KENNESAW — Xavier Shepherd started the season on the bench.
He finished it as the Big South Conference Offensive Player of the Year.
The sophomore quarterback, who helped lead Kennesaw State to the conference title with a 49-17 victory over Monmouth last weekend, earned the award Tuesday as the Big South announced its season-ending honors.
Shepherd was not the only member of the Owls’ roster to be honored.
Kicker Nathan Robertson earned Special Teams Player of the Year, and defensive back Garland Benyard was named the Defensive Freshman of the Year.
Overall, Kennesaw State players earned 11 spots on either the first or second all-conference teams.
“Team success brings individual success,” said coach Brian Bohannon, who was named Big South Coach of the Year for the third time and is a finalist for the Eddie Robinson Award as the top coach in the Football Championship Subdivision. “Those three kids, they are all deserving. Shepherd has had a heck of a year, Robertson had a great year and Benyard, here’s a guy right out of high school that came in and did great things. There’s also some more guys who were just as deserving who didn’t get honored. We are about as much of being a team as we could be this year.”
Shepherd, who began the season as the backup to Jonathan Murphy before taking over amid the latter’s injury in the season opener against Reinhardt, also heads into the playoffs as one of 25 finalists for the Walter Payton Award given annually to the top offensive player in the FCS. He is the Owls’ leading rusher with 836 yards and leads the FCS with 19 rushing touchdowns. As a passer, he has completed 61.1% of his passes for 1,181 yards and 14 touchdown, against only three interceptions.
Robertson finished the regular season 9-of-12 on field goals with a career- and program-best 48-yarder, and he made all 45 of his extra points.
Benyard did not start until midseason, but he rarely came off the field once he did. Benyard finished the regular season eighth on the team with 28 tackles, including three for loss, one sack, a fumble recovery and a blocked punt.
Shepherd joined offensive linemen Jake Lassiter and William Nana Fabu on the first-team offense.
Linebacker Evan Thompson, who was considered for Defensive Player of the Year, had to settle for first-team honors after leading the team in tackles with 92 — 55 more than second-place Chance Bates. Thompson also finished with 9.5 tackles for loss, one sack, three pass breakups and five quarterback hits.
On a defense that ranked first in the conference in rushing yards allowed (99.1), second in passing yards allowed (215.9) and first in total defense (315), Thompson was the only first-team selection.
Thompson, a transfer from Division II Florida Tech, did not start the first couple games of the season, but once he settled in, he quickly became the leader of the defense.
“The great thing about Evan is he trusted the process,” Bohannon said. “He just kept doing what he was doing, and he earned it.”
Jacob Potter was the final first-team selection at long snapper.
Second-team offensive selections were linemen Zion Katina and Terrell Paxton. On defense, they were lineman Travis Bell and Bates at linebacker.
Wide receiver Caleb O’Neal earned a spot on the Big South All-Academic Team.