Indiana State finds football players from coast-to-coast. On ISU's current roster, players from 17 different states dot the roster, running the geographical gamut from California to Florida.
If ISU can go beyond American shores to find a useful player? So much the better. With defensive tackle Filip Zacok, born in Slovakia and who came to the U.S. by way of Finland, ISU has done just that.
ISU coach Curt Mallory noted that Europe is increasingly becoming a place to find players, Zacok being the first in his coaching regime.
"You're seeing more and more of it. When my father stepped down from coaching, he had a former player in Germany coaching. My father went over there and worked with him. It was a high school-slash-pro team and a lot of those guys were coming over to the States," Mallory said.
For ISU, the process was rather simple. Zacok (pronounced Za-choke in Slovak) was spotted at a team camp, one that was hosting a European All-Star team. ISU liked him and brought him aboard.
For Zacok? He took in interest in football when he was young.
"American football has been in Europe for a long time. When we lived in Slovakia, I watched the NFL on TV and I thought it would be fun to try it out," said Zacok, who dabbled in judo before he got into football.
The Zacok family journey went from Slovakia to Germany to Seinäjoki, Finland in the western part of the Scandinavian nation. By then, Zacok was in his teens and he found out Seinäjoki had an American football club, the Crocodiles.
"I played on a junior team for a couple of years and then went to play on the men's team. I did pretty well. I led in sacks," Zacok said.
The American impression of European football is that it's uncommon and that it takes to back seat to soccer, basketball, hockey and traditional sports in the individual countries. There's truth to that, but Zacok noted that in some places, like Seinäjoki, there is significant participation in the sport.
"It depends on the city or town you're in. For the club I played for? We had a decent base. We had about 100 kids playing junior from 8 to 19 years old," Zacok said.
With the Crocodiles, Zacok, who played defensive end, not only played domestically in Finland, but in the tradition of most European sports, also played in continental competitions. That's where he began to be noticed by those who could get him seen by American eyes.
With the assistance of European-based American football player Niko Lester, Zacok found his way to the Legacy Football Organization in Brighton, Mich., which conducts college tours comprising of international players. According to europeselite.com, Zacok is one of five players who received a scholarship offer via their camps.
For Zacok? It occurred in a camp at the University of Cincinnati where ISU defensive line coach Mark Smith spotted him. After sorting through the myriad paperwork it took for Zacok to first come to the U.S. and then become eligible, he committed to the Sycamores in late 2017.
Once he got here? It was obviously a big adjustment. Zacok doesn't have any family here, for one, but he was also moved to the interior of the defensive line from end. It was a baptism by fire.
"The level and intensity is greater, especially on the line of scrimmage. Back home, the offensive linemen are Finnish and the skill level is higher here. It was challenging," said Zacok, who said he got some sage advice in an early practice. "I was told, 'You need to play lower or you're going to get your a-- kicked.' I've taken the coaching and tried to adapt to the style."
In ISU's system of frequent defensive substitutions, Zacok played 10 games during his freshman campaign in 2018. He had 10 tackles and a sack in ISU's season finale at Western Illinois. With ISU having lost interior defensive linemen Pishon Powell and Rex Mosley, Zacok is competing with Terre Haute's Michael Ghant for playing time at nose tackle.
"I definitely feel like I've gotten better on the inside playing the nose. It fits me more. I've gotten much better, especially with my hands," Zacok said.
Zacok's work ethic is very good and the coaching staff has taken notice.
"He's one of the more consistent players this camp and he's graded out really well, around 90 percent in every practice. He's right in the mix to be a starter," Mallory said.
Zacok was under no illusions his American experience would be easy. As far as moral support beyond his teammates is concerned, his girlfriend will come over from Finland soon and he's hoping his mom and dad can also visit, but so far, so good as far as realizing his football dream a continent away from home.
"I haven't gotten to go places yet because we're busy with the football. The food is good, living here is nice. I was expecting it to be hard, football-wise, and it has been. Maybe even harder. But you've got to be tough," Zacok said.
• ISU returns to practice field — In the years since former ISU coach Trent Miles installed the ISU practice field adjacent to Memorial Stadium in 2011, it's had a patchwork existence.
Miles used it extensively in 2012 before he left for Georgia State. Mike Sanford used it a bit in his first season in 2013, didn't use it at all in 2014, and used it sparingly for light work in 2015 and 2016.
All the while, the field fell into greater disrepair with inconsistent use. Mallory wasn't even aware ISU had a practice field until well after he was hired. The field was not used in 2017 due to its poor condition, but after a $50,000 donation from Jack and Joyce Rentschler, the field began to be rehabilitated in 2018.
On Friday, ISU had its first practice on it since 2016 and it's first full practice there since many years before that.
It took time for ISU to get the field ready. It had to be re-seeded and drainage issues had to be addressed, among other things. Even now, the field has undulations and patchy areas, but Mallory sees significant benefit in using it. For starters, the wear and tear on the players is much less than it is on the Memorial Stadium Field Turf. Secondly, on a day like Thursday where temperatures were in the high 80s even in the late morning? The field surface temperature is at least a 20-degree difference.
"Trent Miles had a great vision and we have an unbelievable field here," Mallory said. "This is going to make a big difference. Not only on their legs, but with the hydration part and how the humidity can be. We can put our players in an environment where they're not overheated."
• ISU using technology to monitor players — ISU originally announced fall camp practice times with 150-minute practice windows. By this week? The practice times were cut down to two hours in length. A primary reason why is that ISU is employing technology to monitor the health of its players.
ISU is wearing GPS monitors to determine how much exertion they were experiencing during practice. When ISU began to prccess the data? They realized they might need to cut back a bit.
"It monitors the distance they run at max speed. You can see that a young man like Dante Hendrix might run 1,600 yards in a day. He's going a mile a minute. It gives you the data as a coach that you have to cut back because the players will go, go, go. It helps us make sure we're not doing too much," Mallory said.
ISU has about 30-40 of the GPS devices, not enough for every player, but an effort is made to try to monitor as many players as possible.