SOUTH SIOUX CITY, Neb. – The first question seventh-year head coach Vance Winter fielded at Thursday’s annual GPAC football media centered upon the quarterback position. Concordia must now replace record-setting signal caller Von Thomas. Fortunately, “this is the highest talent level we’ve ever had,” Winter told the gathering at Thursday’s annual GPAC football media day.
Winter spoke at the podium in the Marina Inn Conference Center in South Sioux City, Neb., for more than 16-and-a-half minutes and took a total of eight questions from attending media. For the 16th-straight year, all of the league’s football coaches gathered for the event.
After a 5-6 season in 2014, Winter and company found themselves pegged for a sixth-place conference finish in 2015, according to both the coaches and media polls released Thursday. That placement comes on the heels of a tie for sixth place a year ago. Surrounded by Concordia teams that won championships in 2014-15, Winter is looking for more from his group.
Asked about the effect of watching track and field head coach Kregg Einspahr and others walking around campus with trophies, Winter responded, “It’s been a very fun year to see all the success at Concordia. We feel a little bit left out of that. We had our opportunities to have that kind of success, we just didn’t finish some things. We feel like we can be a part of that.”
Star skill players such as 1,000-yard running back Bryce Collins give the Bulldogs a shot to post their second winning record in three seasons. Collins is one of 13 returning starters (six on offense; seven on defense). Winter praised his junior back from Boerne, Texas, saying that he feels Collins is “week-after-week one of the best players on the field.”
And once again, Winter emphasized that this team can scoot. The skill positions are well stocked. Said Winter, “I think we have some speed on both sides. I think the secondary defensively is a strength. I think our skill position guys – wide receiver, running back and tight end – those are some guys who are athletic for their position group.”
Defensive return to form?
Concordia continues to be motivated by the fact that it dropped five decisions by seven points or less in 2014. Winter provided frank and honest commentary about the shortcomings of last year’s defense. He also believes his 2015 defense will look more like the 2013 group that ranked fourth nationally in total defense.
“I believe strongly that this defensive group has the capability of being as good as we’ve had,” Winter said. “A lot of it’s youth, but I feel like this is a group that can really run around. We’ve got some guys that can cover. We’ve got to get better quickly, the sooner the better. There’s a lot of youth in this group. I really feel like the talent is there to be great.”
The secondary might be as fun as any in the conference to watch. Corners D’Mauria Martin and Tarence Roby are two names that have consistently popped up this offseason after they both enjoyed solid first seasons at Concordia in 2014. The biggest defensive question mark remains the four-man crew of backers in coordinator Patrick Daberkow’s 3-4 scheme.
Carey Harrison pops in spring
Winter referred to Harrison as the team’s “best offensive player in the spring.” Last year as a freshman, the 5-foot-10, 170-pound native of Winchester, Calif., caught 14 passes for 188 yards and two touchdowns.
Winter: “We have quite a few other guys who’s roles will expand this year, who we’re very excited about and have a lot of playmaking ability. The one guy who really opened eyes this spring is a young man from California, Carey Harrison. Carey started some games for us last year, especially early in the year. He made a lot of plays for us.”
Harrison will team up with Jared Garcia, who broke the program record by catching 11 touchdown passes a year ago.
Nebraska Wesleyan’s departure
GPAC commissioner Corey Westra fielded several questions relating to Nebraska Wesleyan’s departure from the conference and the NAIA. Beginning in 2016-17, the Prairie Wolves will be a member of NCAA Division III’s Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Westra said that the GPAC has no imminent plans to replace Nebraska Wesleyan. The 2015-16 athletic year brings the arrival of College of Saint Mary – an all-female school – to the GPAC.
Doane head coach Matt Franzen opened his remarks by thanking Wesleyan head coach Brian Keller, who enters his 19th season at the helm of the Prairie Wolves. When asked whether his program would consider playing Nebraska Wesleyan beyond this season, Hastings head coach Tony Harper said, “If it works out for all our schedules, we would love to play Nebraska Wesleyan.” Morningside head coach Steve Ryan stated, “We’re going to miss Coach Keller’s leadership and we’re going to miss Nebraska Wesleyan.”
Keller spoke eighth among the 10 GPAC coaches on Thursday. Said Keller, “It’s going to be a fun final year in the GPAC. We’re going to enjoy it as much as we can.”
Winter was not asked to comment on Nebraska Wesleyan during his time at the podium.
Replacing Von Thomas
While the ability to make up for four lost starters on the offensive line is key, the most important position on the field must also be filled capably. Winter and coordinator Curran White liked what they saw from sophomore TJ Austin last season when he spelled Thomas due to injury. Austin is the frontrunner to win the job, but he will be pushed in camp by Riley Wiltfong and Garrett Folchert.
Said Winter, “I really feel great about the quarterback position going into this season.”
1. Morningside – 81 (9)
2. Northwestern – 73 (1)
3. Doane – 65
4. Dakota Wesleyan – 51
5. Hastings – 48
6. Concordia – 46
7. Nebraska Wesleyan – 27
8. Midland – 25
9. Briar Cliff – 24
10. Dordt – 9
1. Morningside – 90 (9)
2. Northwestern – 80
3. Doane – 70
4. Hastings – 56
5. Dakota Wesleyan – 52
6. Concordia – 45
7. Nebraska Wesleyan – 39
8. Midland – 30
9. Briar Cliff – 22
10. Dordt – 11
Concordia GPAC preseason coaches’ placement
2015: 6th (finished ??)
2014: 4th (finished T-6th)
2013: 7th (finished 5th)
2012: 8th (finished 7th)
2011: 7th (finished 8th)
2010: 10th (finished 8th)
2009: 10th (finished 10th)
2008: 6th (finished 11th)
2007: 8th (finished 6th)
2006: 8th (finished 9th)
2005: 6th (finished 4-6 in GPAC)
2004: 8th (finished 6th)
Vance Winter full media day transcript
This is a great venue. It’s great to see everybody here. Great view looking out over the river here. I want to make special mention also of Jake Knabel, GPAC SID of the Year. Concordia had a banner year in athletics and Jake did an outstanding job of covering it. One of our goals as an athletic department is to provide a first-class athlete experience while they’re at Concordia, and Jake is such a huge part of that. We’re very grateful.
Also want to thank our coaching staff back in Seward – great group of guys. I’m excited about working with them this year. We’ve had some continuity which is outstanding, especially among our on-campus staff. I’d like to mention offensive coordinator Curran White going into his fourth year at Concordia, Patrick Daberkow, defensive coordinator going into his seventh year and special teams coordinator Corby Osten going into his seventh year on staff. Also our two new GAs, Brian Quinn, he’s been a student assistant for us. We’re excited about him. And then Weston Coomes, who’s a recent graduate of Ottawa University in Kansas. I’ll jokingly say in an unofficial poll, these two guys are the most eligible bachelors in Seward, Nebraska, but they have to wait until after football season.
I’d also like to mention our 2015 seniors. This is a special group of guys. I’m really excited. These guys have invested a lot in our program. I’m thankful for the type of men they are and the work they’ve put in and the leadership they’ve given. It’s their year. They control it. They have invested so much into our program. I can’t wait to get started.
Our football team had a ton of great moments last year. We set numerous records offensively. Our highlight film was probably the most entertaining highlight film we’ve ever had – flashy with a ton of big plays. Our football team was lacking some things though, too. It was apparent, especially in the amount of close games we lost. We lacked killer instinct. We were not a great fundamental football team. I thought this was our poorest tackling team that we’ve ever had. It was also our poorest perimeter blocking team that we’d ever had. We were a terrible situational football team. We lacked consistency, not just game-to-game but from quarter-to-quarter. That’s the stuff that made you want to pull your hair out. Call it youth. Call it inexperience. Call it injuries. Whatever. Those are just excuses. We have to find a way to get it done.
We believe strongly that we have that type of group and we have the type of group it means a lot to. I’m excited to work with them. I was proud of the fact that we finished the year with two games that were complete-game efforts against pretty good football teams and finished strong. I think it shows the character of our out-going class. You know, you lose gut-wrenching game after gut-wrenching game. Those guys finished the year strong. I think it also shows the character of the group coming back and it builds momentum going into the offseason and this year.
Jake does a great job highlighting specific guys within our media guide and all those things. If you have any specific questions about those guys – I’m going to be very general in terms of what I talk about offensively, defensively and kicking game.
Defensively we return seven starters. It’s no secret that we took a step backward last year from 2013 when we were, I think, the fourth-rated defense in the entire country. We did not play consistent football all year. We showed flashes. Because of injury and ineffectiveness we had to play a lot of young guys. We also had to move guys around so much. We didn’t really have any flow position-wise. Guys were moving from week-to-week to different position groupings.
I don’t think it’s a secret that we have to be better at linebacker. I love our guys there. I believe the ability is there but we’ve got to play better and have more consistent football at all four of our linebacker spots. I like the improvements that happened in the spring. I like the changes that happened. I like that group and I like how it’s wired, but those changes have to show up on Saturday.
Our secondary has a chance to be a real strength of our football team. I love our athleticism and length. We’ve got guys that can really run and young guys that have a chance to develop. We return a second team all-conference guy at corner, Tarence Roby. He’s got a chance to be very special. He’s going to be a sophomore next year. Another guy, D’Mauria Martin, was probably our most dominant defensive player all spring. Another guy, Tait Sibbel, who was an all-conference player in 2013. He returns. Last year he battled a high ankle sprain from week one through the rest of the season and was not the same player. He battled through it for his teammates but struggled. He was back to his old self this spring. I’m very excited about him.
Our d-line we feel has great potential even though we lost probably our best defensive player last season, Kyle Rakow. I feel like that group has a good chance, potential-wise. There’s a lot of size and experience. There’s a different mix of abilities in that group. I really like their athleticism. I feel like those guys have a chance to be an outstanding group, but it’s all got to show up on Saturday.
I believe strongly that this defensive group has the capability of being as good as we’ve had. A lot of it’s youth, but I feel like this is a group that can really run around. We’ve got some guys that can cover. We’ve got to get better quickly, the sooner the better. There’s a lot of youth in this group. I really feel like the talent is there to be great. It’s just a matter of when they decide to do it. The sooner the better for us. They need to be consistent. We need to be a better situational defense. We need to create more turnovers. We’ve got to be better stopping the run. Those things are all there. We can do it. We have to show it on a weekly basis.
Offensively, we return six starters from last fall. Part of college coaching is guys graduate. We graduated four senior starters on the o-line. That’s a big loss for us. We lost first-team all-conference guard Josh Powell. Then we also graduated a three-year starter at quarterback who’s been mentioned her quite a bit – Von Thomas, who set about every record we have for offensive records at Concordia.
Coach White, since he’s been at Concordia, our offense has improved on a yearly basis. Year-after-year statistically we have improved. The bulk of our returning experience is in the skill positions. We really like the talent and the depth we have coming back at quarterback, running back, wide receiver and tight end. We return a first team all-conference running back Bryce Collins who I feel week-after-week is one of the best players on the field. Bryce is going to be a junior next year. We return a second team all-conference wide receiver and tight end in Jared Garcia and Seth Fitzke. Those two guys were first-year starters last year and at times showed dominance, especially for first-year guys – I’m very excited about them. Jared will be a sophomore. Seth will be a junior.
We have quite a few other guys who’s roles will expand this year, who we’re very excited about and have a lot of playmaking ability. The one guy who really opened eyes this spring is a young man from California, Carey Harrison. Carey started some games for us last year, especially early in the year. He made a lot of plays for us. This spring he was our best offensive football player.
The big question for us is o-line. When you graduate four guys who have stared a lot of games there is some concern. There were a lot of positive signs this spring. Really feel like this group has a chance to be a very physical group. We need to stay healthy. That group needs to improve on a weekly basis, but there’s talent there. It just a matter of how quickly those guys develop and how quickly those guys mesh as a group. I think from a size standpoint and all those things, it’s a good-looking group. We’ll just see how they play.
Kicking game. We return our punter and kicker for the 2015 season. Both have good track records. We feel they both can be difference-makers for us on a weekly basis. Adam Meirose is a returning first team all-conference kicker. He’s been outstanding the past two years. Very accurate. Great on kickoffs. We struggled to find any consistency in the punt returns last year. It was costly for us. We had two muffed punts in the final five minutes of football games that cost us. We went from having Derek Blessing who returned every punt for two years to rotating five different guys because of injuries and struggles – and it bit us. We really feel like that’s an area we have to find out in fall camp. We have some candidates we’re really excited about. Catching punts – that’s something you have to be real comfortable with. We have to get a guy back there who can be a difference maker. We feel like our schemes are solid. All the things we do in the kicking game are solid. We have to get a guy back there that’s going to be a difference maker.
Like everyone up here, I’m really looking forward to the 2015 season. Last year was so frustrating for all of us. I know everybody involved with our football program, we wished the season could continue. We felt like finally we were starting to play our best football, but we’re excited to get going and get started. Our offseason and spring were outstanding. Our guys tested well and comopeted well this spring. We have some great things building and feel like the energy level is sky high going into this season. Our report date is August 14th as we start this journey in the 2015 football season.
Thanks for your time. Are there any questions?
Question: Tell me about your quarterback situation. Who’s vying for the job there?
Coach Winter: TJ Austin played the last three games when Von got hurt last year. TJ is a different type of guy than Von. He’s built a little bit differently than Von. He looks like a linebacker playing quarterback. He brings some things to the table we’re really excited about. He showed some great things in those last three games. That gave us a sense of optimism going into the offseason, knowing we had a guy who had taken just about every snap for three years. To have a guy come in and perform well was good.
Another couple guys. Riley Wiltfong, a young man from Doniphan-Trumbull, he had an outstanding spring. He’s going to open some eyes. He can play. Then Garrett Folchert has been around our program for a long time. He knows the offense very well. He can get it done, too. I really feel great about the quarterback position going into this season.
Question: You have like four guys from Doniphan on your team. Talk about that group.
Coach Winter: It’s a great group of kids. They’re fun to be around. Jordan Slough battled injury all season and really didn’t get a chance to contribute. He’s a young man with a lot of potential, lot of ability. We’re very excited about him.
Grady Cook came to us as about a 6-4, 220-pound guy. He’s about to about 260 now as an offensive lineman. Plays a great technique. I’m excited about what he’s going to do going into this fall. He had a great spring.
And we have a young man coming from there, Kalen Garrett, he’s going to be a developmental type guy. He’ll have to gain a little weight, but a good prospect.
Question: You hear coaches talk a lot about open competition at the skill positions. Is it going to be an open competition for the offensive line?
Coach Winter: We feel like there are a few battles there position-wise. We came out of spring feeling good about some guys. You obviously want to develop depth. We can’t afford to have too many injuries up front going from an older group of guys. I lot of these guys are going into their junior year having been backups. We’ve seen them quite a bit. Hopefully they develop. The talent is there. It’s always open competition. If a guy comes in and opens our eyes, there’s opportunity there.
Question: When (Kregg) Einspahr and others bring their trophies by do you get motivated?
Coach Winter: Oh yeah. Absolutely. That’s outstanding. It’s been a very fun year to see all the success at Concordia. We feel a little bit left out of that. We had our opportunities to have that kind of success we just didn’t finish some things. We feel like we can be a part of that. We’ve got a group of guys that are very focused and obviously want to bring some recognition to football as well.
Question: What do your players pick up from that success all around them?
Coach Winter: It’s awesome to see on campus. In terms of an energy on campus, there’s nothing like it. That’s a great thing to see all these sports and all these coaches the fun that they’re having and postseason-play types of things and our guys getting involved. Corey (Westra) talked about the NAIA women’s basketball tournament and the atmosphere that was here. That was a big time atmosphere and our guys were probably a big part of that atmosphere, too. That’s a fun thing for us to be part of and the energy level for that. Our guys traveled all over the place watching games this year.
Question: Your thoughts on the season as a whole?
Coach Winter: We’re going to take it week-by-week but we feel great about our team. We feel great about the talent level. This is the highest talent we’ve ever had. It’s a lot of youth. There’s a lot of sophomores and then there’s some incoming freshmen we feel like can make an impact. It’s all about how quickly they can pick everything up and be players. Jared (Garcia) is an outstanding athlete and an outstanding player. We want him to become more of an alpha-type of guy. I think he spent his freshman year kind of feeling his way through, trying to figure out what this all means and what this is all about. I think he’s ready to take the next step. I’m excited to see what our sophomore group can do after getting a feel for the GPAC and week-by-week things and see how they progress.
Question: What are your thoughts on the GPAC competition this year?
Coach Winter: It’s going to be good. There’s going to be a lot of four-quarter games. That’s the mindset and that’s the mode. It’s going to be a fourth-quarter game where you have to make plays in the last five minutes of the game. I feel like we have the guys to do it. Confidence is a huge thing. We’re continuing to build it.
Question: What are your strengths on both sides of the ball?
Coach Winter: I think we have some speed on both sides. I think secondary defensively is a strength. I think our skill position guys – wide receiver, running back and tight end – those are some guys who are athletic for their position group.