Conerly trophy to be awarded next Tuesday

Touchdown makers Nick Fitzgerald, Ito Smith and A.J. Brown would appear the leading candidates for the 2017 C Spire Conerly Trophy, and we’ll get to that here shortly.

But first: Archie Manning, who watched his youngest son, Eli, win two C Spire Conerly trophies, will be the featured speaker at the Jackson Hilton Tuesday night, Nov. 28, when the award is presented for the 22nd time.

The award goes each year to the best college football player in Mississippi. Eli Manning won it as a sophomore in 2001 and a senior in 2003, which always brings to mind the question: Who won it in 2002 when Eli was a junior?

Southern Miss linebacker Rod Davis is the answer to that question. Manning and JSU’s Robert Kent were the other finalists that year.

More Conerly trivia: Ole Miss and Mississippi State players have won the trophy the most at seven times each. Southern Miss players have won it four times, followed by Delta State with two and Millsaps with one. The only two-winners have been Manning and State’s Dak Prescott.

Quarterbacks have won the Conerly nine times. Running backs have won it six, followed by linebackers with four. MSU guard Gabe Jackson won in 2013 and Ole Miss tight end Evan Engram won last year, the only two times someone other than a quarterback, running back or linebacker have won it.

Interestingly, Jackson won both the C Spire Conerly and the Entergy Kent Hull Offensive Lineman of the Year the first year that award was given. You should know that the Conerly winner is chosen by a statewide panel of media (90 percent of the vote) and public voting (10 percent), conducted by C Spire on social media. The Hull award, chosen by a panel of professional scouts and former coaches, is presented the same night.

Often, it seems, the Conerly is awarded to the best player on the best team. If that happens this year, expect Archie Manning to give the award to Nick Fitzgerald, the Mississippi State quarterback who attended the Manning Passing Academy last summer.

Mississippi State has been the state’s best team at the highest level this season, having won eight and lost three going into Thursday night’s Egg Bowl. Fitzgerald has led the way, throwing for 1,770 yards and 15 touchdowns and running for 966 yards and 14 more scores. He has led the Bulldogs to a 32.5 points per game output.

But Fitzgerald faces stiff competition. If the Conerly were a career award, Southern Miss running back Ito Smith might run away with it. A Conerly finalist last year, Smith has rushed for 4,294 yards and caught passes for another 1,408 yards at USM. He has accounted for 48 touchdowns. Smith has been terrific in his senior season, running for 1,171 yards and nearly six yards per carry, including three for 80 yards or more.

Ole Miss wide receiver A.J. Brown also has posted eye-popping numbers, leading the Southeastern Conference in receiving with 69 catches for 1,085 yards and 10 touchdowns.

And don’t overlook Delta State running back Chris Robinson, another finalist from the 2016 Conerly voting. Robinson has run for 100 yards or more in seven games and has accounted for 19 touchdowns. Meanwhile, Alcorn running back De’Lance Turner has run for 1,262 yards and 7.6 yards per carry.

Other Conerly finalists include Belhaven quarterback Hunter McEachern, Jackson State linebacker Shawn Bishop, Millsaps linebacker Jacob Kendall and defensive backs Chris Manning of Mississippi College and Mark Pegues of Mississippi Valley State.

The Nov. 28 program at the Jackson Hilton will include a 5:30 p.m. reception and 6:30 p.m. awards banquet. Tickets must be purchased in advance from the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum, 601-982-8264.

Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email address is rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.

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