Drake trio of Stepsis, Claypool, and Dunning lead 2023 PFL Major Award Recipients

Monday, November 27, 2023
by Cody Bush, PFL Media Relations

SAINT LOUIS, Mo. – After leading Drake University to its first Pioneer Football League title since 2012, head coach Todd Stepsis was selected by his peers as their unanimous selection for Pioneer Football League Coach of the Year. In addition, Drake defensive lineman Finn Claypool and kicker Shane Dunning were the PFL Defensive and Special Teams Players of the Year, respectively. That trio of Drake honorees leads the list of the league’s major award winners as selected by the PFL’s head coaches and presented Monday.

Butler running back Jyran Mitchell is the league’s Offensive Player of the Year, becoming the second consecutive Bulldogs student-athlete to earn the league’s top offensive honor.

A pair of Stetson freshmen swept the league’s freshman honors. Stetson wide receiver Ronnell Johnson is the league’s Freshman Offensive Player of the Year, and linebacker Andrew Martin is the PFL Defensive Freshman of the Year.

The annual PFL Major Awards announcement launches the league’s annual awards week. The PFL will announce its 31st All-PFL Teams on Tuesday. The league will announce its Scholar-Athlete of the Year Wednesday, coinciding with the announcement of the 31st Academic All-PFL teams. 

Stepsis, a Shelby, Ohio native, led Drake to its first PFL Championship since the 2012 season and to its first-ever appearance in the NCAA Division I Football Championship. The Bulldogs finished the 2023 season unbeaten in PFL play and extended their conference winning streak to 11 games. Drake’s 8-3 regular-season record was a complete turnaround from last season’s 3-8 mark, which took winning the final three games of the season – all in PFL play – to reach. The Bulldogs defense held their eight PFL opponents to 97 points (12.1 ppg) and ranked 32nd among FCS teams, allowing just 22.6 points per game during the regular season. Stepsis becomes the first Drake head coach to win the league’s Coach of the Year award since three-time PFL Coach of the Year Rob Ash won the north division’s honor in 2004.

Chicago native Mitchell followed 2022 honoree Bret Bushka as Butler products to win the league’s top offensive player. Mitchell won the league’s rushing title with 1,268 net rushing yards – fifth-most among all FCS backs during the regular season. He also was third in the league with 12 rushing touchdowns, and his 15 total touchdowns were tied for the league lead. In league action, Mitchell amassed 985 rushing yards in league play and 1,147 all-purpose yards – both tops among league runners. Nationally, he finished 10th among FCS runners with 133.64 all-purpose yards per game, fourth in total touchdowns, and eighth in scoring.

Claypool, a Des Moines, Iowa product, becomes the second student-athlete in league history to follow up a Freshman Defensive Player of the Year campaign by winning the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award the following year. He joins Stetson defensive back Donald Payne, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, to accomplish the feat. Claypool helped Drake win the 2023 PFL Championship behind a 55-tackle campaign that included 19.0 tackles for loss, 12.5 sacks, five forced fumbles, and two pass breakups. He finished the regular season ranked second among FCS defenders in sacks and is fifth in tackles for loss. In his first two seasons with his hometown team, he has amassed 33.5 tackles for loss and 20.5 sacks.

Dunning, from Muskego, Wisconsin, handled kicking and punting duties for the Bulldogs this season. He finished with 15 field goals made, including a league-leading 14 field goals in PFL play, and finished the season with 67 points after adding 22 PATs. Dunning averaged 37.96 yards per punt in all games, with a league-leading 24 of his 55 punts downed inside the 20-yard line. He finished the regular season ranked among the FCS Top 12 in field-goal percentage (9th, 83.3 percent) and field goals per game (11th, 1.36 per game). Dunning is the first Drake student-athlete to win the league’s special teams award since placekicker Josh Lee in 2016.

A year after Stetson quarterback Brady Meitz earned the PFL Offensive Player of the Year award, the Hatters’ Johnson claims the honor. A McDonough, Georgia native, he caught 19 passes for 388 yards and three touchdowns. Johnson did not debut until Week 4 against Butler and caught a pass in his first three games. However, he closed his freshman season with 100-yard receiving performances against Davidson and San Diego, catching two touchdown passes against the Toreros.

Martin, another McDonough, Georgia product, becomes the third Hatters defender to win Freshman Defensive Player of the Year honors and the first since defensive back JJ Henderson in 2017. He recorded 62 tackles, four tackles for loss, and a sack in nine games this season. Martin authored four double-digit tackle performances against PFL opponents during the season, including a season-high 14 tackles against Marist.

2023 Pioneer Football League Major Award Winners

Offensive Player of the Year: Jyran Mitchell, Butler
Defensive Player of the Year: Finn Claypool, Drake
Special Teams Player of the Year: Shane Dunning, Drake
Freshman Offensive Player of the Year: Ronnell Johnson, Stetson
Freshman Defensive Player of the Year: Andrew Martin, Stetson
Coach of the Year: Todd Stepsis, Drake (unanimously)
Scholar-Athlete of the Year: To be announced Wednesday