As an assistant coach at UNLV and Wyoming, Rob Phenicie was quickly introduced to returned missionary football players.
“Every year when I was at UNLV and at Wyoming, we’d go and play BYU and half their team is 26 years old,” Phenicie said. “These are men playing against boys. ... You go through the take-home media guide, and all these guys are married, they’re 25 years old and it always says in their bio where they served.”
When Phenicie ended up at Idaho State, it gave him the chance to make returned missionaries a cornerstone of his own recruiting and roster-building strategy.
Around half the population in Bannock County, where Idaho State is located, are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, who often serve two-year missions after high school.
Because of those demographics, the Bengals have had plenty of returned missionaries in past years, including under Phenicie’s predecessor, Mike Kramer.
That trend has continued under Phenicie.
“It’s something I stepped up. I made a point to say, we’re going to do it,” Phenicie said. “Part of coaching in Pocatello and coaching at Idaho State, there’s a large portion of the town that is Latter-Day Saints. If you don’t embrace it and don’t accept their belief system in terms of going on the missions, then that’s going to hurt you recruiting-wise.”
When he was promoted to head coach three years ago, one of Phenicie’s first changes was to move ISU’s Monday practices earlier in the day so that the LDS members of the team, many of whom are married, could spend at least one evening with their families.
The Bengals have 12 returned missionaries on their 2020 roster, likely the most of any Division-I school outside of Utah.
Even though they don’t play football for two years on their mission, returned missionaries can often come in and contribute right away.
It’s what Phenicie saw in the players he went up against at BYU — after two years away, they’re older and more mature than players who come in right out of high school.
“I just started this January, but there’s only one kid on the entire offensive line that’s older than me,” said Connor Stanford, who returned from his mission to North Dakota in the summer of 2019. “They’re talking about trying to figure out how to cook for themselves, we’re going to figure out how to make this chicken or whatever. I’m like, I’ve been doing that for the last two years.
“I had to go find apartments and shop for myself and meal plan and all that, and that’s something that they haven’t really had to do up until now. So it’s helped with the life aspect of football for sure.”
Ed Lamb and Demario Warren built multiple successful Southern Utah teams around returned missionaries in the middle of the decade, winning two out of three Big Sky Conference championships from 2015-17 with players like James Cowser and Chinedu Ahanonu.
Weber State, which as the other Utah-based school in the conference also heavily recruits missionaries, has had recent success, winning at least a share of the last three Big Sky titles.
Jonah Williams, the Big Sky Defensive MVP for Weber State as a senior in 2019, originally signed with the Wildcats in 2013 before serving a mission to Brazil.
For Idaho State, which doesn’t have the strongest recruiting pitch in the Big Sky after decades of mostly losing seasons, finding players like that is an inefficiency to exploit.
“We have a track record, when a kid’s talking about wanting to go on a mission, to say, ‘Look, we have this guy, this guy, this guy,’” Phenicie said. “I think that does give us an advantage, especially with those schools that will not recruit a returned missionary. We’ll take them with open arms, and sometimes that’s what it takes for us to get a kid, because maybe we weren’t going to get him if he didn’t go on a mission.
“(At) Idaho State, you have to think outside-the-box recruiting a little bit at times, and that’s one way to do it. Maybe you’ll get a quality kid.”
Bryon Leckington, the 2016 All-Area Player of the Year at Shelley High School, committed to Idaho State for that exact reason.
“I feel like sometimes I had coaches that were looking at me and then when you say that (you’re going on a mission), they kind of get turned off a little bit,” Leckington said. “But, luckily, the coaches here, when I told them that, they said, ‘We’ll hold your scholarship, and we’re excited to have you back in 2020.’”
Leckington didn’t go abroad to serve his mission like Williams did. He said he felt lucky to be assigned to Seattle — “I was pretty grateful to have a Chik Fil-A to go to when I needed some comfort food” — but after two years away, the transition back into football can be rough, no matter where the mission was served.
For Leckington, who was originally listed as a safety for Idaho State but has since moved back to linebacker, where he played in high school, the struggle came with the playbook.
“In high school, I just kind of read the field and made a play on the ball,” Leckington said. “Now there’s more defensive plays than I had offensive in high school. It’s just really consistently learning, a lot of learning at the moment.”
Getting back on a football weightlifting program can also be a speed bump.
“I guess the hardest part was being patient with lifting small weights at first,” defensive lineman David Rowe, who served his mission in Arizona, said. “(Strength) coach (Dan) Ryan is awesome about it. He always has the freshmen, especially the guys coming back off missions, has them start out with light weights and just get used to the motions, get your joints back to strength. It’s hard, because you know you can do more, and you want to do more, but it makes you so much more prone to injury if you just jump into it.”
As more mature players, returned missionaries get more freedom, along with more expectations.
Most returned missionaries, especially if they’re married, are allowed to live off-campus as freshmen. But they’re also expected, more than other players, to stay out of trouble — and, if they’re capable, they know they’ll be asked to step in and play right away, where other freshmen might get a developmental year.
“All the coaches know that we’re members and that we’re returned missionaries,” Stanford said. “We’re all pretty much 21, so we could really do whatever we want. But they also know that we have higher standards than most people, because that’s just what our church does. So if we’re screwing around, we’re messing up, the coaches know that it’s not just our team rules, but it’s something that we believe in, something that we’ve sacrificed for. We definitely wear that.”
If it all works out, missionaries can be a huge part of successful teams at Idaho State.
Last year, starting offensive linemen Dakota Wilson and Dallen Collins, as well as tight end Austin Campbell, were returned missionaries.
With that trio graduated, ISU will have only one returned missionary who saw serious time coming back in 2020 — rotation linebacker Connor Wills, who had 52 tackles.
Phenicie was also high on Leckington, safety Ty Metcalfe and defensive lineman Jay Wadley, all of whom are coming into the team for the first time.
“I’m really excited about our guys coming back,” Phenicie said. “I would just like to get a team full of 25-year-olds like BYU, like I looked at in the media guide for all those years.
“It’s just part of the culture here in the city of Pocatello, and you have to embrace the culture instead of fighting it. It makes everything better in the long run.”