Freshmen add big-play punch
By Jake Knabel, Director of Athletic Communications
Death by 1,000 paper cuts is essentially how the Concordia University football team’s offense operated in 2013. The Bulldogs were efficient, completing close to 60 percent of their passes and rushing for more than 180 yards per game, but their longest play all season was a 36-yard pass. That was last year.
Thanks to an explosive class of true and redshirt freshmen, as well as the continued development of senior quarterback Von Thomas, times have changed in a hurry. Consider Concordia’s latest contest, a 35-28 win over Midland, in which all five touchdowns were scored by freshmen. Three of those scores came on plays of greater than 30 yards.
Said head coach Vance Winter after the Sept. 20 victory, “We’re a different type of team.”
Indeed, this is not your typical Bulldog football team that relies upon rugged defense alone. The 2014 edition isn’t likely to bring back shades of the 1937 Concordia team that went 3-2-1 under head coach Walter Hellwege despite giving up a grand total of 13 points the entire season.
The arrival of players like freshman receiver Jared Garcia, a product of Dawson High School and native of Humble, Texas, has helped make Concordia’s offense an explosive one capable of finding the end zone from anywhere on the field. Garcia already has 18 catches for 314 yards and four touchdowns and has hauled in passes that have gone for 68, 43, 32 and 31 yards.
“Jared’s a really hard worker,” Winter said. “He’s so talented. He’s one of the best route runners that I’ve ever seen. He’s got great hands. He practices well all week to play well on Saturdays.”
It’s no surprise that Garcia has become Thomas’ favorite target. The 6-foot-3 Texan spent all summer running routes and catching passes from Thomas. They have a chemistry that goes beyond this season’s first three games.
“Von and I bonded a lot this summer,” Garcia said following the Midland game. “A lot of stuff we’re doing out here has to do with that camaraderie we built over the summer. It’s working out for us.”
The two were beautifully in sync in the Midland win as Thomas found Garcia three times for touchdowns, with two coming on fades to the corner of the end zone.
“Those guys put in the time during the summer,” Winter said. “You can definitely tell they have a good feel for each other and where they’re going to be. Jared’s a legit receiver. It’s been really fun to watch those guys the past two games. I think they’re just going to get better and better.”
On the other side of the ball, redshirt freshman Tarence Roby, a transfer from Northern Illinois University, made a preseason camp transition from receiver to cornerback. The move paid off in a big way when Roby picked up a fumble and motored 46 yards to the end zone to deliver a back breaker to Midland. The Rockford, Ill., native was named the GPAC defensive player of the week on Monday.
“Tarence willingly went from receiver to cornerback,” Winter said. “He’s doing some things in coverage that I’m not we’ve ever had anyone do. He’s a team player. He’s got a chance to be really special.”
The impact of Concordia’s newcomers runs deeper than Garcia and Roby. Of Thomas’ eight touchdown passes, seven have been caught by freshmen. Rookie Carey Harrison of Winchester, Calif., has two touchdown catches – both covering greater than 30 yards. First-year player Logan Otte of Katy, Texas, also reeled in a 23-yard touchdown pass in the season-opening win at No. 15 Sterling.
Otte has sat out the past two games with an injury, but should soon return to the field to provide another big weapon. Winter called Otte, a late summer signee, the “talk of camp.” Otte played for Texas prep powerhouse Katy High School, which went 31-1 over his junior and senior seasons.
The likes of Garcia, Harrison, Otte and Roby are used to winning – and making big plays. After running an option offense prior to third-year offensive coordinator Curran White’s arrival, Concordia now has the proper playmakers in place on the outside to run the pistol spread.
“This is what we’ve envisioned,” White said. “We’ve been trying to build up to this point where we’ve got some pretty good weapons at all the positions. We were option football before I got here so bringing in receivers has always been an emphasis the two years I’ve been here recruiting. We feel like we have some good young pieces and some guys who can make plays.”
Those young guys have combined with Thomas and others such as running back Bryce Collins to give Concordia an offense on pace to be the most prolific in school history in terms of both scoring and total yards.
Says Garcia, “When you have that many explosive players, explosive plays happen.”
More from Coach White: "Jared was here in the spring and he really worked together with Von a lot in the summer. Those other two (Harrison and Otte) are out-of-state guys who weren’t here in the spring, but they’ve got good football IQ. They had a lot of good background and technique coming in. We just tried to refine some of that. They have really picked things up well. I don’t feel like we’re overly complicated on offense. We want to keep it simple enough to let our athletes be confident and make plays.”