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Big Ten’s 5 Most Overlooked Maxwell Award Candidates for 2017

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The Maxwell Award is presented annually to the best all-around college football player as determined by a panel made up of broadcasters, writers, coaches and members of the Maxwell Football Club. The prestigious award dates back to 1937 with last year's recipient being Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson. This year’s preseason watch list for the Maxwell Award consists of 86 FBS players, 11 of those coming from the Big Ten.

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While some of the Big Ten representatives are well known to college football fans and observers, some of the others may not be as recognized. Here are five (in alphabetical order) that may not get the attention and respect they are due, but are nonetheless worthy candidates.

This year’s recipient of the Maxwell Award will be announced as part of “The Home Depot College Football Awards,” which will be broadcast on ESPN on Dec. 7.

— Written by Robert A. Boleyn, a member of the Athlon Contributor Network since July 2015. He attended both the University of Iowa and UCLA, and after nearly 25 years in Southern California once again calls the Greater Chicago area home. Follow him on Twitter @BoleynRobert.

Janarion Grant, WR/KR/PR, Rutgers

Rutgers’ football history goes back nearly 150 years as the birthplace of the collegiate game. During that timeframe, the Scarlet Knights’ program has produced some exceptionally notable players, including All-Americans Harry J. Rockafeller (1915), Frank Burns (1949), Eric Young (1989) and Anthony Davis (2007). This list could grow in 2017, as the preseason accolades have already begun for Grant, Rutgers’ all-time kickoff return yardage leader and a member of Athlon Sports' preseason All-America team.

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Last season, Grant was averaging 165.8 all-purpose yards per game before suffering a season-ending ankle injury against Iowa on Sept. 24. In 2015, Grant finished second in the Big Ten with 1,583 all-purpose yards (984 on kick returns, 352 receiving, 167 punt returns, 80 rushing), and the season before that he had 317 all-purpose yards in a game against Maryland, the second most in school history.

Grant's philosophy on the possibility of winning the Maxwell Award is simple – “Don't get the big head. Just stay level and grounded, and work to be the best and be the first one they talk about.”

In 42 games, Grant is currently fourth all-time in the Rutgers record books with 4,251 all-purpose yards and first with 2,606 kickoff return yards. He is currently tied for first in FBS history with eight career combined kick return touchdowns (five kickoff, three punt), a number which is likely to grow in 2017. And if his year goes according to the script he's written in his most recent seasons, look for him to continue to make a legitimate case to be presented with the Maxwell Award.

Justin Jackson, RB, Northwestern

Leading the Wildcats’ offense in 2017 will be Jackson, a native of Carol Stream, Illinois, and the Big Ten’s leading rusher (1,524 yards) last season. Not surprisingly, Jackson has received his share of preseason accolades, including being named to the watch lists for the Doak Walker Award and the Wuerffel Trophy.

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A local product from Glenbard North, Jackson was the No. 5 overall prospect from Illinois in the class of 2014 according to Scout.com, and he was the No. 4 overall running back per 247Sports. And from the moment he set foot on campus, Jackson has lived up to those expectations.

Jackson enters his senior season ranked in the top 10 in school history in numerous categories, including second behind only Darien Anderson in rushing yards. Jackson needs just 357 yards to surpass Anderson for the top spot and another 1,500-yard season would move him all the way up to second on the Big Ten’s career list. As long as he can stay healthy, Jackson has a shot at claiming several more Northwestern records.

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But his accomplishments continue off of the field as well, including Academic All-American honors last season. “Football does end. And when it does, you have to have some type of way to continue your life,” he said.

Whatever path Jackson’s life takes after he finishes his football career at Northwestern, it’s not hard to envision his name being called in next year’s NFL draft. And he just might take that step as a Maxwell Award winner.

LJ Scott, RB, Michigan State

Even as Michigan State staggered to a disappointing 3-9 season, which included 1-8 showing in the Big Ten, following one of the most successful six-year runs in school history, one thing did in fact live up to the hype last season for the Spartans. And that was Scott, their junior running back.

Michigan State Spartans RB LJ Scott

A top-10 running back recruit coming out of Hubbard (Ohio), Scott hit the ground running, literally, when he arrived on campus and has yet to look back. His 1,693 rushing yards are the fifth most by a Spartan through their sophomore season. Last season, Scott was not only Michigan State’s best player, he also finished eighth in the Big Ten in rushing (994 yards) and sixth in yards per carry (5.4, minimum 100 attempts).

Even though Scott is in the same backfield as senior Gerald Holmes, head coach Mark Dantonio made his feeling known about the situation at Big Ten Media Days when he said of the junior, “He's [Scott] certainly getting a lot of attention right now. And it's deserved. So right now, he's our guy.”

Scott also may end up the season as the Maxwell Club's “guy” as well. And if not this year, than possibly 2018 since he is just a junior, although the NFL could come calling next year too.

Rodney Smith, RB, Minnesota

Ask any college football fan about the Golden Gophers, and “stability” is probably not a word they'd choose. The Gophers enter the 2017 campaign with their third head coach in as many seasons, and a great deal of uncertainty about what to expect in P.J. Fleck’s first campaign. But one player Fleck is sure to lean heavily on in his debut with Minnesota is Smith.

Minnesota Golden Gophers RB Rodney Smith

A junior, Smith led the team and finished fourth in the Big Ten with 1,158 rushing yards last season. He also was second with 16 rushing touchdowns. He’s already among the top rushers in school history with 1,828 career yards in 25 games. He’s more than just a running back as well, as his 257 all-purpose yards against Rutgers last season placed him 12th in program history for a single game and the most since David Cobb had 233 against Michigan in 2014. Smith also enters this season with 155 consecutive carries without a fumble.

Although he wasn’t the most highly recruited player coming out of Jonesboro, Georgia, Smith has already left quite an impression on the Minnesota record books in his first two seasons. He has a capable backfield mate in fellow junior Shannon Brooks, but Smith should expect plenty of opportunities to add to his resume as Fleck and the Golden Gophers hope to get off to a strong start.

Akrum Wadley, RB, Iowa

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Wadley was not only the team’s leading rusher (1,081 yards on 168 carries) last season, he also was second in both receptions (36) and receiving yards (315) as well. He had six 100-yard rushing games last season, including in the Hawkeyes’ upset victory over then-No. 3 Michigan and in the Outback Bowl loss to Florida.

Physically, he's built in a more compact fashion (5-11, 195) than many of his peers and is not the typical Iowa back. He may not make a lot of would-be tacklers miss or possess breakaway speed, but his size and strength are more than enough to make him effective as a ball carrier. His 6.4 yards per carry average was second in the Big Ten in 2016 among running backs with at least 100 attempts.

Hawkeyes head coach Kirk Ferentz thinks his senior could be in for a big season, saying “He’s bigger, more mature. With each month he has improved as a player.”

With Ferentz overhauling his offensive coaching staff in the offseason and uncertainty at quarterback, Iowa is sure to lean on Wadley. A second straight 1,000-yard season is probably a safe bet as long as he stays healthy, but don’t be surprised if he ends up challenging for the rushing title in the Big Ten.