Award To Honor Exemplary Leadership By A College Player
DALLAS (Nov. 10, 2021) – The semifinalists for the fifth annual Jason Witten Collegiate Man of the Year were announced today, a group that includes 20 of the nation’s top leaders in college football.
Compiled by a subset of the Jason Witten Collegiate Man of the Year Selection Committee, the semifinalists have all demonstrated a record of leadership by exhibiting exceptional courage, integrity and sportsmanship both on and off the field.
Eighteen seniors and two juniors make up the list. Among conferences, the ACC and Big Ten led the way with four selections each, while the SEC and Big 12 had three each. The Pac 12 and MAC each had two semifinalists, while the American Athletic Conference had one selection. There is also one semifinalist from an FBS Independent program.
The full list of semifinalists includes: Grant Morgan (Arkansas), Brandon Martin (Ball State), James Empey (BYU), Elijah Hicks (California), Desmond Ridder (Cincinnati), Darien Rencher (Clemson), Jake Bobo (Duke), Vederian Lowe (Illinois), Skylar Thompson (Kansas State), Joshua Paschal (Kentucky), Tanner Morgan (Minnesota), Austin Williams (Mississippi State), Adrian Martinez (Nebraska), Patrick Fields (Oklahoma), Sean Clifford (Penn State), Nick Figueroa (Southern California), Kingsley Jonathan (Syracuse), Tony Bradford, Jr. (Texas Tech), Bryce Harris (Toledo) and Brock Hoffman (Virginia Tech).
Three finalists will be named for the award on Wednesday, December 15. The winner will be announced at the award ceremony in Frisco, Texas, on February 17, 2022.
Last year, Sam Ehlinger of Texas won the award. The first three Jason Witten Collegiate Man of the Year awards were presented to Shaquem Griffin of UCF in 2017, D’Cota Dixon of Wisconsin in 2018 and Trey Smith of Tennessee in 2019.
The award, presented by Albertsons and Tom Thumb, is the first college football honor to focus primarily on a player’s leadership, both on and off the field. Leadership is a term synonymous with Jason Witten, who, in addition to becoming one of the best tight ends in the history of the sport, served as one of football’s most prominent role models during his 16-year pro career. In addition to winning the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award in 2012, Witten also received the Bart Starr Award, Pro Football Weekly’s Humanitarian of the Year Award, Home Depot NFL Neighborhood MVP and the Bob Lilly Award, among many others. All of those honors have recognized his work in the community, achievements on the field and dedication to his teammates and family.
“It’s my honor to announce this impressive group of young men as semifinalists for the fifth annual Collegiate Man of the Year,” said Witten. “These student-athletes are perfect examples of what makes college football so great. They have demonstrated exceptional character and leadership, often while facing large challenges. They are great representatives for the game of football, and I commend all nominees for getting to this point.”
The winner of the Jason Witten Collegiate Man of the Year will also receive a $10,000 contribution in his name to his school’s athletic scholarship fund. The contribution will be made by Jason Witten’s SCORE Foundation, the official charity of Jason and his wife Michelle. The SCORE Foundation, founded in 2007, has positively impacted tens of thousands of children and families in Texas and Tennessee over the last 14 years. The foundation operates its nationally-recognized SCOREkeepers program, which places trained male mentors on staff to work with children at family violence shelters, at nine shelters in the two states.
2021 JASON WITTEN COLLEGIATE MAN OF THE YEAR SEMIFINALISTS
Grant Morgan, Arkansas (Sr., LB) – A member of the Bednarik, Butkus and Nagurski watch lists, Morgan rose from a walk-on to become one of the nation’s top linebackers. His play on the field earned him All-SEC and second-team All-American honors last season, and his efforts in the classroom and in the community have made him a semifinalist for the William V. Campbell Trophy. He is a two-year captain for the Hogs and was a member of the SEC Football Community Service Team in 2020.
Brandon Martin, Ball State (Sr., LB) – Last year’s MAC Co-Defensive Player of the Year, Martin has overcome multiple season-ending injuries over his career, including one earlier this season. His leadership off the field, where he has given countless hours to charitable organizations like Best Buddies and Team IMPACT, has made him a two-time member of the Wuerffel Trophy watch list. He has twice won his team’s leadership award over the course of his time with the Cardinals.
James Empey, BYU (Sr., C) – A four-year starter and two-year captain for the Cougars, Empey is a Lombardi Award semi-finalist. He is a three-time member of the Rimington Trophy watch List and two-time member of the Outland Trophy watch Llst. His outstanding work in the classroom has earned him CoSIDA Academic All-District honors twice, and he works with the More To Life Foundation to help youth in Compton, Cal., and Harlem, NY, learn important life skills.
Elijah Hicks, California (Sr., S) – The heralded starting safety for Cal, Hicks is the active career leader in tackles for the Golden Bears. Overcoming a childhood in which he battled food insecurity, Hicks used his experiences as motivation to found his own non-profit, the Intercept Poverty Foundation. His foundation helped to raise more than $70,000 for families affected by COVID-19, and he currently has a 3.29 GPA.
Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati (Sr., QB) – The leader of the undefeated Bearcats is on watch lists for the O’Brien, Manning and Unitas Awards. Ridder was the 2020 AAC Offensive Player of the Year, and he has made the AAC All-Academic Team four times. A new parent, Ridder has balanced the demands of fatherhood while leading Cincinnati to its best season ever. He is an active member of the community, volunteering at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and local schools and Boys & Girls Clubs.
Darien Rencher, Clemson (Sr., RB) – A walk-on turned team and community leader for the Tigers, Rencher earned his degree in psychology last year and has made the ACC Honor Roll five times. One of four lead organizers of the Clemson Community Peaceful Demonstration in June 2020, he also worked with Trevor Lawrence to spearhead the #WeWantToPlay movement that helped save college football last year. He won the Disney Spirit Award, presented to college football’s most inspirational player, in 2020.
Jake Bobo, Duke (Sr., WR) – A 1,000-yard receiver at Duke, Bobo is a nominee for the 2021 Allstate AFCA Good Works Team, and recently was tabbed as a semifinalist for the Wuerffel Trophy for his extensive work in the community. A multiple-semester Dean’s List student, Bobo was named a 2020 Academic All-ACC selection. He has also been the recipient of Duke’s 2020 Clarkston Hines Award, an honor presented to Duke’s top receiver.
Vederian Lowe, Illinois (Sr., OL) – A member of the Outland Trophy Watch List, Lowe recently set the Illini record for career starts. An exceptional family man, he and his wife Haylee have two children, and they adopted Vederian’s 14-year-old brother Vydalis last year following the passing of his mother. Last season, The Big Ten selected him to speak on behalf of all conference student-athletes as the Big Ten Media Days featured speaker in the first student-athlete speech following the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown.
Skylar Thompson, Kansas State (Sr., QB) – Bounced back from a season-ending injury last year to earn a spot on the watch lists for the Maxwell, Manning and Unitas Awards. A three-time captain for the Wildcats, Thompson is also on the watch list for the Wuerffel Trophy, given to college football’s most active player in the community. He lost both his mom and his grandfather to cancer within seven months of each other when he was a child, and he has used the experience as motivation to be active in the Big Brothers Big Sisters mentoring program.
Joshua Paschal, Kentucky (Sr., DE) – The only three-time full season captain in the history of Kentucky football, Paschal beat cancer in 2018, after undergoing three surgeries and monthly immunotherapy treatment, and has played in 49 games in his career and ranks tied for third on UK’s career tackles for loss list. He was elected one of three representatives for UK Football on the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) and the SEC Football Leadership Council, and he is a member of the Dean’s List and SEC Academic Honor Roll. Paschal led a peaceful walk for racial and social justice in the city of Lexington, as well as a player demonstration during training camp in 2020 to raise awareness for those issues.
Tanner Morgan, Minnesota (Sr., QB) – Holds a dozen of Minnesota’s passing records and he has been named All-Big Ten Second Team, a Manning Award finalist and a Davey O’Brien Award semifinalist. A two-time Academic All-Big Ten performer, Morgan has earned his degree and is always present at team community service initiatives. He overcame the loss of his father due to cancer before the start of his senior season.
Austin Williams, Mississippi State (Sr., WR) – A William V. Campbell Trophy semifinalist and a first-team Academic All-American, Williams sports a 4.0 GPA while being the unquestioned leader of the Bulldogs. Currently working on his third degree, Williams served on a mission trip to the Dominican Republic and has volunteered at Batson Children’s Hospital. Nicknamed “Mr. Reliable” by his coaches and teammates.
Adrian Martinez, Nebraska (Sr., QB) – A four-year starter and the only three-time captain in the history of Nebraska football, Martinez owns six Nebraska career records. Currently pursuing a master’s degree, he has made the Academic All-Big Ten list every year he has been eligible. Martinez was one of ten national finalists across all sports for the 2021 Arthur Ashe, Jr. Sports Scholar of the Year Award. For his work in the community, Martinez was a nominee for the 2021 AFCA Good Works team.
Patrick Fields, Oklahoma (Sr., S) – A two-year captain for the Sooners, Fields is a finalist for the William V. Campbell Trophy and a semifinalist for the Wuerffel Trophy. He served for two years on the NCAA Division I Football Oversight and Competition Committee, and he currently leads his team in tackles. Fields is involved in and has founded countless community initiatives in Norman and his hometown of Tulsa.
Sean Clifford, Penn State (Sr., QB) – A three-year starter for the Nittany Lions, Clifford began the year on Watch Lists for the Manning, Maxwell and Unitas Awards, and he is a semifinalist for the William V. Campbell Trophy and the Allstate Good Works Team. He has thrown for more than 6,000 yards in his career and has been honored as Academic All-Big Ten three times. He served as Penn State’s leadership liaison for volunteer activities and has developed a special relationship with a nine-year old boy battling cancer.
Nick Figueroa, Southern California (Sr., DL) – After a breakout junior season that earned him All-Pac-12 Honorable Mention, Figueroa has continued his strong play in 2021. Off the field, he has served with USC’s Society 53, the governing body in charge of Student Alumni Society programming and events. He graduated Magna Cum Laude with a 3.76 GPA, and is currently pursuing his Master’s of Finance. He volunteers at Safe Place for Youth, which serves homeless youth in Venice, Calif., as well serves with Second Spoon, a non-profit created by his USC football teammate.
Kingsley Jonathan, Syracuse (Sr., DE) – Two-year starter for the Orangemen, Jonathan is a leader on and off the field at Syracuse. He is one of the ACC’s representatives with voting power on proposed NCAA rule changes and he earned the 2020 Jim Tatum Award, given to the top senior football student-athlete in the ACC. Jonathan was born in Nigeria and he is the founder of the SAAC Hoodie Drive, which gathers warm clothing for the homeless during winter months.
Tony Bradford, Jr., Texas Tech (Jr., DL) – First tabbed as a captain in only his sophomore season, Bradford regularly brings teammates together for a greater cause, helping the Red Raiders accumulate more than 1,200 community service hours. Bradford has organized numerous community service projects as well as “Red Raiders United,” a campus peace walk, after the death of George Floyd. Bradford, who is pursuing a career in law enforcement, represents the Big 12 on the NCAA Division-I Football Oversight Committee Student-Athlete Connection Group.
Bryce Harris, Toledo (Sr., C) – Preseason All-MAC selection at center, Harris is on the watch list for both the Rimington and Outland Trophies. Harris is a three-time Academic All-MAC honoree and is currently pursuing his graduate degree in school counseling. He helped raise $3,000 for Firestone High School seniors in his hometown of Akron for the Always Caring Project, which provides scholarships for student leaders who are high-spirited and supportive of their school community.
Brock Hoffman, Virginia Tech (Jr., C) – After transferring to Virginia Tech to be closer to his mother who was battling acoustic neuroma, he has twice been selected as ACC Offensive Lineman of the Week. A versatile player who can play all five positions on the line, Hoffman has served as a mentor to students at elementary schools. He also partnered with a local car dealership to donate 350 backpacks filled with school supplies to students in Virginia and his home state of North Carolina.