Rob Phenicie fall scrimmage

Idaho State head football coach Rob Phenicie (center) watches his team stretch before a 2017 scrimmage at the ICCU practice fields.

The anticipation and excitement of early signing day came with disappointment in Pocatello this year when the Idaho State football team did not announce any signees on Dec. 16.

It came a year after the Bengals announced nine signees in the three-day early signing period, and despite the complications of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting changes to NCAA roster rules, the announcement — or the lack of one — landed a little flat.

“I got some emails about it,” Idaho State athletic director Pauline Thiros said. “I think everything just combined to make this a very, very strange year. ... There’s just some things that are hinky this year.”

After all, even in an uncommon year, plenty of Big Sky Conference schools had managed to fill roster holes with big classes announced during the early signing period. Aside from Portland State, which also didn’t announce any new recruits, the next-smallest class in the conference was Weber State’s seven. According to a Big Sky release that aggregated reports from across the conference, most other teams were in double digits, led by Northern Arizona’s 21.

But ISU coaches and administrators say that there’s good reason for ISU’s outlier status, part of which was driven by technicalities and part by a deliberate decision.

“That was kind of our plan going in,” ISU head coach Rob Phenicie said. “And I know everybody else in the league signed a bunch of guys, whatever. But we only had, really, three scholarships to give. That’s kind of where we’re sitting right now. We’re going to have a really small class. ... We’re not in a panic, we’ll be okay. We’ll have 11 guys out on the field.”

The first step down the path towards Idaho State’s goose egg on early signing day was the NCAA’s decision, announced on Aug. 21, to give all fall sports athletes an extra year of eligibility. The measure, intended to make up for and soften the blow of seasons canceled by the coronavirus pandemic, instantly created a roster crunch across the college sports landscape, as seniors who would typically be replaced by incoming freshmen had the option to remain on the roster.

ISU football, like teams across the country, went through a process of evaluating its senior class and, despite coming off a three-win season, decided to bring most of those players back.

“We like them, they’re good players,” Phenicie said. “They all play and contribute. As we went through the list, as coaches, we went through and said, ‘Is there anybody there that we really would kind of not want back?’ And as we went through, it was like, no, we like them all.”

Although Phenicie declined to talk about the exact number of seniors — juniors on the 2019 team — who will return to the program for the spring and fall 2021 seasons, both he and Thiros implied that the majority of those players would take advantage of their extra year.

A look at ISU’s current online roster shows 14 players listed as seniors, plus graduate student Rasheed Williams but minus quarterback Matt Struck, who’s announced his transfer to Missouri State but remains on the roster.

That many spots spoken for means that many spots unavailable for incoming recruits. That’s doubly true because, although the NCAA also gave schools a one-year exemption to scholarship limits — FCS programs are allowed to give out 63 scholarship equivalencies a year — Idaho State, especially in a year with athletic revenues way down, is unlikely to go over that number, although Thiros didn’t rule it out.

“If needed, we will certainly exceed the 63 scholarships with the one-time exemption, and have budgeted to do so,” Thiros said. “This will depend entirely on the remaining recruiting decisions, any attrition we may see, and additional needs we might identify in the roster.”

The Bengals are also planning to keep their overall roster size, a target set by the school rather than the NCAA, to their usual number, generally around 100 — “It is possible that we may exceed 100 in the fall, but unlikely,” Thiros said.

The combination of those two things — players coming back and the roster staying the same size — decreased ISU’s ration of available scholarships for the incoming class down to about 10, and a unique circumstance shrunk the number even further.

The Bengals welcome back six returning missionaries in 2021, a high number even for a school that likes recruiting those players. Although they were announced as part of ISU’s recruiting class two years ago, they haven’t taken up scholarships until now, and as such are part of the accounting for the 2021 class.

“We signed a group of missionaries two years ago. So they don’t count in the class two years ago, they count in this class coming in,” Phenicie said. “Now that they’re coming in, we had to have scholarships available for them. ... So you could say we signed six, because we have six coming in, but we didn’t.”

That group includes players like running back Tu’u Afu, offensive lineman Owen Stewart, and defensive linemen Spencer Tatafu and Tevite Tonga, all of whom signed in the Class of 2018 before leaving on missions.

That leaves Idaho State with, as Phenicie said, around three scholarships still available, which the Bengals are expecting to fill when national signing day rolls around in early February.

It won’t be the big recruiting class that fans love to dream on, but ISU certainly feels that it was the best way to attack a problem that, in these uncertain times, every program has had to deal with in one way or another.

The Bengals have also explored other potential options to add recruits, including greyshirting, in which a student-athlete doesn’t enroll in school in the fall — or enrolls without a full-time course load — before enrolling and becoming a member of the team in the spring.

Phenicie said that “we may approach some kids with that opportunity,” and one recruit confirmed to the Idaho State Journal that ISU had talked to him about the possibility.

Going low in 2021 may also open up an opportunity for the Bengals in 2022, when many people believe that the NCAA will end the exception for exceeding the scholarship limit. That would mean that schools that went over this year would have trouble with their roster sizes next year, while ISU, which is taking the hit in 2021, would have plenty of scholarships opening up with the departure of the holdover senior class.

Phenicie believes that the opportunity to sign overlooked high school players, trumpeted as one of the biggest advantages to recruiting in 2021 with roster spots at all levels at a premium, will still be there in 2022.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of kids, on February whatever, that have been overlooked,” Phenicie said. “Just because everybody can’t sign everybody. ... We’re getting a heavy list of kids that will be seniors next fall to be able to recruit. April, May recruiting for us is going to be important next spring.”