The Cliff Harris Award is presented to the top defensive player in the country representing Division II, III and NAIA colleges and universities.

Cliff Harris

Marqui Christian Captures 2015 Cliff Harris Award

Honoring Nation’s Top Small College Player



Marqui Christian
2015 Cliff Harris Award Winner

The Little Rock Touchdown Club and Wright, Lindsey, Jennings LLP announced today that Marqui Christian, a senior safety from Midwestern State University in Texas, is the recipient of the 2015 Cliff Harris Award.

The award is presented annually to the nation’s top small college defensive player.

Christian, a 6-1, 205-pound American Football Coaches Association first team All-American, was chosen from a group of more than 5,000 defensive players representing almost 500 NCAA Division II, NCAA Division III and NAIA colleges and universities.

Former Lindenwood University cornerback and current Cleveland Browns defensive back Pierre Desir captured the inaugural award in 2013.

Darius Allen of Colorado State-Pueblo was the 2014 winner.

Other notable Cliff Harris Award alumni include 2013 finalist Malcolm Butler from Division II West Alabama, who became a Super Bowl hero with his goal-line interception for New England against Seattle last season with 25 seconds remaining in the game.

The Cliff Harris Award also recognizes the top vote recipients from all three divisions.

Christian is the overall winner of the Cliff Harris Award and received the most votes in Division II. Adam Sauder, a senior safety from Taylor University in Indiana, received the most votes in the NAIA. There was a tie for the top spot in Division III between Tom Lally, a senior defensive end from the University of Mount Union in Ohio, and Ryan Aelker, a senior defensive lineman from Bluffton University in Ohio.

Marqui Christian - Cliff Harris Award Winner - top vote recipient Division II
Ryan Aelker - Division III top vote recipient (tie)
Tom Lally - Division III top vote recipient (tie)
Adam Sauder - NAIA top vote recipient

View the 2015 finalists and nominees.


The award is named in honor of former Dallas Cowboy great Cliff Harris, an Arkansas native who was offered only one college scholarship to then-NAIA Ouachita Baptist University. Harris was passed over for the 1970 NFL draft. He signed a free agent contract with the Cowboys and then helped lead Dallas to five Super Bowl appearances during the next decade. The hard-hitting Harris played in six Pro Bowls and changed the way the position of free safety was played.

Read the Cliff Harris story.

The presentation of the $3,000 Cliff Harris Award trophy will take place at the Little Rock Touchdown Club awards banquet in February. Harris will be in attendance to present the trophy.

From Cliff Harris:

This was our most challenging year to name an overall winner because we had so many exceptional defensive players. After comparing game footage of our finalists, Marqui continued to impress us with his speed, intensity and excellent recognition and reaction time. He attacks opponents with a ferocity and fearlessness and that, combined with his size and speed, make him a powerful hitter. 

I also want to congratulate Ryan Aelker, Tom Lally and Adam Sauder for representing Division III and the NAIA. These athletes are remarkable defensive players and had amazing seasons and careers. I’m extremely proud of all the outstanding defensive talent that is being coached and cultivated at small colleges across America. They continue to prove that the best football isn’t always played at the FBS and FCS levels. Players from Division II, Division III and NAIA deserve their share of respect and recognition.”

Cliff Harris Award Winner

Marqui Christian - 6’1, 205 – senior strong safety (Midwestern State University)

With no Division I offers and few Division II offers out of Spring High School in Spring, Texas, Christian leaves Midwestern State University as its all-time leading tackler, an AFCA All-American and an Associated Press Little All-American, Lone Star Conference Defensive Player of the Year, three-time first team all-conference performer and 2015 Cliff Harris Award winner.

Christian became only the third player in Midwestern State history to be named to the AFCA All-America team and the school’s first defensive player since 1952 to be named to the AP Little All-America team. A fierce hitter from his safety position, Christian recorded 10 or more tackles in five games this year, including a season-high 13 against Eastern New Mexico. He ended his career reaching double-digit tackles in 16 games, claiming the all-time school tackle record of 295.

Christian helped lead the Mustangs to a 10-2 record this season and a final No. 9 national ranking in the American Football Coaches Association Division II poll. He is the first safety to win the award.

Division III Top Vote Recipients - TIE

Ryan Aelker - 6’4, 252 senior defensive lineman (Bluffton University)

ryan-aelker-d3tieAelker led Division III in sacks for a second consecutive season, as well as leading the country for tackles for losses. He broke both school records in those categories with 15.5 sacks and 24 tackles for losses. He also had a conference-high three forced fumbles and added an interception, four pass breakups and a blocked kick. If his defensive exploits weren’t enough for Bluffton, the offense took advantage of the former high school quarterback’s athletic ability and lined him up at wide receiver, where he caught two touchdown passes. The two-time Heartland Conference Defensive Player of the Year will leave Bluffton as the most decorated defensive player in school history.



Tom Lally - 6’2, 260 senior defensive end (Mount Union)

tom-lally-d3tieA two-time AFCA All-American and AP Little All-American, Lally helped lead Mount Union to a 15-0 record and its 12th national championship in 2015. He recorded 82 tackles and set single-season school records with 26 tackles for losses and 20 sacks in leading the top defense in Division III. The back-to-back conference defensive player of the year is also Mount Union's all-time sack leader with 40 sacks. He never missed a game in his 60-game college career.




NAIA Top Vote Recipient

Adam Sauder - 6’3, 220 senior strong safety (Taylor University)

adam-sauder-naiaThis season saw Sauder become only the third player in Taylor history to earn multiple-year, first-team NAIA All-America honors. In addition to being named an All-American, he also captured the 2015 MSFA defensive player of the year award with a season tally of 97 tackles, eight stops for negative yardage and two interceptions. Sauder led the Trojans in tackles during each of the past three seasons, finishing his career with 364 total tackles, 20 tackles for lost yardage and nine interceptions while anchoring the Taylor secondary.

Cliff Harris Award Selection Committee represents:

  • 45 Super Bowl appearances
  • 54 Pro Bowl appearances
  • 39 All-Pro selections
  • 4 inductees of the NFL Hall of Fame
  • 3 inductees of the College Football Hall of Fame
  • 6 Members of the Cowboys Ring of Honor
  • Heisman Trophy Winner & Super Bowl MVP
  • College National Championship

Cliff Harris Selection Committee

  • Roger Staubach
  • Lee Roy Jordan
  • Walt Garrison
  • Gene Stallings
  • Jackie Smith
  • Drew Pearson
  • Rayfield Wright
  • Everson Walls
  • Charlie Waters
  • Bill Bates
  • Gil Brandt
  • Mel Renfro
  • Jim Hart
  • Cliff Harris

5 Time Super Bowl Safety & 6 Time Pro Bowler Cliff Harris on the Cliff Harris Award

harris-action-3"I'm extremely excited about the opportunity to recognize the most outstanding defensive players from small colleges across the country. As a small college player myself, I always understood that recognition and respect for outstanding play was more difficult to attain compared to players from larger schools. Because of this I relied on perserverance and mental toughness to help me play my best even when it wasn't recognized. This enabled me to succeed at every level including the NFL and five Super Bowls. I'm honored that this award looks to recognize those players that may not receive the acknowledgement and accolades deserved because they represent small colleges. My hope is that the award will provide these players with added confidence and the appropriate distinction of being one of the best defensive players in the country regardless of the level of football they play."

"I'm proud to represent youth, high school and small college football in Arkansas and have tremendous memories of my time spent in Hot Springs, Des Arc and at Ouachita Baptist University. I'm also extremely proud of my time spent with the Dallas Cowboys and to have such an amazing selection committee representing some of the greatest players and coaches in the history of the game. I want to thank the Little Rock Touchdown Club, my friends and family and the people of Arkansas for their support in honoring through this award, the best defensive players from small colleges across the nation."