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Challenges ahead for Payton Award finalists

By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - A player doesn't become a Walter Payton Award finalist without being able to face a challenge.

While this year's finalists try to avoid tackles on the field, Eastern Washington senior quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell, the 2011 winner of the Payton Award (sponsored by Fathead.com) which goes to the outstanding player in the FCS, and the two runners-up, Lehigh senior quarterback Chris Lum and Indiana State sophomore running back Shakir Bell, are anxious to tackle their upcoming challenges.

After receiving the 25th Payton Award last Friday in Frisco, Texas, Mitchell remained in the Dallas area this week to train with Olympic champion sprinter Michael Johnson in preparation for the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl on Jan. 21 in Carson, Calif.

While the Payton Award honors players for their collegiate achievements, it isn't necessarily indicative of a player's professional potential.

Quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell threw for 11,595 yards and 106 touchdowns in his career at SMU and Eastern Washington.
But the combination of Mitchell being a former FBS starter (at SMU), leading Eastern Washington to the 2010 FCS championship, and winning the Payton is an undeniable resume. He threw for 11,595 yards and 106 touchdowns in his four- year career.

Still, how Mitchell performs before NFL scouts and, he hopes, in a training camp, will hold the most weight.

"Hopefully, I'll go out there and impress somebody," he said, looking forward to the NFLPA game.

While FCS players often have to overcome a small-school stigma with the NFL, the CFL has been a nice landing spot for past Big Sky Conference standouts. Two of the last four Buck Buchanan Award (sponsored by Fathead.com) winners, Greg Peach in 2008 and J.C. Sherritt in 2010, have gone from being Eastern Washington teammates to CFL teammates.

"They told me, 'You have what it takes. What it comes down to is what kind of person you are,'" Mitchell said. "If you really want to be at that level, it's a different kind of work ethic. It's a different experience where you push yourself hard through college and get through all those troubles, but it's beyond that, it's even harder than that. So it's about being able to push yourself past those levels, past that hump, past that mountain you think you've already climbed. Going through that, it's going to be an experience. I'm excited for it."

Lum faces even longer odds than Mitchell. He's not only coming from an FCS program, but one that plays in a smaller FCS conference, the Patriot League.

Upcoming All-Star Games
Announced FCS players for upcoming all-star college football games:

Casino Del Sol College All-Star Game, Jan. 16 in Tucson, Ariz. -

Stars (East) Roster: Jeremy Lane, Northwestern State, CB; Tre Gray, Richmond, WR; Rich Rossi, Sacred Heart, WR; Dontrell Johnson, Murray State, WR; Jake Trantin, William & Mary, ILB; Alex Gottlieb, William & Mary, TE; Drew Zamora, Northern Arizona, K/P; Gino Gradkowski, Delaware, C; Ronnie Cameron, Old Dominion, DT; Brian McNally, New Hampshire, DE; Jerome Raymond, Morehead State, DE.
Stripes (West) Roster: DeShawn Shead, Portland State, SS; Adrian Hamilton, Prairie View A&M, DE; D.J. Hall, Texas State, OG; Brian Riley, Northern Arizona, TE; Mike Ebbitt, Texas State, DT

East-West Shrine Game, Jan. 21 in St. Petersburg, Fla. -

East Roster: B.J. Coleman, Chattanooga, QB; Jeff Adams, Columbia, OT; Tim Benford, Tennessee Tech, WR; Justin Bethel, Presbyterian, CB; Kevin Hardy, The Citadel, WR; Emil Igwenagu, Massachusetts, TE; Micah Pellerin, Hampton, CB; Christian Thompson, South Carolina State, S., Josh Norman, Coastal Carolina CB

West Roster: Tom Compton, South Dakota, OT; Dale Moss, South Dakota State WR.

AstroTurf NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, Jan. 21 in Carson, Calif. -

Bo Levi Mitchell, Eastern Washington, QB; Kadarron Anderson, Furman, LB; Laron Scott, Georgia Southern CB/KR; George Bias, Stephen F. Austin, OL; Ben Wells, Stephen F. Austin, DB; Ahkiel White, Bucknell and Rhode Island, DB; Keith Newell, Delaware State, OL; Trevor Scott, Florida A&M, K; Isaiah Thomas, Hampton, WR; LaQuinton Evans, Southern, WR; Jared Green, Southern, WR

Senior Bowl, Jan. 28 in Mobile, Ala. - None to date
The ringing endorsement for Lum isn't just that he threw for an FCS-high 4,378 yards this season, but that he led Lehigh to a road playoff win for the second straight season. Heady stuff, indeed.

Similar to Mitchell, Lum has drawn off the experience of a former teammate, Will Rackley, who was drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the third round last year, as well as others.

"I've been in contact with him," Lum said. "People who are friends of friends. My coach has some contacts, too, that he's helping me network a little bit.

"I just about decided on my agent. I'm just really looking forward to getting some serious training done with a quarterback coach and a strength coach. I'm just really going to take it serious. At the same time, I'm going to be finishing my degree."

Bell is working toward his degree, too. He has two more years to build off a sophomore season in which he was the FCS rushing leader (151.8 ypg).

The biggest challenge facing Bell is helping Indiana State get past its 6-5 level of the past two seasons. Those records are a big achievement for the formerly downtrodden program, but Bell and the Sycamores have a certain bucket list whose next checks would be a playoff berth and a Missouri Valley Football Conference championship (although the Missouri Valley is home to the new national champion, North Dakota State).

"It's one of the greatest experiences I've ever experienced in my life," Bell said, looking back on being at the FCS awards presentation and championship game week. "I'm here with some great guys, great competition. I'm going to remember this for a long time. Hopefully, I'll be back here next year."

Sacks or scores, contact Craig Haley at
chaley@sportsnetwork.com.


Follow Craig Haley on Twitter and Facebook.

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