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McFeely: Why did players leave NDSU now? Blame the transfer calendar

Trio of Bison players left before playoffs to get head start on next stop

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North Dakota State’s DJ Hart avoids South Dakota State’s Steven Arrell to score his first career touchdown on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022, at the Fargodome.
Alyssa Goelzer/The Forum
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FARGO — The number of texts, emails and social media direct messages flying my way the last few days has been voluminous. It happened because a trio of recognizable and productive North Dakota State football players left the team before the playoffs started.

So thanks for that Marques Sigle, D.J. Hart and Dom Gonnella.

The messages broke into two camps.

One was media members from other FCS markets asking, "WHAT IS GOING ON WITH THE BISON?!?"

The other was NDSU fans wondering, "Why would these players leave before the playoffs? Don't they have any loyalty?"

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The answer to the first question, which clearly carried the implication that things might be imploding in north Fargo, is: Probably not as much as other FCS programs hope.

While it's obviously less than ideal to lose a talented third cornerback like Sigle, a talented third receiver like Hart and a rugged third running back like Gonnella two weeks before the Bison play Montana or Southeast Missouri State (pro tip: it'll be the Grizzlies) in their first playoff game, NDSU probably has enough in the tank to cover their absences.

"We still think we have plenty of depth," NDSU head coach Matt Entz told The Forum's Jeff Kolpack. "That’s one of the things we’ve done a good job with is to create depth in our program."

Entz told Kolpack there's nothing wrong the NDSU program — there are no fire alarms going off — and that it operates the same as it always has. The difference is the public nature of the portal and the windows available to players to transfer and enroll in another school.

There were 192 FCS players who entered the portal Monday, the first day it was open. There are hundreds more to come. What put NDSU in the spotlight is that three contributing players bolted before the playoffs ... and it's NDSU, which is always top-of-mind for FCS followers.

Entz dropped for the first time publicly that higher-level schools are contacting NDSU players, which is against NCAA rules. There were whispers behind the scenes for years that future NFL draft picks like offensive tackle Dillon Radunz and receiver Christian Watson were getting messages from several big-time programs.

More on Bison football
The transfer of three Bison players with the FCS playoffs on deck, although surprising, is the product of the 45-day portal window.
Lots of stuff happening over the weekend: Three key North Dakota State football players have entered the transfer portal before the Bison play their first playoff game, and a breakdown of the Football Championship Subdivision playoff field announced Sunday.
Cornerback Sigle says "tank is on empty," has played last down for NDSU as team enters FCS playoffs.
NDSU gets surprising No. 3 seed, avoids potential rematch with SDSU until title game in Frisco
Bison whip UND 42-21 on Senior Day at Fargodome as NDSU readies for the playoffs

"I’m not going to sit here and say our kids are tampered with but I’m not going to say they’re not tampered with. We have a ton of records of our players being contacted by other institutions," Entz told Kolpack.

That would seem to be a thinly veiled hint that we might see one or more of the departed players end up at an FBS school. The best bet would appear to be Sigle, a bigger and physical cornerback from Omaha who might be coveted by a Big Ten or Big 12 program.

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As for the question baffling Bison fans — why leave now? — it's all about the timing.

The NCAA's attempt to get a grip on the transfer portal included a window during which FCS players could put in their name. To go on the market, so to speak. In FCS, the portal opens the day after the playoff field is announced and remains open for 45 days.

Those 45 days are not long enough to extend past the FCS title game, scheduled for Jan. 8.

So if players want to leave NDSU they couldn't do so if they stayed around until Frisco, should the Bison get that far.

But bigger than that is the calendar on which universities and football programs operate. Players from most FCS schools are flooding the portal this week because they want to solicit offers and pick a new school as quickly as possible. That will allow them to enroll in their new school for second semester, which begins after Jan. 1, and be eligible to participate in spring practice with their new team.

That would presumably give them a head start on winning a starting spot for next season and, at the least, allow them to learn a new system, participate in summer workouts and go into fall camp at full speed.

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North Dakota State's Dominic Gonnella carries against North Dakota during their football game Saturday, March 20, 2021, in the Fargodome. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

The longer Sigle, Hart and Gonnella waited to leave NDSU, the shorter their window for finding a new team and getting enrolled at their new school.

And don't forget about the possibility of players at big schools earning six figures from name, image and likeness collectives. That's something NDSU's boosters have not yet built. It might be time. It might make a difference if they want to keep some of their higher-end talent in Fargo.

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Although Entz, Sigle, Gonnella and Hart didn't say it, multiple sources told Kolpack and WDAY-TV's Dom Izzo the players wanted more playing time. Sigle, the only player to return a message to the media, told WDAY's Logan Campbell his "tank is on empty. Super drained. Need a new start and environment." He didn't mention playing time.

The Bison open the postseason Dec. 3 at the Fargodome. Their bracket appears favorable to reach at least the semifinals, where they could potentially have to travel to California to face No. 2 seed Sacramento State for another trip to Frisco.

Will the portal defections, combined with a slew of key injuries, help derail the Bison train? We shall see. If so, blame the transfer calendar. That's what pushed the players to leave when they did.

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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