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Johnson named to Payton watch list

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Montana quarterback Jordan Johnson

Montana quarterback Jordan Johnson escapes a Coastal Carolina defender.

Montana third-year starting quarterback Jordan Johnson has been named to the 2014 Walter Payton Award watch list, The Sports Network announced Monday.

Johnson, a 6-1, 195-pound senior from Eugene, Oregon, is 20-6 as a starter; his 20 victories tie him for the sixth-most in school history with Craig Ochs (2003-04). Johnson was named UM’s co-captain on offense with senior running back Jordan Canada.

“It’s pretty special to be on the Payton Award list,” said Johnson, who stayed in Missoula with about 85 percent of his teammates to prepare for the upcoming season. “It’s a great honor. I feel like it’s not just me, but the whole Montana team and offense that has been put in this spotlight. I am so thankful to have the teammates that I’ve had, and the coaches that I’ve had who put me in a position to be honored like this.

Last season he passed for 3,387 yards and 32 touchdowns, with just five interceptions. His passing yards and scoring throws are the fifth and fourth (tie) highest totals in UM’s single-season history. The Griz went 10-3 with an at-large berth in the FCS playoffs.

“It was definitely a good feeling, but also, this off-season I feel like we have a ton of unfinished business, and we didn’t necessarily get as far as we would have liked last year,” Johnson said. “I think that’s been some added motivation to the guys coming back. We had a bad taste in our mouths for sure from last season.”

Johnson was ranked second in the Big Sky Conference and ninth in the FCS in passing efficiency (154.7) a year ago. He was fourth in the league and 21st in the nation in total offense, averaging 271.9 yards a game.

Johnson was ranked among the top 20 in the FCS in several other categories as well, including: fourth in passing yards per completion (15.40); sixth in passing touchdowns (32); 11th in total passing yards (3,387); and 15th in points responsible for (192).

A third team All-Big Sky pick last season, Johnson was also the Grizzlies’ Steve Carlson Award (MVP) co-winner, sharing that honor with senior linebacker Brock Coyle.

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.

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The breakdown of the 20 players on the initial Payton Watch List by position: nine quarterbacks, six running backs, four wide receivers and one tight end.

Returning as finalists to the list are South Dakota State senior running back Zach Zenner, who finished seventh in 2012 and sixth last year, and 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.

Zenner, who is 6-0, 215, 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 and 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 rushing touchdowns. Epperly was responsible for 26.2 points per game – the national high.

The only other Big Sky player named to the list was Eastern Washington’s Cooper Kupp. The sophomore won the 2013 Jerry Rice Award as the FCS freshman of the year.

Also nominated to the watch list were quarterbacks Jacob Huesman of Chattanooga, 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.

* * * * *

Former Grizzly great Dave Dickenson, UM’s record-setting quarterback, is Montana’s only Walter Payton Award winner, receiving that honor in 1995.

Other past winners of the Payton include Steve McNair, Tony Romo, Brian Westbrook, Brian Finneran, John Friesz, Armanti Edwards and the 2013 recipient, Jimmy Garoppolo, a second-round draft choice in the recent NFL draft by the New England Patriots.

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.

On Thursday, The Sports Network will announce its Buck Buchanan Award watch list.

Reach the Missoulian newsroom at @missoulian, at newsdesk@missoulian.com or at (406) 523-5240

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