This might be the most wide-open season for the Conerly Trophy, which goes to the best college-football player in Mississippi each year. There are plenty of great athletes in our state this year, but no player has overwhelmed the rest of the field. There are still plenty of games left for someone to take the lead on the field.
University of Mississippi quarterback Shea Patterson’s season-ending knee injury on Oct. 1 has made the Conerly landscape even less clear. It seemed certain that Patterson would be the Rebels’ nominee for the trophy at the end of the season.
That leaves two Conerly favorites at this point—Mississippi State University quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and University of Southern Mississippi running back Ito Smith—and both players are in the midst of solid seasons.
Fitzgerald is one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation. His passing needs work, but his running skills help make up for this deficiency. This season, he has passed for 1,179 yards with 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Comparatively, he has 561 yards with nine touchdowns while carrying the ball, as he can pound out yards or make some shifty moves in the open field.
Smith is third in Conference USA in rushing with 781 yards and seven touchdowns. If there is a weakness in his game, it is as a receiver. He has made just 232 yards on 24 catches with just one touchdown. In his final season at USM, though, Smith is putting his name all over the school’s record book.
There are two Rebels who could replace Patterson as the team’s nominee for the trophy. Wide receiver A.J. Brown currently leads the Southeastern Conference in receiving with 717 yards and is tied for the lead in touchdowns with six. Brown could be the best N.W.O. (Nasty Wide Outs) member on the Rebels’ roster. Also in the mix is UM linebacker DeMarquis Gates, who is tied for fourth in the SEC in tackles with 57 total tackles, 36 solo tackles, two sacks and two passes defended.
Alcorn State University has two players that it could nominate for the Conerly. Quarterback Lenorris Footman has thrown for 1,556 yards with nine touchdowns and four interceptions, and has rushed for 453 yards and five touchdowns. Meanwhile, Braves running back De’Lance Turner is leading the Southwestern Athletic Conference with 894 rushing yards and five touchdowns, with a 7.6-yard-per-carry average.
This year has been a struggle for Jackson State University, but linebacker Shawn Bishop is having an outstanding season. He is eighth in the conference in tackles with 46 total tackles, 16 solo tackles, six tackles for a loss and 1.5 sacks.
Mississippi Valley State University features the leading receiver in the SWAC. The Delta Devils wide receiver Quinn McElfresh leads the conference in receptions with 39 and receiving yards with 589 yards, and he has also scored one touchdown. He would be a dark horse to win the Conerly, but no SWAC player has won the trophy since it was first given out in 1996. However, all three SWAC schools could have a strong nominee for the award this year.
Another potential Conerly Trophy dark horse is Mississippi College running back Chris Robinson. He is currently third in rushing in the Gulf South Conference with 622 yards and tied for first in rushing touchdowns with nine.
Either way, at the end of the season, each four-year university and college in Mississippi will nominate a finalist for the Conerly for members of the media—myself not included—to vote on. We may end up having a close race all the way to the end.