Illinois State head coach Brock Spack has led the Redbird program since 2009. (Photo by GoRedbirds.com)
By Dan Verdun
Illinois State head coach Brock Spack stood before the local media as he had done every Tuesday each season.
With their last game just a few days away, the Redbirds were out for a sixth victory and a winning season.
Spack was invariably asked about Senior Day, the annual event honoring those about to suit up as Redbirds for the last time.
“Fourteen guys are walking. I’m sure the (transfer) portal will have something to say about that on Monday (following the season finale) . . . It will be a lot more than 14 I’ll bet,” Spack told those assembled.
His comment, the look on his face and his body language all conveyed what many coaches around the country feel. The transfer portal has drastically changed the landscape of college football.
‘Can we really build a program any more?’
Spack’s comments are nothing new for the former Purdue linebacker and defensive coordinator who was hired at Illinois State in 2009.
During a Sept. 28, 2021 media address, Spack said, “(The) transfer portal makes it different. I was talking to another coach and he said, ‘Can we really build a program any more?’”
Following ISU’s final game that same season, Spack expressed his consternation with the portal.
Spack told WJBC radio’s Craig Bertsche, “That’s how it is now in modern football. That’s what the NCAA has turned this into. They’ve turned it into free agency and it’s actually, really a mess in my opinion.
“It is what it is and we have to play by the rules that we’re dealt.”
No doubt the COVID year of 2020-21 was fresh in Spack’s mind. On paper, his Redbirds looked to have a formidable roster anchored by a strong, veteran defense.
However, the global pandemic wiped out the fall 2020 season. As a result, several of his key athletes — itching for playing time and likely hoping to impress potential pro football personnel — transferred out to play at FBS schools.
Those moves left ISU short on depth when the Redbirds attempted to play a Missouri Valley Football Conference-only spring 2021 schedule.
Injuries further decimated the roster, leading to Spack and the ISU administration to make the decision halting the season four games into the spring slate.
New portal windows
Like nearly anything, the transfer portal has both positive and negative aspects.
It presents the opportunity to allow players the freedom to seek better situations for themselves. It allows coaching staffs to add athletes as essential elements to successful teams.
Yet, it also creates the potential to decimate a roster thus frustrating coaching staffs and fan bases alike.
It also means that once a player enters the portal, the institution he is leaving is no longer financially responsible for his scholarship at semester’s end as Eastern Illinois athletic director Tom Michael pointed out to Prairie State Pigskin a year ago.
Last summer, in an effort to settle down what many have deemed the “Wild West,” the NCAA approved the creation of two transfer portal windows in college football and other sports:
- 45 days “beginning the day following the championship selection,” and
- a 15-day period in the first two weeks of May at the end of spring practice, May 1-15
- the two windows are open for 60 days
- “Reasonable accommodations” will be also made for players in FBS and FCS national championship games
“Creating the windows helps the teams so that players are not just constantly going into the portal whenever they want to. It gives it some structure for both when they can go in and for schools to begin looking into the portal,” Southern Illinois recruiting coordinator Nate Griffin told Prairie State Pigskin.
Western Illinois head coach Myers Hendrickson sees this portal era as one of the many transitional phases in collegiate sports.
“College football, I believe, is the greatest game on the planet. There is evolution that happens. Right now, one of the biggest evolutions is the transfer portal,” Hendrickson said in an e-mail. “That does not mean it is a bad thing. It is up to how your attitude is with the portal, I think there are a lot of positives. The windows created by the NCAA certainly give more clarity to the portal, which again, I think is a positive as we evolve.”
‘A unique time’
Still, the portal means that structure and subsequent planning are always in flux.
During a late season Ohio Valley Conference Zoom media address, first-year EIU head coach Chris Wilkerson was asked how difficult is it to establish recruiting goals when you don’t always know who’s coming and who’s going?
“All of us, every football coach in America, is trying to figure that out,” Wilkerson said. “It is an evolving process. Yes, you have an idea going into it. Who you are supposed to lose off your roster based on years of eligibility or injury? But you have to be flexible enough and understand that you could at the end of the season have 25 players, could be more, walk into your office and say that they’d like to transfer.”
While Wilkerson didn’t have 25 such players walk into his office, he has had 10 to date — several key contributors, four of whom were team captains.
Digging deeper, two players — linebacker Colin Bohanek and safety Jordan Vincent — accounted for 20 percent of EIU’s total tackles and 38 percent of the team’s passes defended (interceptions plus pass breakups).
If that doesn’t send staffs back to the drawing board, it certainly calls for contingency plans.
“So while you may be targeting say three high school offensive linemen and three junior college or transfer offensive linemen to add six to your roster, you could have your starting five walk in and say they’re going into the portal. So you may have to find an additional five guys . . . so, like I said, you’ve just really got to be flexible, but it is a unique time,” Wilkerson said.
SIU’s Griffin, who also coaches running backs, said, “I would not use the word challenging, but more so you have to be flexible and ready for change.
“What I mean by this is you are always discussing your team, positions, depth, who is graduating,” Griffin said, “so you have an idea of what positions you need to address in recruiting. But nowadays you have to have a thought-out plan of possible guys who might hit the transfer portal, and you never really know until after the season.”
“You know, I’m starting to get that feeling that the FCS is becoming a minor league and honestly I hate it,” national FCS writer Brian McLaughlin told Prairie State Pigskin. “But, at the same time, I think a young man should also do what’s best for him and his career. It’s perplexing.
“With the new transfer rules we see this more and more.”
McLauglin, a national FCS poll voter, cites the case of Bailey Zappe as an example.
“How can you fault him for doing what he did around COVID time,” McLaughlin said. “He was at a tiny FCS school in Houston Baptist, and when he got that four-game slate against the FBS that fall of 2020? He threw for 2,000 yards and then followed his offensive coordinator to Western Kentucky.
“Then he throws for what, like 5,000 yards his senior year and before you know it he’s starting for Bill Belichick in New England. It’s hard to argue with what he did. Was it really selfish? This one makes me chase my non-existent tail, to be honest. I loathe the idea of the FCS being a minor league, but I loathe the idea of creating one more stupid rule that holds back a young man from getting a great opportunity like Bailey did, and Bailey’s a great young man.”
Boom or bust proposition
The transfer portal certainly can be hit or miss.
Assuredly, there are success stories.
Spack, for example, brought in quarterback Tre Roberson from Indiana University in 2014. That move paid off with a national championship runner-up Redbird team Roberson’s senior season.
But there are also flops.
In fact, every school has them — players who don’t pan out or are an academic and/or athletic mess.
SIU has been arguably the most successful of the Illinois FCS schools in the transfer portal.
“First, it is all about needs. What needs do you have at what positions,” Griffin said. “Then you have to do your homework to see why a kid is transferring and research his background and character. It’s important to understand why he is transferring and then go from there.”
Illinois FCS players who have entered the portal (as of Dec. 2):
Colin Bohanek (LB)
Foday Jalloh (LB)
Jaelin Benefield (RB)
Grant Edwards (DL)
Jordan Miles (DL)
Jordan Vincent (DB)
Terrance Shaw (OL)
Dom Shoffner (QB)
Zach Weir (QB)
Trey Wilhoit (P)
Braden Price (DB)
Damien Jackson (LB)
Franky West (DB)
Jabari Khepera (WR)
Jackson Waring (QB)
Jkalon Carter (WR)
TreShawn Watson (WR)
*Mason Kaplan (QB) transferring from Valparaiso to Illinois State
Kaniji Chandler (LB)
Collin Heard (DB)
Levi McAffee (DB)
Aiden Chance (OL)
Sam Cook (DL)
Nick Davenport (QB)
Juan DelaCruz (LB)
Sidney Fugar (OL)
Mike Gatz (OL)
Carter Gorder (OL)
Brayden Hall (DB)
Cameron Lewis (WR)
Tahjae Mullix (DL)
Jaylen Reed (RB)
Mo Reed (DB)
Kiondray Samelton (DB)
Dylan Tabone (QB)