Quinshon Judkins, shown here against Texas A & M, won the C Spire Conerly Trophy. Photo by Joshua McCoy/Ole Miss Athletics. Instagram and Twitter @OleMissPix

Remarkable Ole Miss freshman running back Quinshon Judkins won the C Spire Conerly Trophy Tuesday night and many Jackson State fans – and some media – are calling it a travesty.

If the tables were turned – if JSU’s Shadeur Sanders had won – Ole Miss fans and probably some media would be outraged.

Rick Cleveland

That’s just the way it is for individual awards in the sporting world. 

This column comes with this disclaimer: I voted for Judkins. It was a difficult choice. Shedeur Sanders, a player I have much admired and praised often in this column, led an undefeated Jackson State team to the SWAC championship. He completed 70% of his passes for more than 3,000 yards and 32 touchdowns (with only six interceptions). As his daddy, the coach, said, “As Shedeur goes, we go.” JSU has gone far.

In the run-up to the Conerly I heard many Ole Miss (and State) fans say something like, “Yeah, Sanders is obviously  good, but look at the competition he plays against. He’s not throwing for all those yards against Alabama and LSU.”

Sanders can’t help that. Steve McNair, Jerry Rice and Walter Payton didn’t play against Alabama and LSU either. I voted for McNair and Rice to win the Heisman Trophy and would have voted for Payton if I had had a vote back when Walter played at JSU. It is up to the individual voter to decide how a player’s talents translate to a higher level of competition. I believed both Rice and McNair were the most outstanding college players in the country — at any level — when they played. Doug Flutie won the Heisman instead of Rice. Rashaad Salaam won instead of McNair. You decide who was the better player in either case. I stand by my votes.

The Heisman is supposed to go to the most outstanding player in the country and the Conerly is supposed to go to the most outstanding player in the state. I voted for Judkins because I thought he was Mississippi’s most outstanding player. In my mind, it was close. How close? Had Sanders won, I would not have been surprised, nor disappointed. Do I think Shedeur Sanders would be a great player in the SEC? Yes, I do.

But again, having to make a choice between the two, I thought Judkins was the more outstanding player. Blending quickness, speed, power and toughness, Judkins ran for 1,476 yards and right at six yards per carry. He scored 16 rushing touchdowns and another on a pass reception. He ran for 214 yards against Texas A&M, 205 yards against Arkansas, 135 yards against Alabama, 139 against Auburn and 111 against LSU. He led the SEC in rushing and touchdowns. Before doing all that, he had to beat out Zach Evans, a former five-star recruit who ran for over seven yards per carry in two seasons at TCU.

Ole Miss has been playing football for 129 years. Nobody in school history has ever run for so many yards – not Deuce McAllister, not Joe Gunn, not Charlie Flowers, not anyone. 

As I wrote recently, Judkins reminds me most of the great Walter Payton. That is not a comparison I make flippantly. He runs with similar relentlessness. When people tackle him, it hurts them worse than it hurts him. He is just 19 years old. Barring injury and with continued hard work, he can become one of the greatest backs ever.

Shedeur Sanders, who will lead his team in the SWAC Championship game Saturday, was terrific as a freshman, better as a sophomore. In my mind, Judkins was a whisker better. For that matter, Mississippi State’s Emmanuel Forbes, the third Conerly finalist, might have been the best cornerback in the country. And there were other strong candidates — a testament to the quality of college football played in the Magnolia State.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.