For Valley football, it's not so much who's back but who has left
Premier FCS league saw several stars leave with the conference moving to spring football
FARGO — It was almost 13 months ago when the Missouri Valley Football Conference last played a league football game. In that time, a galaxy of Valley stars have found another solar system, whether it be preparing for the NFL draft or the NCAA transfer portal.
It appears the four perennial title-contending teams suffered the biggest departures. North Dakota State, South Dakota State, Illinois State and Northern Iowa saw key players not return for the spring FCS season for a variety of reasons.
“I think all of us in our conference have had to deal with that, especially playing in the spring,” said Illinois State head coach Brock Spack.
At NDSU, it was quarterback Trey Lance, offensive lineman Dillon Radunz and running back Adam Cofield. Linebacker Jabril Cox transferred to LSU over the summer, but he would have probably been NFL-found anyway with Lance and Radunz if he hadn’t. Cofield transferred to Western Kentucky.
At SDSU, receiver Cade Johnson and cornerback Marshon Harris were the biggest losses with Johnson perhaps the most prolific receiver in the league that could have returned. He initially transferred but is now preparing for the NFL Draft.
“He was such a difference maker,” said SDSU head coach John Stiegelmeier. “Instead of spending the week trying to figure out how to get the ball to Cade, I think it’s become a little different for our offensive coaches to focus on what is the best play against a base defense.”
The Jackrabbits had two starting linebackers opt out in Seven Wilson and Preston Tetzlaff and running back CJ Wilson transferred.
Illinois State lost several impact starters: quarterback Brady Davis, running back Jeff Proctor, defensive backs Devin Taylor and Christian Uphoff, linebacker Dylan Draka, defensive end Romeo McKnight, offensive guard Gabe Megginson and tight end Robert Gillum.
McKnight transferred to FBS Charlotte, Davis played in the Hula Bowl all-star game and Uphoff is prepping for the NFL.
“Yeah, we lost some really good players,” Spack said. “Hopefully we’ll develop some good, young players, young players who have to step in and play this spring. There will be some names you’re not aware of but will be future stars.”
That’s the same tune head coach Mark Farley is singing at Northern Iowa. Tight end Briley Moore transferred to Kansas State, defensive back Xavior Williams transferred to Iowa and linebacker Chris Kolarevic transferred to Nebraska. Offensive tackle Spencer Brown and defensive end Elerson Smith declared for the NFL Draft and both played in the Senior Bowl with Radunz and Cox.
Farley said the hope is his program has recruited well enough over the years to compensate for unexpected losses.
“If the formula is right, we keep moving forward,” he said. “We all plan for a graduate. You get a guy in the developmental stage and it’s two or three years before that guy leaves. When you lose one early, that affects the time table that you are projecting players for the development process.”
Translated: Young and untested players will be playing earlier than usual this spring.
“There are great players coming, you just don’t know their names right now,” Farley said.
One team that was able to retain its top players was Southern Illinois, starting with standout running back Javon Williams Jr. The Salukis put five players on the all-Valley preseason first team including three seniors: offensive lineman ZeVeyon Furcron, defensive lineman Anthony Knighton and defensive back Qua Brown.
“Obviously, different things get created (like) Trey Lance, if we would have had one of those situations we would have advised him and his family to do what’s best for them,” said SIU head coach Nick Hill. “We feel like we have some really good players, some are first team all-conference type players to FCS all-American type players just wanting to be here and be a part of this. That means a lot to me.”
Still, NDSU, UNI, SDSU and Illinois State were ranked one through four in the Valley preseason poll that was released Wednesday. SIU was fifth followed by South Dakota, North Dakota, Youngstown State, Missouri State and Western Illinois. Indiana State opted out of the spring season.
“I know this spring will bring a number of other challenges along with it,” said NDSU head coach Matt Entz, “but I know our players are prepared and ready. Our roster looks significantly different from the fall or even if you go back to 2019. We’ve had a number of players that have decided to graduate. Football may have stopped but life didn’t. We had a number of young men with life obligations and it’s unfortunate they left the program but we’re excited with the group we have now.”
Missouri Valley Football Conference preseason team
QB: Will McElvain, UNI
RB: Kai Henry, USD; Pierre Strong Jr., SDSU; Javon Williams Jr., SIU
FB: Hunter Luepke, NDSU
WR: Avante Cox, SIU; Christian Watson, NDSU; Isaiah Weston, UNI
TE: Brett Samson, USD
OL: Dan Becker, YSU; ZeVeyon Furcron, SIU; Drew Himmelman, ISU; Mason Scheidegger, USD; Cordell Volson, NDSU
LS: Ross Kennelly, NDSU
PK: Matthew Cook, UNI
DL: Jared Brinkman, UNI; Anthony Knighton, SIU; Spencer Waege, NDSU; Reece Winkelman, SDSU
LB: Logan Backhaus, SDSU, Jack Cochrane, USD; Bryce Flater, UNI; Jackson Hankey, NDSU
DB: Omar Brown, UNI; Qua Brown, SIU; Don Gardner, SDSU; Josh Hayes, NDSU; Michael Tutsie, NDSU
P: Brady Schutt, USD
RS: Jake Coates, YSU