The spring season presented the Concordia University football team 13 practice opportunities to get better. What head coach Patrick Daberkow really wanted to see was how offseason training since November would carry over to actual football performance. For those who got a first-hand look at the team’s open-to-the-public intra-squad on April 12, they may have observed improved physicality in the trenches.
Because of the youth of the 2018 squad, this spring was especially important for a football program that has come to expect more from itself.
“I wouldn’t say it surprised me, but it was good to see the progress from the weight room translate to the football field,” Daberkow said. “We made a lot of progress from November to March. That was the most encouraging takeaway. We saw a lot of development from guys who were freshmen last year that were thrown into the fire. Seeing how they came along was huge. Our offensive line group in general improved to a man. That’s probably the most important group to have jell as a collective unit. I was very happy with spring ball. We did not have any major injuries so it was a positive spring.”
Spring storylines included the growth of a youthful offensive line, admiration of a talented and veteran linebacker crew, simplification of the offensive playbook, another quarterback battle and the return from injury of a bevy of key figures who were sidelined for much of 2018. In the minds of Daberkow and his squad, the 2018 season occurred eons ago. In so many ways, the 2019 Bulldogs will be a completely different team.
To be honest, Daberkow would rather not even talk about this past season. Lessons were learned. Concordia moved past it this spring.
“That can only motivate you for so long before you need to rip off the rearview mirror on that one,” Daberkow said. “We didn’t talk about it at all this spring. We just focused on what we need to do. If we focus on what happened in the past – I think you’re looking at it the wrong way. We’re very confident that we’re a much better football team than we were a year ago. We’re excited to go against some other jerseys and prove it.”
Okay, no more talk about what happened in 2018 (at least on our end). At least on paper, the most experienced and loaded position group is at linebacker. All of the big names are back for a unit that ended the year by stifling Doane in the second half of the season finale. Riley Bilstein and Zac Walter man the outside positions while Derek Tachovsky and Lane Napier are the inside backers in a 3-4 scheme.
You’ve heard the name Napier. It echoes throughout Bulldog Stadium and is uttered frequently over the 104.9 Max Country airwaves on fall Saturdays. The All-American from nearby David City still has two years left to run amok in opposing backfields. He’s the ringleader for a star-studded group. Daberkow isn’t ready to play the role of conductor on any personal hype train (believe us, we asked him), but he has high praise for his linebackers after getting another chance to watch them this spring.
“This is the best group of linebackers we’ve had in my time here, top to bottom,” said Daberkow, whose scope of Concordia football dates back to his freshman year as a player in 2003. “It’s to the point where we are trying to find ways to use our backups because they are so skilled. We feel really good about our linebacker core. It’s a deep group and they work hard. They’re a lunch pail crew.”
Daberkow certainly expects his team to move up from its No. 60 ranking last season in total defense. Up front, playmaking end Aaron Rudloff returns and former baseball standout Kaleb Geiger expects to be in the mix after sitting out all of last season. On the back end, Indiana State University transfer Johnny Johnson should help solidify the pass defense. Said Daberkow, “Our defensive backs performed really well in the spring game.”
Shifting over to the offensive side of the ball, the Bulldogs have worked on simplifying things. Now in his second season as a full-time assistant, alum Reggie Corbin will have the opportunity to put more of his fingerprints on an offense has to be able to produce more scoring than it did a year ago. Concordia knows it has a big-time playmaker in running back Ryan Durdon and blossoming receiving threats in the likes of Art Anderson, Brady Fitzke, Logan Kreizel, Korrell Koehlmoos and others. Now the Bulldogs have to continue to bring along an offensive line that was heavy on true freshmen this past fall.
“When it comes to moving bodies, I feel like we’re better on both sides of the ball,” Daberkow said. “We’re much better at being able to move bodies in the trenches. We lacked some strength in the fall and I think we gained a lot. We still have more that we want to gain. I think we’re in a much better position than we were in the fall.”
The offense should also get a jolt from players like Fitzke, Kreizel and running back Jonah Weyand, who each spent plenty of time on the sidelines last year. Weyand will add depth to a backfield that has relied almost exclusively upon the legs of Durdon, who has piled up 2,068 rushing yards on 450 carries over the past two seasons.
Plenty of time remains for development as Daberkow looks forward to having a large portion of his roster stick around Seward for the summer months. The third-year head coach is not too worried about how his team will attack the offseason. As Fitzke has said, “If we’re trying to change a program, we don’t have a lot of days to take off.”
This is a program that finished in the NAIA top 25 as recently as 2016 and then went 6-4 in 2017. There is reason to believe 2018 may have just been a blip on the radar.
Says Daberkow, “Our players are going to do what they’re asked to do because they’re tough kids and they love football. It’s not a matter of what they’re willing to do. For a lot of guys, we have to tell them it’s time to shut it down and get some rest. They’re more than willing to put the work in. They’ve demonstrated that this offseason. It’s a fun position to be in as a coach. A lot of what we do in the fall is about assimilating the freshmen into the locker room.”