By Jake Knabel, Director of Athletic Communications
Record-breaking quarterback Von Thomas has completed his impressive run at Concordia, but the Bulldogs may only be at the beginning of a golden age for offensive prowess. The 2014 team broke a program record for yards of offense per game – and it did so with an underclassmen-dominated set of skill players.
While Thomas missed time late in the season due to injury, the misfortune allowed redshirt freshman TJ Austin to get his feet wet at quarterback. Austin will be the leading candidate to replace Thomas next year for a Bulldog squad that will lean upon a young and productive offensive core that includes sophomore running backs Bryce Collins and Demarques Saulberry and freshman receivers Jared Garcia and Logan Otte – all native Texans.
“We have some really good, young skill players,” said offensive coordinator Curran White, who just completed his third season on the coaching staff. “Bryce Collins, Jared Garcia and Logan Otte are all explosive players. They make us a more dynamic offense than what we were before. They’re all young and they all have the ability to get better and better.”
The infusion of big play receivers coupled with the emergence of Collins at running back gave the Bulldogs the types of home run hitters they lacked in previous seasons. In 2013 the team’s longest play from scrimmage covered a mere 36 yards. Things changed this past season when Thomas fired 10 touchdown passes that covered 20 yards or more. He also ran for a 74-yard touchdown at Hastings in what ended up being Concordia’s longest play from scrimmage in 2014.
More often than not, Thomas looked for Garcia when the Bulldogs reached the red zone. Garcia broke a program single-season record by catching 11 touchdown passes, including a season long 65-yard scoring strike versus No. 12 Northwestern on Oct. 18.
“It definitely makes it easier to call plays when you have that guy who can go up there and get those 50-50 balls,” White said. “You don’t have to make a perfect pass to Jared. You can just throw it up to him.
“I think he can develop in other areas like his blocking, but he’s a real asset for us.”
Concordia piled up more than 400 total yards on five occasions with a season high of 548 yards in the win over Dordt. The Bulldogs also ran for greater than 200 yards six times behind Collins, who became the fifth player in program history to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards in a season. He racked up six games of more than 100 yards on the ground.
“We had some really great moments offensively throughout the year in terms of guys really stepping up,” head coach Vance Winter said. “We had some newcomers emerge. I thought up front our offensive line played solid football all year. I think it was huge how (tight end) Seth Fitzke became a really dominant blocker. He had an outstanding overall year.
“Bryce had a very good freshman year, but he really stepped up as a sophomore. Bryce was one of the best players on the field in every game. And at receiver, Jared and Logan still have a ton of room for growth. Those guys have a great future. I’m really excited about them.”
Austin saw extensive action over the final three games, completing 28 of 59 passes for 440 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. He also ran 30 times for 126 yards, giving him 566 combined total yards. His solid late-season work eases some of the concern that arises from the graduation of Thomas.
White liked what he had seen from the rifle-armed Austin in practice, but the Angleton, Texas, native’s ability to perform on Saturdays provides a higher comfort level in looking forward to 2015.
“It was good to see him step in and perform well,” White said. “He looked good in practice, but you never know for sure how a guy will respond in games, especially at quarterback. TJ did a nice job in the opportunities he got. It was an obvious positive for him to play well and show what he can bring to the table.”
With Concordia stocked at the skill positions, the offseason focus will center upon retooling an offensive line that will lose four senior starters, including first team all-conference right guard Josh Powell. The development of the big guys up front will be a key to complimenting a group of skill players that may be as good as any since Bulldog football began in 1925.
“We’ve been recruiting towards a balanced offense,” White said. “We’ve put ourselves in position where we can spread people out and throw the ball or pack it in and pound the ball on the ground.”
Winter says the overall talent in the program is at its highest since he became head coach in 2009. Winter believes Collins and company will successfully put behind a 2014 season that included plenty of frustrations with five losses coming by a margin of six points or less. Said Winter, “We were much better than what our record showed.”