FARGO — It’s not as if training staffs of Missouri Valley Football Conference teams this fall will need to add walkers, slip-resistant bath mats or Polident to the list of necessities. But make no mistake, the league will have some maturity to it.
The extra year of eligibility brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in several conference teams having fifth- or sixth-year players. They’re commonly called “super seniors.”
Southern Illinois has 16 players in their sixth year of school, with most of them having been with sixth-year head coach Nick Hill every step of the way. Indiana State has over 50 players in their fifth or sixth year of school, many of them who were part of head coach Curt Mallory’s first year when the Sycamores went 0-11, but had the biggest turnaround in college football the following season at 7-4.
“They’ve stuck with us and it hasn’t been easy,” Mallory said.
South Dakota State returns 12 super seniors, 10 of which are starters. Missouri State has nine guys in their sixth year and Illinois State will enter this fall with eight.
Western Illinois begins practice later this week, while the rest start next week in a 2021 season that all 11 league teams hope does not resemble anything close to last spring. But there is no guarantee in that with vaccinations of most programs lagging behind the expected 85% rate that the NCAA will mandate as not having to be tested for the coronavirus.
The inordinate number of older players in the league could determine who is playing in the FCS playoffs in December and who is not. The league held its annual virtual media day on Tuesday with every program trying to find the right mix of a spring schedule vs. getting the necessary weight and conditioning work in over the summer.
Hill said with so many older players on his team, he didn’t feel like it was necessary for him to watch summer workouts as closely as prior years.
“Even if I weren’t to show up one day, I 100% believe our team would keep rolling,” Hill said. “Those guys know exactly what is expected, how to go about a practice and a meeting. They know how the younger guys should act. We have guys who have been captains for three and four years.”
Count North Dakota State as one program not rich in super seniors. Although the Bison roster has yet to be updated (they start practice on Aug. 6), offensive tackle Cordell Volson and defensive end Brayden Thomas are expected to be the only sixth-year players. University of North Dakota head coach Bubba Schweigert labeled his team “fairly young” heading into this fall.
Yet the Bison were picked second and the Fighting Hawks third in the Valley preseason poll.
“The sixth-year thing helps as long as you have the right guys coming back,” said Illinois State head coach Brock Spack. “You just can’t assume that you have a bunch of guys back that you’re going to be better. You can’t assume that. You’ll be better if those guys work harder to be better.”
Thanks to the transfer portal and instant eligibility, several teams spent the offseason bringing in players with the hope for immediate help at key positions, especially quarterback. SDSU, the league favorite, will probably go with Chris Oladokun, who most recently was at Samford after starting his career at FBS South Florida.
Missouri State, a playoff team last spring and trying to shed its bottom-dweller past under second-year head coach Bobby Petrino, recently brought in QB Jason Shelley, who most recently was dismissed from Utah State for violating team rules. Before that he was at Utah.
NDSU is counting on Virginia Tech transfer Quincy Patterson II to provide competition at quarterback. Patterson II has three years of eligibility left. He’ll be competing with second-year freshman Cam Miller and true freshman Cole Payton for the job.
When it comes to the super seniors, NDSU is on the opposite end of the age spectrum. The Bison played 32 freshmen last spring with 15 having started at least one game.
“Just in general terms, we need to get better and we look forward to it,” said head coach Matt Entz.