Phenicie vs. Western Colorado

Idaho State head football coach Rob Phenicie and wide receiver Chris Reynolds Jr. (1) celebrate during a game against Western Colorado on Sept. 5, 2019, at Holt Arena.

It’s still up in the air whether college football will happen this fall — but coaching staffs around the country must still prepare like it will. A few weeks after Idaho State’s spring practices were scheduled to wrap up, the Idaho State Journal caught up with ISU head coach Rob Phenicie. Here’s four things we learned from chatting with him.

He’s got questions, too

Not about the coronavirus pandemic and when college sports may start again — nobody has the answers to those — but general ones that any fan looking at ISU’s roster might also come up with.

“How is (quarterback) Tyler Vander Waal going to handle running the offense, is (wide receiver) DeMonte Horton back 100%, how’s (running back) Malakai (Rango) going to handle being the guy now? We have four positions to fill on the offensive line, so those are some tough things,” Phenicie said. “And like I said, our secondary, how are we going to mesh and gel back there? Those are our big questions.”

In a typical year, spring football would have given Phenicie insight into his team — he’d literally be the person in the world most equipped to answer those questions. Now, he’s just as much in the dark as anyone.

The secondary is going to be deep — for good reason

Phenicie had thoughts on FBS dropdown Teddrick McGhee and Air Force Prep transfer De’Carleon Townsend — the fourth and fifth defensive back transfers ISU has added this offseason after losing all four secondary starters from a season ago.

“You don’t bring a graduate transfer in to sit on the bench, you bring a graduate transfer in to play, and (McGhee’s) got to be ready to go,” Phenicie said. “And then (Townsend), the young man from Air Force Prep. When you go to Air Force Prep, it doesn’t really count as anything, so he’s like a true freshman coming in, but he’s had a season at the Academy with the discipline and all that good stuff.”

Phenicie also brought up youngsters Jihad Brown (redshirt freshman), Ja’Maree Boone (redshirt freshman) and Josh Alford (freshman), who are expected to compete with transfers McGhee, Cam Davis and Jayden Dawson at cornerback. Rebuilding the depth there was a priority for the Bengals.

“There’s better depth there than there was,” Phenicie said. “It’s like running back, you can’t just get through the season with two running backs, you need three or four. Same in the secondary, you have to have six, seven, eight of those guys, particularly in this league, with the skill on the offenses that we see. That’s a tough position, so you have to have bodies back there.”

The coronavirus shutdown could have affected ISU’s pro hopefuls

After no Big Sky Conference players were selected in the NFL Draft for the first time since 2000, the consensus opinion was that canceled pro days and an interrupted pre-draft process had an outsized effect on the chances of small-school players. Phenicie agreed.

“This thing made it tough. Guys like Mikey (Dean) and Mitch (Gueller) needed exposure,” Phenicie said. “Those guys (in the NFL) are going to draft the guys that they feel are the absolute best players. Without any empirical data, shoot, I think even North Dakota State only had one guy drafted. (Editor’s note: Bison passrusher Derrek Tuszka went to the Denver Broncos in the seventh round with the penultimate pick in the entire draft). It was the SEC, ACC, the Power 5s got all the guys drafted.”

So far, no former Idaho State players, including record-setting receivers Dean and Gueller, have gotten a professional opportunity.

“We’ll see, they’ll keep plugging along and see if something comes along,” Phenicie said. “That made it tough for a lot of free agents. This changed, because generally after the draft, they have free agent, tryout days, and I think if Mikey would have got into a camp, he would have turned some heads. They just have to keep persevering and see when NFL camps open up and see if they have opportunities.”

ISU is relying on continuity

The Bengals are entering their fourth season with Phenicie and his staff leading the team this fall. With a shortened preparation schedule, that might give ISU a leg up on the competition when it comes to getting everybody back on the same page.

“We’re lucky we’re not a new staff, that we’re four years into this and the kids know what to expect and they know the routines,” Phenicie said. “That makes it a lot easier. We play New Mexico and Fresno (State) our first two games, and those are brand-new staffs. I know New Mexico only got about six spring practices in and I don’t even know if Fresno got spring practice in. I’d be panicking right now if this was a whole new situation.”

(Shortly after talking with Phenicie, the California State University system, which includes Fresno State, announced that its campuses will remain closed through the fall, putting ISU’s game with the Bulldogs in jeopardy.)

Two Big Sky schools — Northern Colorado with Ed McCaffrey and Cal Poly with Beau Baldwin — are also going into the season with new head coaches. The Bengals are scheduled to play Cal Poly on Nov. 14, although the Mustangs are also part of the California State University system.