National POY Watch: Football contenders

Everybody knows a guy’s gotta win his own state first before he gets a shot at being Gatorade National Football Player of the Year. That said, two elite performers to this point in the season are among those making a bid to be honored as the best of the best once the calendar turns to December. The Gatorade Player of the Year award recognizes not only athletic excellence, but also high standards of academic achievement and exemplary character demonstrated on and off the field. There’s plenty more work to be done, but here are two top candidates who remain in contention to win their own state and could someday call themselves a National POY.

Davonte Neal

SEnior wide receiver/defensive back/kick returner, Chaparral (Paradise Valley, Ariz.)

2011 Team record: 13-1 (Division II)

2011 Team standing: Division II state final vs. Cienega on Saturday

2011 Carries-YDs (AVG.)-TDs: 91-1097 (12.1)-14

2011 Catches-YDs (AVG.)-TDs: 53-1006 (19.0)-13

2011 Punt returns (AVG.)-TDs: 8 (26.6)-2

2011 Kickoff returns (AVG.)-TDs: 10 (39.4)-3

Academics: B average

Collegiate destination: Undecided

How he’s played himself into the National POY conversation: Including kickoff and punt return yards, produced 2,591 total yards through 13 games, averaging 17.3 yards per touch. Totaled 33 touchdowns on 150 touches, an average of one score every 4.55 touches. In addition to running for a score and returning a punt for a score, caught 10 passes for 234 yards and two TDs in the Firebirds’ 62-0 win over Gila Ridge in the opening round of the Division II playoffs. 2010-11 Gatorade Arizona Football Player of the Year. 2012 U.S. Army All-American Game selection. 2012 Under Armour All-American Game selection. 2010 Arizona Republic State Player of the Year. No. 29 ranked recruit in Class of 2012 as rated by ESPNU.

Jameis Winston

Senior quarterback/punter, Hueytown (Ala.)

2011 Team record: 13-0 (Class 5A)

2011 Team standing: Class 5A state semifinal vs. Vigor on Friday

2011 COMP-ATT (%)-YDs: 148-210 (70.5)-2,249

2011 TDs-INTs: 27-2

2011 Carries-YDs (AVG.)-TDs: 124-980 (7.9)-15

2011 Punts-AVG.: 15-37.7

Academics: A average

Collegiate destination: Florida State University (verbal)

How he’s played himself into the National POY conversation: Completed 12-of-16 psases for 231 yards and three TDs, and rushed for 82 yards and two scores on 15 carries in a 39-13 win over St. Paul’s Episcopal in the Class 6A state quarterfinals. Threw five touchdown passes in a 39-12 win over Wenonah in the second week of the season. Recorded three other games with five total touchdowns, including a 48-14 win over McAdory in which Winston threw a pair of TD passes, ran for two scores and caught a 25-yard TD pass. 2011 Elite 11 quarterback camp co-Most Valuable Player. 2012 Under-Armour All-American Game selection. Preseason Super Senior No. 1 as named by the Birmingham News. No. 11 ranked recruit in Class of 2012 as rated by ESPNU.

Make no mistake, the Gatorade State Football Player of the Year races aren’t over yet, and the National POY race has just begun. Here are some other state contenders who’ve also entered the National POY conversation in this 2011 campaign.

Dorial Green-Beckham: Hillcrest (Springfield, Mo.) senior wide receiver

William Likely III: Glades Central (Belle Glade, Fla.) junior cornerback/wide receiver

Johnathan Gray: Aledo (Texas) senior running back

Gunner Kiel: Columbus East (Columbus, Ind.) senior quarterback

Maty Mauk: Kenton (Ohio) senior quarterback

Connor Brewer: Chaparral (Paradise Valley, Ariz.) senior quarterback

Casey Cochran: Masuk (Monroe, Conn.) senior quarterback

Zach Kline: San Ramon Valley (Danville, Calif.) senior quarterback

Think we're missing a deserving Gatorade State or National Player of the Year candidate? Let us know via e-mail at ESPNHS_GPOY@ESPN.com or Twitter @ESPNHS_GPOY.

A dedicated POY team at ESPNHS manages the Gatorade Player of the Year program selection process and oversees all research, reporting, comparative analysis and criteria-compliance on the award program’s behalf.

The Gatorade Player of the Year Program honors athletes who meet comprehensive and exacting criteria in high school sports. Candidates are judged on athletic production and impact in the current season. Contenders also must demonstrate high academic achievement and exemplary personal character, including volunteerism, sportsmanship and community leadership. Senior status has no bearing on a candidate’s merit and selections are made independent of ESPNHS recruit rankings.