The award is named in honor of the late Walter Payton, the Professional Football Hall of Fame running back who spent his entire NFL career (1975-1987) with the Chicago Bears. Payton attended Jackson State University, a SWAC school, in the 1970s.
Three nominees from each school -- the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference's North Carolina A&T State University (Greensboro, N.C.) and the Southwestern Athletic Conference's Alabama A&M University (Normal, Ala.) -- were selected by a committee of academic advisers and coaches.
The two winners -- each school nominates a pool of three players -- is determined via online fan voting through the summer and announced before the game. Voting for the 2014 Walter Payton Achievement Award opens July 24 and closes Aug. 20, with the winners announced Aug. 30, from the welcome reception banquet at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Here are the nominees from each school:
Alabama A&M University nominees
Jordan Puente, PK
Hometown: San Luis, Mexico
Major: Business Administration, Class: Junior
When James Spady was appointed head football coach at Alabama A&M in January, he expressed his exuberance by saying: "Starting this morning, we're in the process of building a dynasty." With student-athletes like place-kicker Puente, Spady is well on his way. "He is a great student, good team member and a good person to be around in the locker room," Spady said of the Business Administration major with a 3.58 GPA. A standout soccer star in high school, Puente -- who is fluent in Spanish, English and Portuguese -- played in five games last season, posting 10 kickoffs (for 404 yards, averaging 40.4), five PATs, and was 1-for-1 on field goals. Spady said of Puente, who is on the Dean's List: "We are excited to have him on our team, and look for him to do great things."
David Dagrin, DL
Major: General studies, Class: Redshirt junior
A decorated high school track star and football star, Dagrin participated in the Florida North vs. South All-Star game and was a third-team All-Dade County player. Having been on "The Hill" since 2011, Dagrin played in 17 games, netting 21 tackles (three for loss), two sacks, a forced fumble and a pass defended. "We are looking for [Dagrin] to give us depth in our defensive front," Spady said. "We like coaching smart football players, and he fits our mold: smart, fast and physical." Dagrin maintains a 2.91 GPA.
Alan Cruz, OL
Hometown: Huntsville, Alabama
Major: Physical education, Class: Senior
Since a 2010 redshirt season, Cruz has been on a tear. In 2011, he anchored an offensive line that gave up only 22 sacks on 399 passing attempts and 1,805 rushing yards. In 2012, while seeing action in only 10 games (due to injury), Cruz was vital on an A&M line that opened holes for 1,657 yards rushing while yielding only 21 sacks. Through 34 games in three years, Cruz was the lone returner on a line that gave up just 1,840 rushing yards and 2,300 passing yards. "He's maybe our biggest contributor on the field," Spady said of Cruz, who maintains a 2.78 GPA, "a very mature player who has contributed quite a bit up front."
North Carolina A&T State University nominees
Denzel Keyes, WR
Hometown: Kinston, North Carolina
Major: Chemistry, Class: Sophomore
A two-sport athlete (he also plays basketball) at North Carolina A&T, Keyes is also a two-sport starter, proving he's not one to shy away from a challenge -- all while maintaining a 3.14 GPA. "You have to admire his fortitude and willingness to take on such a challenge," coach Rod Broadway said of the Chemistry major. "In order to do something like this you need to be a pretty good athlete, and Denzel is definitely as superb athlete."
Quentin Todd, WR
Hometown: Raleigh, North Carolina
Major: Broadcast production, Class: Redshirt senior
A valuable special teams player the past two seasons, Todd will compete in 2014 for time at receiver alongside a solid group of Aggies route-runners. Todd is a speedster (4.65 40-yard dash) with hops (31-inch vertical) who also has an excellent academic history at A&T. His resume includes scholar athlete and All-MEAC Academic Team honors, as well as a 3.12 GPA. "Todd will likely step into a larger role during the 2014 season," Broadway said of Todd. "He is a hard worker and dedicated to the role we give him each year."
William Ray Robinson III, OL
Hometown: Clinton, Maryland
Major: Journalism and mass communication, Class: Redshirt junior
Robinson is regarded as one of the best offensive linemen in the MEAC, having been named First-Team All-MEAC as a sophomore. Tasked with protecting the quarterback's blindside, Robinson has been a constant through 30 games (29 starts). "William has been a leader for us on and off the field," Broadway said of Robinson, who is looking to return to the field after a knee injury to add to the 100-plus pancake blocks in his career. "We're looking forward to seeing how well he performs his senior season."