The Valparaiso University football team was well represented as the Phil Steele Preseason All-Conference Team for the Pioneer Football League was unveiled on Monday. A group of 10 Valpo honorees was headlined by running back Robert Washington (Huntersville, N.C. / East Gaston [Old Dominion]), who earned Phil Steele PFL Preseason Offensive Player of the Year accolades.
Washington was also named to the Phil Steele Preseason First Team as a running back and to the second team as an all-purpose back on special teams. The Valpo kicking game’s one-two punch of kicker Brian Bartholomew (Sugar Grove, Ill. / Kaneland) and punter Ben Niesner was also tabbed to the first team. Valpo’s second-team honorees include offensive lineman Aaron Byrd, defensive lineman Trejuan Purty (Maryville, Tenn. / Maryville [East Tennessee State]), linebacker Jaxon Peifer (Normal, Ill. / Normal Community), defensive back Keyon Turner, kick returner Charlie Maxwell (Elkhart, Ind. / Elkhart Christian Academy) and long snapper Doug Haugh (Redlands, Calif. / Redlands Senior). In addition, linebacker Evan Annis (Hilliard, Ohio / Hilliard Davidson) was named to the third team.
Washington was one of seven unanimous All-PFL selections and was named the first PFL Offensive Player of the Year in program history last spring, while Niesner shared PFL Special Teams Player of the Year accolades. In addition, Niesner was tabbed an FCS National Punter of the Year Semifinalist.
Washington ranked eighth nationally in FCS in rushing yards per game at 108.8. He accrued 100 or more rushing yards on four occasions including a season-high 199 on 39 carries in the March 13 season opener at Butler, the highest single-game rushing output by a Valpo player since 2012. His 199-yard performance marked the ninth-highest single-game rushing number in the nation last season, and he was one of three players nationally with multiple games of 180+ rushing yards.
Niesner tied Greg Wood’s program record for single-season punting average at 43.6. When taken to the next decimal point, Niesner’s 43.58 is narrowly behind Wood’s 43.64, which is also the Pioneer Football League record. Niesner’s mark is the second-best in PFL history. He ranked eighth nationally in punting average in Division-I FCS in Spring 2021.
Bartholomew boasted the league’s best field-goal percentage at 87.5 percent, converting seven of his eight attempts. He had the most point-after attempts without a miss in the league, going a perfect 13-for-13 on PATs. The redshirt sophomore ranked sixth in the PFL in scoring at 5.7 points per game.
Purty received All-PFL Honorable Mention last spring, finishing with a team-high 5.5 tackles for loss. Byrd was also an All-PFL Honorable Mention choice and a member of the Academic All-PFL Second Team in addition to winning the Sever Award, which is presented annually to the team’s top offensive lineman. Turner led the nation in takeaways, was a finalist for national freshman of the year, earned Freshman All-American recognition from HERO Sports and was the lone freshman on the All-PFL First Team. Peifer was an All-PFL First Team choice and earned the team’s Defensive Player of the Year Award by finishing with a team-high 42 tackles during the six-game season.
Haugh garnered the team’s Four-Year Man Award and All-PFL Honorable Mention, while Maxwell was an All-PFL Second Team choice and a HERO Sports Freshman All-American. Annis earned the team’s Spring 2021 Koenig Award for outstanding sportsmanship and character while also receiving All-PFL Second Team and Academic All-PFL First Team nods.
Valpo is coming off its best winning percentage and highest Pioneer Football League finish since 2003.