Posted October 2, 2017
Coming home can be a feeling that maximizes a person’s joy and potential. In the case of three football players at UWRF, initial journeys to Division I schools have brought them back close to home.
Nick Jacobsen, Max Praschak and Rakeem Felder are all players who bring Division I experience to the Falcons. The defensive unit has led the nation in run defense, and it comes as little surprise that these three players have been part of the team defense concept the Falcons stress.
All three student-athletes might have arrived at the same place, but each took drastically different paths to end up at UW-River Falls.
Jacobsen began at North Dakota State after he graduated from Prescott high school in 2013 and redshirted in his first season, which allowed him to have four years of eligibility remaining. He didn’t feel like the program was the right situation for him.
“It wasn’t a good fit for me,” the senior defensive lineman said. “I thought I’d come closer to home here, and I’m only 10 miles from Prescott. I knew a bunch of guys on the team and knew right away I wanted to be here.”
Jacobsen felt like he fit in right away, which is similar to University of Wisconsin-Madison transfer Praschak. Praschak played for the Badgers last season as a redshirt freshman linebacker and appeared in two games at the Division I level.
“It was more of I wasn’t happy playing football there anymore,” Praschak said. “It was so much, and I kind of stopped liking it because of the time commitment. I wanted a change and didn’t fit in with the city of Madison, so I came back home.”
Praschak said defensive back Mitch Dienger told him to come sit by them at lunch the first day, and has quickly become one of the guys.
“It feels like I’ve been here for a while,” Praschak said. “These are great guys, and most are from small towns like me. I love it here and couldn’t ask for playing with a better group of guys.”
Praschak also enters a defense that is the same as his high school scheme. Somerset native Rocky Larson is the Falcons’ defense coordinator and runs the same defense that Praschak played in at Somerset.
“It’s the second year of running this defense, and they’ve really bought into team defense,” Praschak said.
Felder is a junior defensive lineman who played football at Eastern Michigan. While Jacobsen and Praschak had relatively simple paths coming to UWRF, Felder had a more complicated route.
“I started missing home more and was in a tough spot (at Eastern Michigan),” Felder said. “I was having family trouble and I looked for the closest school near my house that would be a good option.”
As soon as Felder had sent his tape to the Falcons coaching staff, they were on top of the recruiting process, he said.
“I met with them personally, and they came off as really cool guys and really cool coaches,” Felder said. “Being around that environment, I was like, sign me up, I’m ready to be a Falcon.”
However, the path to UWRF had more twists and turns in store. Felder would return to Michigan for personal reasons and spend another year there. It wasn’t until this March that he was able to reconnect on his plan to attend UW-River Falls for this school year.
“(Coach Matt Walker) kept in contact with me during that whole year I wasn’t playing,” Felder said. “We talked about me coming back on to play and making a big impact. I couldn’t ask for too much more than that.”
The recruiting process can be difficult with players who have offers from schools above the Division III level, Walker said. His strategy has been to develop relationships early on and be nice to players who decided to take a scholarship.
“Once they are playing, we can’t reach out to them,” Walker said. “There’s a release process, and in all three cases they reached out to us. I think we were the only place they had in mind when they were making their decision.”
Along with a host of Division II transfers at UWRF in recent years, the team is quickly proving to be an attractive program for transfers. Walker believes it is partially due to the player’s perception of his coaching staff.
“After high school, the players know how to get past what is thrown at them in recruiting,” Walker said. “They learn how real and honest our staff is in a profession of some crazy people. Life comes first and that’s a big deal for us.”
Walker said bringing Jacobsen in has slowly helped with other transfers and created a ripple effect that opens doors for future players.
“We’ve had 26 NFL teams in here scouting him, and it’s only going to help in the transfer process,” Walker said.
Walker believes this year’s defense has been one of his strongest sides of the ball on any team he has coached. The depth beyond the three Division I transfers has created a dominant threat for the Falcons. Dienger is second on the team in tackles, and the Falcons secondary has forced three turnovers this season.
Some teams bringing in high-profile recruits might expect to see a difficult time being accepted once they arrive at the Division III level. However, the Falcons have continued to hold true to their concepts of family and brotherhood.
“Ever since we all got on the same page and started playing for each other, it’s been good,” Felder said. “After the Coe loss we had a talk about being a team and playing for each other. Different players on defense have tightened up and have been doing their 1/11th.”
Since that 13-9 loss to Coe on Sept. 2, the Falcons have been a different team on the defensive side of the ball.
“We’re believing in each other and everybody believes the guy next to them will do their job every single play,” Jacobsen said. “If everyone does their job, they shouldn’t gain a yard.”
When teams have tried to rush against the Falcons this year, oppenents been hard pressed to even find a yard. Through three games the Falcons have only allowed 40 yards on the ground and 0.6 yards per rush.
The Falcons began WIAC play against UW-Eau Claire with a 30-7 win on Saturday. Their game against number-12 ranked UW-Platteville will finally be a chance to show what they’re made of against the conference Walker calls “the best league in the country” for Division III.
“I think we’re the best defense in the conference, hands down,” Felder said. “We’re going to start playing these conference games and let our play speak for ourselves. We all believe we’re number 1 and have to go out there and make it happen.”
“I think River Falls is on the rise, and the people here can see it,” Praschak said. “According to other coaches’ projections, River Falls isn’t as respected as we’d like. We’re ready to change everyone’s perceptions this season.”