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McFeely: 'Nothing crazy going on' when it comes to Bison transfers

Sources say a desire to play at higher-level FBS programs, not race or NIL money, is the biggest factor in key players leaving NDSU.

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North Dakota State's Kobe Johnson carries against Samford during their FCS quarterfinal championship football game Friday, Dec. 9, 2022, in the Fargodome.
Michael Vosburg/Forum Communications Co.
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FARGO — It is not about race, not about the NFL and not strictly about NIL money.

It is mostly about the desire to play at a higher level of college football after seeing former teammates have success at Power Five programs, influence of family and friends, and distance from home.

At least that's what people are telling me, most wishing to stay anonymous because few are talking publicly.

Some important players are leaving North Dakota State's football program and everybody is wondering why.

Few are saying anything for now, fueling online speculation about why seven key Bison players — including some stars — have entered the transfer portal with the intention of playing elsewhere next season. Overall, 12 Bison players have entered the portal.

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"Nothing crazy is going on, guys are making decisions they believe will benefit them and they have every right to do that," senior defensive end Jake Kava told me.

A dozen players from one team transferring is not an alarmingly high number, but some of NDSU's departures were slated to start for the team in 2023 and a number of them are Black players from the South so the Twitter speculation train was barreling down the tracks.

A coach at North High School in Minneapolis, which is predominantly Black, and former Bison Tre Dempsey, who is Black, made posts on Twitter implying that race could be a factor with some of the transfers.

The online speculation appeared to lead NDSU associate head coach Randy Hedberg to tweet, "RELAX!!"

It's clear those inside the program don't view the departures as anything about which to be concerned, which doesn't match the public mood.

Last week cornerback Courtney Eubanks, safety Dom Jones and running back Kobe Johnson — all slated to start and play significantly in 2023 — announced they were leaving NDSU. That follows the departure of cornerback Marques Sigle, running back Dom Gonnella and receiver D.J. Hart prior to the Bison's first playoff game in December.

Sigle will play next season at Kansas State of the Power Five Big 12 Conference, Gonnella will play at Football Bowl Subdivision South Florida and Hart joined Northern Iowa.

Receiver Phoenix Sproles, who played a significant role in 2019 and 2021 and was expected to be the team's top receiver in 2022 before injuries derailed him, left the Bison after playing four games. He will play at FBS James Madison in 2023.

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Winners of nine of 11 Football Championship Subdivision national titles between 2011-2021 and runners-up last season, these are rough waters to which NDSU is unaccustomed.

Bison head coach Matt Entz declined to comment for this column. He previously told The Forum there is nothing wrong with the program and coaches are doing things the way they always have since he joined NDSU in 2014 as an assistant.

I contacted a half-dozen players who entered the portal recently to ask for interviews and, frankly, ask if there was anything happening inside the program that needed to be talked about. None returned my messages. My colleagues Jeff Kolpack of The Forum and Dom Izzo of WDAY-TV also sought comments from transferring players, but didn't have their messages returned.

Kava is one of the few people currently in the program who has said anything publicly, posting a message on Twitter directed at fans.

"To whom it may concern," Kava wrote. "Myself and the team are back in the weight room. Guys who have left have no impact on our group anymore. The guys still here know what it means to represents this program and state, and we are pissed for multiple reasons. You have my word that the 2023 team will be ready to go."

Contacted after the post was made, Kava said, "I just wanted to let our fans and community know that those who are still here are back working to prepare for next season, and yes we are extra motivated because of how last season went as well as having guys choosing to look for something better."

So what, exactly, is going on? If anything?

I contacted several people with intimate knowledge of the program and the parents of multiple players and ex-players, including the parents of Black players and former Black players, and all said they don't believe there is a racial element to the players leaving.

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None wanted to be identified publicly because they didn't want to speak for NDSU or the program.

"I don't see anything racial here, if that is what you are asking," said the parent of one former Black player.

Instead, they raised a multitude of issues mostly centered on NDSU players wanting to play at a higher level of competition than the Football Championship Subdivision. The Bison have lost top players like linebacker brothers Jabril and Jasir Cox (LSU and West Virginia, respectively), defensive back Josh Hayes (Virginia and Kansas State) and Sigle (Kansas State) to teams from Power Five conferences in recent years.

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North Dakota State’s Marques Sigle (3) celebrates his turnover against Drake during the season opener football game on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022, at the Fargodome.
Alyssa Goelzer/The Forum

"You start with Jabril and go from there and these kids are seeing teammates and former teammates leave and have success at the highest level. Jasir had a great year. Josh played for a Big 12 championship team," said one person no longer at NDSU but who knows the program well. "The kids see that and want to do that. 'Well, I was as good as him.' And they have family members and friends telling them the same thing. It becomes a domino effect."

A common them among recent transfers is they are from Florida and Georgia, recruiting areas from which the Bison have pulled top-end talent in the last decade. Eubanks, Gonnella and backup running back Jalen Bussey are from Florida while Johnson, Hart and Jones are from Georgia.

Some, like Johnson, weren't heavily recruited in high school and turned into productive players after developing at NDSU. Eubanks, on the other hand, chose the Bison over six FBS offers. Eubanks had Power Five offers from Rutgers of the Big Ten and Wake Forest of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

One parent said some of the transfers took a chance on coming to Fargo and since they succeeded are taking advantage of the opportunity the portal presents.

"To me this is the transfer portal at work and NDSU's success working against them," the parent said. "Kids from down South are kids who are not from the area who bet on themselves to make it happen in a totally new environment. So why wouldn't you bet twice?"

A former Bison assistant coach said a move to FBS might help NDSU retain some players, but not all.

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North Dakota State safety Dom Jones will enter the transfer portal.
David Samson/The Forum

"This is happening everywhere. It's affecting everybody," he said, adding that even developmental programs in FBS are being hit hard.

However, he said top players leaving the Bison for FBS are likely seeking better competition and better game atmosphere.

"These kids want to test themselves against the best. They want to be challenged. Can you get that playing Drake or Valparaiso or Western Illinois?" the ex-assistant said. "These guys want to play in a big-time environment instead of a Macomb or a Terre Haute. You even look at some of these Group of Five leagues like the Mountain West or the Sun Belt. Those are some great atmospheres."

Sources say playing time was an issue for Jones and Sigle. Jones played behind sixth-year safeties Michael Tutsie and Dawson Weber while Sigle played behind starters Eubanks and sixth-year senior Destin Talbert.

"They were rotational guys and thought they should be playing ahead of the starters," one source said.

In Jones' case, that would seem to be backed up by Twitter posts from his older brother Darnel. There are many tweets in Darnel's timeline suggesting Dom should've gotten more snaps. Some posts appeared to be critical of Entz.

"If 10 (Dom's uniform number) does not play 40+ snaps versus SDSU we are not putting our best foot forward, simple as that," Darnel posted on Oct. 12, a few days before the Bison's regular-season game against South Dakota State.

The day after SDSU beat NDSU 23-21, Darnel posted: "In 10 we trust!! How many missed tackles does it take for us to realize that 40+ snaps is mandatory? What is the definition of insanity!?"

With Tutsie, Weber and Talbert graduating, Jones and Sigle would've started and played most defensive snaps in 2023.

Multiple sources said NIL (name, image and likeness) money potentially available at other schools is a minor factor in players leaving NDSU, but one former assistant coach believes some players from faraway regions of the country might consider staying in Fargo if the Bison had an NIL collective.

One source said it's expensive to fly in and out of Fargo, so players and families often can't afford it. Some families from Florida and Georgia only get to see one or two games in person over the course of a player's career.

"Money would help," the source said.

Shrinking the program's recruiting footprint to the Midwest, or at least to an area that is within easier driving distance, is another option.

Sources also said players leaving haven't raised NFL exposure as a reason to transfer. The Bison had as many as 16 former players on NFL squads this season.

Entz has said numerous times that while the Bison program is built on recruiting high school players and developing them into top-level FCS talent, he doesn't have his head in the sand when it comes to the transfer portal.

A parent of a Bison player agreed.

"The landscape of football is changing for the workforce-slash-players so people can complain and get caught up in it or adjust and keep up," the parent said.

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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