As a disappointing Idaho State football season comes to a conclusion, thoughts of Bengal fans start turning to the hard off-season work that will be necessary to begin to restore the program. Bengal Coach John Zamberlin and his staff have a lot on their plates as they try to rebuild the program. Here's a look at their ambitious off-season agenda:
1. Stem attrition. Right now, Coach Z has to deal with players who are considering leaving the program because they are homesick, want their parents to see them play more often, are academic non-qualifiers who have been paying their own way, or think they should be starting or playing more. Zamberlin will meet with every player after the season is over, get their input into the state of program, and talk to them about what they need to do to be a part of a successful ISU program in the future. Not everyone will listen to or agree with Coach Z's assessment, and some will opt out. Hopefully, he can convince a majority of such players to hang tough.
Holding on to your players also means keeping your LDS missionaries committed to returning. The Bengals have a number of former recruits out in the mission field who are scheduled to return next year or the year after. These players are "re-recruitable" and can choose to join another program without penalty, so ISU has to keep the communications lines open and convince them to return to the program. This also will include two of the better-looking athletes in this year's freshman class, Kevin and Kyle Whimpey, who will be leaving for missions in December.
2. Hit the junior colleges hard, identifying and getting commitments from players who can make an immediate impact next year, especially on defense. The Bengals' problems on defense are well-documented. They need three or four kids who can step in immediately on the defensive line, two or three linebackers and at least one cornerback. There are some redshirts who have promise -- defensive end Jake Rouser, tackle Mykel Durr and safeties Phillip Pleasant and Chris Holmsely will likely all contribute immediately next year. But ISU must find a minimum of four or five other defensive players who can run and hit, and understand the schemes well enough to do it from Game One.
3. On offense, the Bengals have a major need for speed at the skill positions. They lose WR Eddie Thompson and RB-KRT Kenyon Blue, and WR Jaron Taylor has only one year left. RBs Clint Knickhrem and Ben LaPorta, a redshirt, are both in the power back mold. ISU needs to add someone like Delonte Williams, the NAU speedster who took a recruiting visit to Pocatello last year, only to wind up torching the Bengal defense for the Lumberjacks during his return this fall.
The Bengals also need more depth on the offensive line (isn't this an annual refrain?), and they need to find someone who can step up and play the essential left tackle spot immediately.
Oh, and that quarterback situation? This one is going to be tricky. Russ Hill and Kyle Blum will likely head into spring in a battle for the top spot, and Evan Mozzochi has to be wondering if he's going to get a shot, too. ISU is also looking at bringing in two or three freshmen, who, ideally, would redshirt next year.
4. Special teams. Is the Mike Ramos (placekicker)/Jarret Huk (kickoffs) combination good enough for next year, or will the Bengals opt to bring in a scholarship kicker? Apparently J.D. Ponciano will be back at kick returner, but they'll have to replace Blue, an excellent punt returner. The Bengals need to upgrade their athletic ability all across the roster to improve the coverage and return units, which struggled at times this year.
5. Not all of these "solution" players will be, or need to be junior college or D-1 transfers. ISU is in the position of being to offer to better freshmen the opportunity to compete for immediate playing time. Will that be a strong enough pull to convince players to cast their lot with an 11-loss team? Don't know, but it's one known commodity for the Bengal coaching staff to sell.
The coaching staff knows it must bring in enough older players that improvement next year is obvious. At the same time, they must balance that with the need to recruit "character" kids who will stay committed to the program for the long haul -- and stay out of trouble. Nothing brings down a program faster than a knee-jerk reaction to start recruiting marginal students or citizens. If you're winning, a community will cut you some slack on the occasional "bad kid," but nobody is going to have much patience with players on an 0-11 team who get into trouble.
6. Coach Z will have to spend some time re-evaluating schemes and systems, and making sure his coaching staff "fits" what he wants to accomplish. He will also have to decide if he wants to continue to be the linebacker coach, or if his time and talents are better spent on "big picture" issues.
7. Zamberlin and Interim AD Jeff Tingey must make a decision on the non-conference schedule. Right now, Coach Z and the ISU athletic administration are trying to figure out the best balance for a non-conference schedule that will include some confidence-building lower-tiered teams, as well as some revenue-building D-1 programs. The decision will also have to involve teams already contracted for next season. Some tough decisions are going to have to be made, and as Idaho's economic situation grows more problematic and the prospect of more state holdbacks becomes evident, I wouldn't be surprised to see "money games" rise to the top of the priority list.
None of these "to-do" lists are unique to Idaho State, but the tenuous state of the program makes successful completion of each item all the more critical. Here are some key dates to keep in mind as Coach Z and his staff start checking them off:
Dec. 17-Jan. 15--Signing period for "early" junior college transfers, who will be on campus for spring football practice.
Feb. 4-April 1--Signing period for all high school players and junior college transfers who will not be on campus until fall practice.
And thanks for being a Bengal fan. It ain't always easy, but it's always fun.