Head coach Patrick Daberkow referred to the 2018 season as one of “tough lessons.” Injuries ravaged position groups such as offensive line, tight end and the defensive backfield while a youth movement took hold. The Concordia University football program could no longer depend upon multi-year stars like Jared Garcia, Seth Fitzke, D’Mauria Martin and Tarence Roby.
In the aftermath of a close loss at Doane in the season finale, Daberkow discussed the importance of making use of the lessons learned. The struggles experienced this past fall will be a rallying cry throughout an offseason designed to be physically demanding.
“In a way it felt like a year one type of year,” Daberkow said. “Our 2017 roster was so senior heavy with guys who had been starters for multiple years. When they left we really had some work to do. This 2018 season was kind of like a reset from a roster standpoint. We had a lot of new faces. We learned a lot. I learned a ton as a coach. Our staff all learned a ton. We’re definitely better for having gone through it, but the lessons were tough lessons. There were just so many lessons that can be learned from a season like this.”
The 2018 Bulldogs finished 3-7 overall, a slip from a 6-4 mark in 2017. The wins that Concordia managed to earn were grinders – 27-20 over Buena Vista University (Iowa), 16-13 at Jamestown and 14-9 over Dakota Wesleyan. Limitations offensively were evident for a squad that finished 87th nationally in total offense and scoring offense.
That did not mean there were not positives. The Bulldogs fielded another competitive defensive unit despite breaking in an entire new secondary. That side of the ball was again spearheaded by All-America candidate in sophomore linebacker Lane Napier, who led all NAIA players with 142 tackles (school GPAC era record) this past fall. Napier and the linebackers were the rock for a defense that concluded the season with a dominant second half performance at Doane.
“That position group outperformed the competition week-in and week-out,” Daberkow said. “I think Lane Napier is the best linebacker in the country. You can make a statistical case and then you put the film on and it’s case closed. I really believe he’s that type of player. We’ve had GPAC Defensive Players of the Year before here. I think that recognition will come eventually for him. What was great about that position group was the depth. We have probably six guys who could have started for us.”
Other standouts in the linebacker crew included the likes of Derek Tachovsky (81 tackles) and Zac Walter (80 tackles – 5.5 for loss). Senior Kordell Glause began the season at his customary linebacker spot before shifting to safety for the final six games of the season. Up front, Aaron Rudloff (45 tackles) enjoyed a solid season on the edge of the team’s 3-4 alignment. Collectively, they helped Concordia rank a solid 38th nationally in scoring defense (27.1).
On offense, Concordia did everything it could to scheme up means of getting star tailback Ryan Durdon the football in space. With an offensive line in flux, Durdon’s yards-per-carry average dropped from 5.5 in 2017 to 3.7 in 2018. In spite of that fact, Durdon racked up 1,439 all-purpose yards while continuing to evolve his game, which extended to kickoff returns this season. He will enter his senior campaign with 2,068 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns on his career ledger.
“He's a playmaker,” Daberkow said. “His yardage output wasn’t as impressive as it was last season, but I think he’ll come on strong his senior year and we’ll have a little more experience blocking for him. It just goes to show that everything is about the offensive line. You’re going to be as good as your offensive line regardless of what scheme you run. We need to stay healthy at that spot, we need to bring in talent at that spot and we need to develop the guys we have on our roster at that spot.”
As Daberkow pointed out, Concordia did not start the exact same offensive line in back-to-back games at any time in 2018. That made life more challenging for Bulldog quarterbacks, of which there were many who took snaps this season. Jake Kemp earned the starting role out of fall camp, but he missed five games with an injury. Concordia also tried out Blake Culbert, Luke Lang and Andrew Perea as part of a unusual fall. As a group, Bulldog quarterbacks completed 161-of-311 passes (.518) for 1,853 yards and a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 11-to-8.
Perea’s claim to fame was a school record single-game passing yards total of 455 yards in the 42-28 loss to No. 6 Northwestern. It was perhaps a glimpse at a more prolific passing attack in 2019. Senior Vince Beasley (46 catches, 559 yards, three touchdowns) will graduate, but the Bulldogs will return sophomore Art Anderson (40 catches, 336 yards) and freshman Korrell Koehlmoos (29 catches, 376 yards) at the receiver position.
With a little better fortune on the injury front, virtually every position group could see improvement next fall. Young tight ends Brady Fitzke and Logan Kreizel are promising athletes who missed significant time while former baseball standout Kaleb Geiger was set to make an impact on the defensive line before a knee injury forced him to miss the entire season.
After all that went off script, Daberkow says that changes have already begun to be implemented. Says Daberkow, “In order to get different results, you have to do different things. We are taking a much more aggressive approach to the weight room. Whenever you add one thing, you have to take from somewhere else. Right now we’re shifting in how we recruit and when we go out to accommodate our presence as coaches in the weight room to make sure our player development is on point.”
The winter months will be crucial ones on the recruiting trail for Daberkow and his staff. The work that gets done now will go a long ways in regards to whether 2019 will help soothe what ailed the Bulldogs in 2018. Now two seasons into his head coaching tenure, Daberkow and his staff know what they’re looking for in the recruiting process.
“We’re always looking for talent, but it has to fit our locker room,” Daberkow said. “We’ve never been more adamant about that than we are now. I don’t have to fake excitement for the future of this program. 2018 was a tough season, but we have a specific vision for where we’re headed and how to get there. It takes a lot of selflessness and putting teammates first. We’re all in on 2019. We’ve been all in since the season ended.”