POCATELLO — One by one, they entered the interview room. They answered questions with phrases such as “step up” and “lead by example” and “setting the standard.”
There was also “finish,” “sense of urgency” and “over the hump.”
They may be old sports cliches, but they hold importance for Idaho State’s seniors. Six of them attended an ISU football media event on June 17, when they reflected on being the team’s default leaders and elders.
The Bengals’ roster lists 21 seniors ahead of fall camp, the program’s largest senior class since 2008’s team carried 21 seniors. None of this year’s seniors have been to the FCS playoffs, but they’ve all tasted winning and ridden ISU’s rise from two wins to six wins amid a head coaching change and a university facelift.
They’ll enter this season tasked with completing ISU’s rebuild. Head coach Rob Phenicie, too. Last year’s squad was painfully close to making the FCS playoffs, a place Bengals fans have waited to revisit since Ronald Reagan was America’s president.
The 2019 team is stocked with experience and returning key players, loading the nearly-two dozen seniors with the weight of the fanbase.
“There’s an urgency to get over that hump, make the playoffs,” fifth-year linebacker Kody Graves said June 17. “We gotta do it now. It’s our last chance. We definitely have that push right now to get over that hump.”
Graves is among the team’s preseason all-conference picks. He’s also one of 15 returning primary starters from last season’s team — this year’s most promising on-paper reason for optimism.
But the senior-heavy roster also shrinks ISU’s window to win. The 2020 Bengals will likely have to replace four offensive linemen, a running back, a tight end, two wide receivers, at least two defensive linemen, at least one linebacker and the entire secondary.
Compounding that is an unknown at quarterback. Either Gunnar Amos or Matt Struck will man the reins this season, replacing departed three-year starter Tanner Gueller.
Phenicie isn’t worried about his team and its desire to win. The sweetness of last year’s hot start and the bitterness of the home stretch are still fresh, he says.
“There’s always a sense of urgency. You don’t ever relax,” Phenicie said. “It’s never to that point where you’re like, ‘Yeah, we got this.’ … They’re not fulfilled with last year and still want to go out and show the town, show the city, show the university that we’re still moving in the right direction. That wasn’t a flash in the pan last year.”
Along with Graves, ISU’s preseason all-conference players are senior wideout Mitch Gueller and senior safety Adkin Aguirre. Both have earned national recognition as well, including a third-team FCS All-America nod last season for Gueller and a spot on HERO Sports’ FCS Sophomore All-America team two years ago for Aguirre.
Gueller, fellow receiver Michael Dean and running back Ty Flanagan highlight ISU’s senior playmakers on offense. Four projected starting offensive linemen are seniors, including Jacob Molenaar and Dallen Collins, who have started since they were freshmen. There’s also senior tight end Austin Campbell, who caught five touchdowns last season and is essentially another O-lineman thanks to his blocking abilities.
The defense is less saturated with seniors, but still includes Graves, oft-injured pass rusher Rasheed Williams, plus Aguirre, Christian McFarland, Caleb Brown and Anthony Ricks in the secondary.
Ricks is back for his sixth season with ISU football. He earned a medical hardship for missing all but one game of the 2017 season and is listed as a graduate student on ISU’s roster. He is the last player remaining from the 2014 season, when ISU went 8-4 and narrowly missed the FCS playoffs.
After last season’s close calls, he has two years’ worth of coming up short to drive him this season.
“What motivates me is having that success,” Ricks said during spring practices. “We had that my freshman year. That disappointment of not making the playoffs ... that’s what drives me. I want to get back to there. We want to be able to reach the playoffs and do something for ISU that we’ve never done.
“That’s my biggest thing: keeping this going, us winning, us being succesful as a program and changing this whole culture.”