By Jake Knabel, Sports Information Director
The NAIA’s top-ranked defense currently resides in Seward, Neb., where Concordia’s stifling defense has the Bulldogs off to a 5-0 start and No. 15 national rating in the coaches’ poll. Behind a multitude of savvy and talented senior leaders, defensive coordinator Patrick Daberkow’s unit has produced staggering numbers.
Back-to-back shutouts in dominant road wins over Dakota State and Dordt vaulted Concordia to No. 1 nationally in total defense (238.2) and scoring defense (10.0 ppg). The ballhawking unit has been the driving force behind the program’s best start since 2001.
“I feel like it has a lot to do with our leadership,” said senior linebacker Langston Jones. “We have a lot of returners on defense and we know what to do for practice and how to prepare for everything. We just show the younger guys what we need to do and just keep excelling.”
Stylistically, Concordia runs the same 3-4 defensive front that it has employed for several years under Daberkow, now in his fourth season as a coordinator. With a couple of important positional switches and tweaks designed to let their athletes be free to make plays, the Bulldogs have thrived.
“We’ve put an emphasis on simplicity with certain game plan aspects,” Daberkow said. “We have good athletes and we don’t want them to have to think really hard. It’s not easy because the schemes that we face week-to-week require a lot of you. We have smart players on defense. It’s just a matter of getting them to play like it’s second nature when they’re on the field.”
In the spring, head coach Vance Winter and his staff moved senior Dylan Heithoff, who played linebacker as a junior, back to his more comfortable spot at defensive end. In order to fill the vacancy at linebacker, Concordia also converted safety Drew Baxter, who missed almost the entire 2012 season due to injury, to the ‘Dog’ linebacker slot. All this came in an effort to get the best 11 guys on the field.
Heithoff has been a disruptive force, leading Concordia with four sacks, while Baxter has teamed with Jones and company to form a physical and disciplined linebacker group.
“Everything we do is in terms of plus speed,” Daberkow said. “So we moved a defensive back to a linebacker and we moved Dylan Heithoff from a linebacker his junior year back to the defensive line as a senior. We feel like we’re gaining speed with those position moves.”
These adjustments are made smoothly by a personnel grouping long on experience. Heithoff joins corner Derek Blessing, safety Darnell Woods and Jones to form an accomplished quartet of senior starters. The Bulldogs also have a nice core of juniors with Baxter, defensive lineman Kyle Rakow and corner Landon Oelke.
“It’s huge,” Blessing said of having a dearth of veterans. “I just remember as a freshman looking up to the older guys. Even as a sophomore I remember looking up to the seniors. It’s something where the seniors have had a lot of playing time so we can help out some of those younger guys and show them how we have to do things to be successful. It’s a big part of it.”
Not surprisingly, Bulldog defenders typically find themselves in the right place. Seven different players have combined on nine interceptions on the season and Concordia remains the only NAIA team yet to allow a rushing touchdown this season.
For Baxter, a native of Rockwall, Texas, cohesiveness as an 11-man unit has been a vital ingredient in a tremendous first five games.
“We’ve really come together as a group this fall going through two-a-days and everything,” Baxter said. “It’s crucial having a core group of guys who have been together playing the last four years. We know the system and we know how to prepare with each other. We’ve really gotten good at being able to count on every person to do their job. That frees everybody up as an entire unit to be dominant. I feel like we’ve really got an assignment-sound defense.”
The defense has remained sound even when some of the veterans have gotten a breather on the sideline. Freshman defensive back Matt Keener already has a pair of interceptions, including one that went for a touchdown. Sophomore nose guard Michael Gill has developed into a major pain for opposing interior offensive lineman. And freshman linebacker Joseph Scott has stepped into the starting lineup in place of the injured Colton Schneider and filled in admirably.
The defensive line, which features a five-to-six man rotation, is a prime example of the depth throughout the entire defense.
“We can rotate those guys because we all feel comfortable that they’re all going to do their jobs,” Heithoff said. “Michael Gill and Kyle Rakow have really stepped up and also Cody Hawk, Alex Melius and Ron Jackson have rotated in. Every time we’ve had to rotate people out because of injury or endurance or stamina issues, those guys come in and there’s no drop off as a whole unit.”
Concordia’s depth will come in handy down the stretch as many of the GPAC’s top-rated offenses remain on the 2013 slate. Baxter and the defense have yet to face much adversity through five games, but that will likely change in the near future.
“This stuff’s fun right now, but eventually someone is going to score on us – someone is going to get a big play,” Baxter said. “We’ve got to be able to bounce back from that and say, ‘that’s not going to define this game. That’s not going to define anything else that’s going on.’ It’s got to be like water off a duck’s back and we have to get back to the very next play.”
Right now, Daberkow is focused only on the very next game and what it will take to slow down a Prairie Wolf attack led by 235-pound quarterback Tyler Francis.
“The only offense we’re worried about right now is Nebraska Wesleyan,” Daberkow said. “They do some pretty tough things as far as their run game. They’re a very smash-mouth team and they’ll spread out five receivers as well. It’s all about taking one thing at a time and it’s very important especially right now as we have continued to win, each game that we play has more and more significance and carries more weight. We want to make sure we take care of just today. And tomorrow we’ll worry about that then.”
NAIA Football Game of the Week: Through an online vote in which the game with the most Facebook ‘likes’ got the nod, the Concordia versus Nebraska Wesleyan tilt has been tabbed as the NAIA Football Game of the Week. Thanks to all who voted by giving this Facebook photo a like.
Outlook: Concordia will look to end a two-game losing streak against Nebraska Wesleyan and move to 6-0 on the season. The Prairie Wolves are coming off an emotional 20-19 upset over then No. 13 Doane last week in an intense rivalry game. Like the Bulldogs, Nebraska Wesleyan features a punishing defense, which is led by the NAIA Player of the Week in defensive lineman Phil Latimer. Concordia head coach Vance Winter expects a slugfest between two teams who embrace physical play at the line of scrimmage. The game carries significant implications in regards to the conference standings as Concordia attempts to keep pace with top-ranked Morningside, while the Prairie Wolves can put themselves back into the GPAC title race with a win. The Bulldogs carry active streaks of nine-straight quarters without allowing a point and 23-consecutive quarters without surrendering a rushing touchdown.
Last five meetings
2012: Nebraska Wesleyan 16-6
2011: Nebraska Wesleyan 10-7
2010: Concordia 3-0
2009: Nebraska Wesleyan 27-13
2008: Nebraska Wesleyan 44-0
Passing: Von Thomas – 814 yards, 78/130 comp/att (60.0 %), 4 td, 2 int, 119.7 eff.
Rushing: Bryce Collins – 77 att, 336 yards, 4.4 avg, 4 td
Receiving: Derek Klaus – 14 catches, 134 yards, 9.6 avg
Tackles: Darnell Woods – 37 (22 solo, 15 ast)
Passing: Tyler Francis – 969 yards, 96/177 comp/att (54.2 %), 4 td, 4 int, 103.2 eff.
Rushing: Dustin Bryant – 86 att, 404 yards, 4.7 avg, 3 td
Receiving: Connor Zumpfe – 16 catches, 226 yards, 14.1 avg, 1 td
Tackles: Taylor TeKolste – 35 (17 solo, 18 ast)