For years now, the Missouri Valley Football Conference has been not just one of the top leagues in the FCS, but in all of Division I football — and for those who know college football best, they’d likely point to the offensive line play in the league as one of the biggest reasons for the success.
Current or recent NFL O-linemen like Joe Haeg (NDSU), Tom Compton (South Dakota), Billy Turner (NDSU), Austin Howard (Northern Iowa) and Bryan Witzmann (SDSU) have come from current MVFC schools, as have NFL legends like Hall of Famer Jim Langer (SDSU) and long-time starters like Adam Timmerman (SDSU), Brad Meester (Northern Iowa), Frank Winters (Western Illinois) and Tunch Ilkin (Indiana State). There is a massive O-line legacy with these schools.
So why is this conference … this area of the country … so good at producing the players who really sum up the essence of what football is all about? We decided to ask three 2020 HERO Sports Preseason All-Americans about it. We asked them if the “corn fed, farmer boy” generalized description ticked them off, did they hate nicknames like “hogs” or the often repeated line that offensive linemen have never met a buffet they didn’t like. It’s like when the football book of cliches was published, O-linemen were given Chapter One when hardly anybody ever puts a microphone in their faces to ask their reactions.
So we decided to be different and put the proverbial microphone in their faces and ask about the above. The answers: Actually, they embrace the “corn fed” description because frankly? They all live within eyesight of cornfields and are proud of it. And “hogs” or in NDSU’s case “rams” … those comparisons to animals? No sir … they love it. As it turns out, hogs are actually considered cognitively complex, incredibly durable and can fend for themselves in any environment. They’re survivors. And that buffet question? Hey, as long as the food is good, does anybody really despise a good buffet?
These guys are midwestern, born and bred, from small towns like Lenox, Iowa … Geneseo, Ill. … and Drake, N.D.
For Northern Iowa’s Spencer Brown, Illinois State’s Drew Himmelman and North Dakota State’s Cordell Volson, they all jumped on the opportunity to play in the MVFC within their home states, and now all three are considered Top 100 small school prospects for the 2021 draft, and NDSU lineman Dillon Radunz tops the entire list. All three heaped praise on each other from afar, even though they are rivals on the field. Truthfully, they’re brothers from different mothers.
“A lot of us come from small, rural communities … I know for sure our team (NDSU) is like that and I’m sure the other guys (Himmelman and Brown) are the same way,” NDSU’s Cordell Volson told HERO Sports this week. “Whether you grew up on a farm, or like me where my old man has a heavy construction company, you grow up doing blue-collar work. You’re not going to stop until the job is done because you can’t, and I think the Missouri Valley plays football that way … Something I throw around when people ask about how it’s gone, I always think … and it’s probably the same with Drew and and Spencer … I’d probably be working with my old man in construction if football hadn’t happened, and I would have been fine with that.
“But this has been a great opportunity, and football has allowed me to go west to play at Eastern Washington, east to play at Delaware, and south to play at Frisco (Texas) for the national championship. I probably never would have been to those places, and I’m very thankful for that.”
Not surprisingly, there is a common thread with these three athletic linemen. They’re tall, and they have quick feet, and they all had basketball opportunities coming out of high school. Oh, and Himmelman stands in at 6-foot-9, Brown at 6-foot-8, and Volson is the “short guy” at 6-foot-6. So that wonderful mixture of athleticism, blue-collar background and midwestern charm has them looking like pro-prospect cornerstones for three of the best FCS teams in the country.
Brown grew up on a farm in Lenox with his brother Garrett — now a U.S. Marine. That’s where Brown was when HERO Sports caught up with him this week — thanks to the pandemic keeping students home.
“It’s a town in southwest Iowa, and I think there’s around 1,300 people and people keep telling me that it’s slowly growing but I don’t know if I should believe them,” Brown said. “All my friends and family are involved in agriculture … I played all the sports you could play, but if I wasn’t paying sports I was helping my dad in the fields. And if I wasn’t doing that? I was hunting, fishing, golfing … there wasn’t a whole lot to do. We had 30 people graduate in my class.”
Himmelman, when reached at his home, really couldn’t — or wouldn’t — complain about being “stuck” back at home during the pandemic.
“It’s not terrible, really, being home … I’m not cooped up in an apartment somewhere,” Himmelman told HERO Sports. “I don’t resent the corn-fed label either, because when I look out from my porch, that’s all I see is cornfields. Why would I resent that?”
Himmelman was a first-team HERO Sports Freshman All-American in 2017 and hasn’t looked back since. With his 6-foot-9 height, his wingspan and his quick feet, he has been on the “pro radar” ever since. He’s like a basketball power forward who can also derail a defensive end’s greatest dream, and he’s seen the interest rise in guys of his stature, and he’s seen more and more guys his size catch interest — especially in the MVFC.
“It definitely has changed over the years,” Himmelman told HERO Sports. “Early on in football, you’d have these huge dudes, but with a lot of teams transitioning more to a passing style, height and the ability to drop back has become big. And the defensive ends get more athletic every year, so you’ve got to be able to counteract that more every year. My height isn’t something you can really miss, so yeah, it usually comes up.”
That’s certainly an understatement.
The three fired up MFVC standout linemen share a lot in common. They have similar backgrounds, they come from the same area of the country, they chose to play for in-state MVFC teams … and they’re all-americans. And there’s one other trait they share with linemen all over American … they’re the best quotes in college football. Offensive linemen never fail when saying their piece, in ways only a big-guy up front could. You won’t hear cliches with linemen, and it’s refreshing.
“You don’t see a whole lot of us offensive linemen that are big social media guys or anything,” Volson said. “You don’t hear a whole lot from us at all, really, so when you finally do get to hear something from us? We’ve been saving it up for a long time and we’re going to hit you with something big.”
“We all have a good sense of humor, and we don’t get a whole lot of fame,” Brown said. “So if you have a chance to say something, you better give them something to remember.”
The three standouts also have something else in common — they all want to be home for Thanksgiving. But before there’s another bad joke made about linemen and food, you have to realize the predominant reason they all want to be home for that particular family holiday — it means their team got a first-round bye in the FCS national playoffs and go home for a few days. This is something these three programs have all done before.
That’s the primary motivation …
But of course, a little home-cooked turkey, dressing and mashed potatoes doesn’t hurt either. I mean, they are proud O-linemen after all.