anything else. But since Schiano took over in 2020, he’s now settled into a do-it-all role for the Scarlet Knights.
Here was his 2021 snap count:
- Inline: 241 snaps
- Slot: 57 snaps
- Backfield: 39 snaps
- QB: 36 snaps
- Wide receiver: 25 snaps
For a guy listed as a “tight end,” that’s insane versatility. Even though had more than 200 snaps inline than he did in the backfield, Langan actually had more carries than catches (34 to 18) in 2021. On Twitter, his name is Johnny “offense” Langan and he identifies as “Rutgers Offensive Weapon.” Even better, his Instagram is “Johnny.Offense.”
Folks, that’s how FBP is done.
Langan is coming off a TaxSlayer Bowl MVP performance that like Joyner, showed off his versatility for a national audience. He had 6 catches for 57 yards and a touchdown, 20 rushing yards and 21 passing yards. The talk out of camp is that Langan wants to fine-tune his tight end skills for when the Patriots inevitably draft him (my words, not his). He has plenty of room to improve as a run blocker, and he should as he gets more snaps there.
That might be the only thing that can slow down is candidacy for FBP of the Year.
Antonio Johnson, Texas A&M
Contrary to the way this watch list started, no, FBP of the Year is not just for offensive players. You can embody that as a defensive player, as well. Johnson is on this list not just because he’s asked to do everything as a defensive player. He’s on this list because he does everything well as a defensive player.
Johnson was snubbed from first-team All-SEC honors, but you could make the case that he was the most valuable player for the No. 3 defense in America in 2021. He had 79 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble and 1 interception. But let’s take that a step further.
He was the only FBS defensive back with PFF grades of 85.0 in coverage and as a run defender. On top of that, he actually earned the No. 8 pass-rush grade among SEC corners. There’s no doubt that the sophomore possessed game-wrecking skills in every way:
That’s a heckuva hit by a DB. A&M’s Antonio Johnson. pic.twitter.com/cBy3YZR2Kj
— Brandon Zimmerman (@BZSEC) November 20, 2021
That’s why Johnson rarely left the field for Mike Elko’s defense. His 2021 snap count doesn’t even really illustrate just how versatile he was as someone who primarily operated as a slot corner:
- Slot CB: 603 snaps
- Box: 130 snaps
- DL: 43 snaps
- Wide CB: 19 snaps
- Free safety: 4 snaps
Johnson plays at a speed that most 6-3 guys don’t. It always looks like he’s running downhill. Call him a safety, call him a slot corner, call him a nickel guy, call him whatever. I’m convinced that you could line him up as an edge rusher 10 times a game and he’d finish the year with double digit sacks. That likely won’t be the case.
The biggest hurdle standing in Johnson’s way could be having so many new pieces in the front 7. If Johnson can play with that same nasty streak that we saw throughout 2021, he’ll be an FBP finalist at season’s end.
Jeremy Lewis, ECU
You want a defensive player from the Group of 5 ranks? Sure. Lewis is an excellent candidate. He’s a converted tight end who asked to switch to defense after the 2020 season. He then became an immediate starter. Now, the former 2-way high school star is a versatile edge defender. Don’t get it twisted, though. Lewis’ role has plenty of FBP qualities to it (he has plenty of potential to sneak into a goal-line formation and haul in a touchdown or 2-point conversion).
In 2021, here was his snap count:
- DL: 347 snaps
- Slot CB: 117 snaps
- Box: 98 snaps
No FBS edge defender played more coverage snaps than Lewis. Not a lot of edge rushers play more snaps in coverage than they do as pass rushers. That could’ve been the combination of a few things. Perhaps coordinators schemed to motion tight ends or running backs in space in an effort to capitalize on the new outside linebacker. Or it could’ve simply been that ECU’s staff were comfortable enough with his route-running abilities to leave him in spots where he had to cover.
Either way, Lewis was a key reason why ECU had a drastically improved defense and ultimately, a 4-win improvement. He was tied for the team lead in sacks (3) and he was tied for second in tackles for loss (5.5) and forced fumbles (2). The Pirates almost took down South Carolina in Week 2. In fact, we had FBP on FBP crime when Lewis stripped Joyner and forced a fumble that set up an ECU touchdown.
Joyner’s team got the last laugh. We’ll see if the same is true again with FBP of the Year.
And a final note … we’re taking suggestions!
If you’ve got someone you’d like to be on the Football Player of the Year watch list, drop their name in the comments!