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WCU's Cole Gonzales Posts WCU’s Best-Ever Finish in Payton Award Vote

By Daniel Hooker

Assistant Athletic Director for Media Relations

Western Carolina sophomore quarterback Cole Gonzales finished a program-best 17th overall in the national voting for the 2023 Walter Payton Award, presented by FedEx ground and announced by Stats Perform FCS as the trio of award finalists were released today.

Gonzales was among 30 finalists for the 37th annual Payton Award, which is named for legendary running back Walter Payton, who starred at Jackson State as part of his Hall of Fame career. He is the fourth WCU player to be up for the nation’s top FCS offensive player of the year award with his 17th-place finish the best by a Catamount. Gonzales joined former QBs Troy Mitchell (2015) and Tyrie Adams (2018), who finished 25th and in a 19th-place tie, respectively, and former RB Detrez Newsome who finished 24th in 2017.

Additionally, Gonzales was the highest finisher among the three offensive award finalists from the Southern Conference, outpacing fellow QB Michael Hiers from Samford and Mercer WR Ty James who both finished tied for 21st in the voting.

A first-team All-Southern Conference media selection and the league’s Roy M. “Legs” Hawley Offensive Player of the Year from the SoCon Sports Media Association (SCSMA), Gonzales guided the nation’s top yardage-producing offense in the NCAA FCS as the Catamounts finished the regular season leading the country with 504.1 yards per game. He finished the year 204-of-310 for 2,803 yards and a school-record – and nation-leading – 28 touchdown passes against just eight interceptions at the close of the regular season. Gonzales ranked third in the NCAA FCS in passer efficiency (166.40) and was tied for 14th overall in passing yards per game at 254.8.

Originally from Ocala, Fla., Gonzales passed for 200 or more yards in nine of the team's 11 games this season, eclipsing the 300-yard threshold three times including a career-best 388 passing yards against Mercer. He also completed 20 or more passes four times. Gonzales established and matched a career-high with five touchdown passes on three occasions, setting the benchmark with five scores through the air in the first half against Charleston Southern in late September. He also threw for five scores against Mercer and in the "Blue Ridge Border Battle" win over ETSU in mid-November.

Gonzales was twice named the SoCon Offensive Player of the Week in 2023 while also collecting a pair of honorable mentions for the FedEx Ground National Offensive Player of the Week plaudit. He earned his first weekly award after the five-TD performance in the 77-21 victory over Charleston Southern, completing 14-of-16 passes for 299 yards over two quarters. His second honor came following the 58-7 win over ETSU where he passed for 363 yards on 25 completions and matched his career-best for the third time this season with five TD passes.

Quarterbacks Max Brosmer of New Hampshire and Mark Gronowski of South Dakota State and running back Jaden Shirden of Monmouth have been invited to the announcement of the 2023 Walter Payton Award, which honors the national offensive player of the year in Division I FCS college football and is presented by FedEx Ground. The winner, selected by a national voting panel after the regular season, will be announced at the Stats Perform FCS National Awards Banquet on Jan. 6 in Frisco, Texas – the eve of the national championship game.

The Walter Payton Award, first presented in 1987, has a distinguished history of recipients, including Steve McNair, Tony Romo, Brian Westbrook, Jimmy Garoppolo, Cooper Kupp, and Trey Lance.

Like the Payton Award, the winners of the Buck Buchanan Award (FCS defensive player of the year), Jerry Rice Award (FCS freshman player of the year), Eddie Robinson Award (FCS coach of the year) and FedEx Ground Doris Robinson Scholar-Athlete of the Year Award will be honored at the national awards banquet.

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