GPAC football media day notebook: Thomas generates buzz
LINCOLN, Neb. – The 15th annual GPAC football media day kicked off the 2014 football season on Thursday at the Cornhusker Marriott in Lincoln, Neb. Sixth-year head coach Vance Winter’s Bulldogs were picked to finish fourth in both the GPAC preseason coaches’ and media polls. Winter spoke sixth among the 10 league coaches while also taking TV interviews during the break.
The complete transcript of Winter’s press conference as well as the preseason coaches’ and media polls can be viewed below.
After a fifth-place GPAC finish in 2013, Concordia has been pegged by both league coaches and media to end 2014 in fourth place. That preseason placement is the highest during Winter’s time at the helm and the highest since at least 2004 (as far as data goes back). A fourth-place finish would be the best for the program since 2002, when then head coach Courtney Meyer’s Bulldogs went 5-3 in conference play and tied for third.
Over the past five years, Concordia has exceeded or equaled its preseason GPAC ranking in all but one year. Last year the Bulldogs placed two spots higher than their preseason projection of seventh.
“We feel like we made great strides as a program the past couple years,” Winter said on Thursday. “We expected to have a good football team last fall. We had high goals. Maybe to the people on the outside our season was somewhat of a surprise but for the people in our building, the people on our campus, we had high expectations. Ultimately, we did not reach all of our goals last fall but we did make a lot of great strides. It was the first winning season at Concordia since 2001.”
GPAC preseason coaches’ placement
2014: 4th (finished ??)
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)
Von Thomas puts the fright in opposing coaches
Winter fielded a question about quarterback Von Thomas’ penchant for prolific games against Briar Cliff and an opposing head coach acknowledged Thomas’ running ability in a comical manner.
Said Morningside head coach Steve Ryan, “When we play Concordia I yell, ‘Von, run out of bounds. Von, run out of bounds. He never listens to me either.”
Ryan’s comment at the podium came immediately after Winter remarked,” I love – and sometimes hate – (Von’s) toughness. We’re trying to tell him to run out of bounds once in a while.”
Winter was also asked about Thomas’ importance to the offense. The senior signal caller generated as much buzz as any individual at Thursday’s media day.
“Part of the progression offensively is that he’s just done a phenomenal job,” Winter said. “I thought his growth last season as an overall quarterback was very good. We were very pleased just with his grasp of the offense. You know all the things about him and the stuff that’s easy to see is the athletic ability and all those things that he brings to the table that way, but he’s such a tough, hard-nosed football player.”
Last season Thomas broke Phil Seevers’ 1988 single-season Concordia record for total yards in a season. Thomas threw for 1,947 yards and ran for another 561, equaling 2,508 total yards of offense. He also set new single-season school records for completion percentage and completions, as he connected on 59.0 percent (197-for-334) of his passes.
Excellent coaching staff
Earlier this summer Winter referred to his staff as being as good as any in America. On Thursday he reiterated those thoughts in praising all three of his coordinators. Offensive coordinator Curran White has helped the offense move from 16.7 points per game the year before he arrived, to 26.4 last season. Meanwhile, Defensive coordinator Patrick Daberkow has presided over one of the NAIA’s top defenses in recent seasons. Last year the Bulldogs ranked No. 1 nationally in pass defense and in the top 10 in total and scoring defense. In addition, special teams coordinator Corby Osten has coached some of the top kickers and return men in the NAIA.
“I’d like to thank our football staff, which is probably making fun of me right now in Seward,” Winter said. “I’m blessed to work with such a great group of people. It’s so fun to come into the office every day and work with guys with a common purpose and common goals and who are so focused on the betterment of our young men and our young people.”
Receivers talented but inexperienced
The receiving unit comes with the biggest question marks offensively in 2014. Gone are Chevarius Curry-Felix, Derek Klaus and Jeff Balz. That means there will be several openings for young and unproven wide outs. Even so, Winter thinks this unit has a chance to be a lot more explosive.
“This is as talented a group as we’ve been able to work with at Concordia since my time here,” Winter said. “I think that’s going to be big with how they develop and how they mature throughout the season. It’s a young group but a very talented group and we’re excited to see what they do. I think there’s going to be a lot of competition.”
Replacing defensive stars
There are plenty of big names to replace on the defensive side with the losses of Darnell Woods, Dylan Heithoff, Langston Jones and Derek Blessing. Some of the names will change, but the expectations likely will not for a Bulldog squad known for tough, physical defense. Look for players like defensive lineman Michael Gill and linebacker Michael Carroll to break through.
Says Winter, “We have high, high expectations for that group regardless of who graduated. I’m confident Coach Daberkow and company will get the most out of that group.”
Shout-out to coaches’ wives
Early in Winter’s opening statement, he thanked his own wife and the wives of many of the other Bulldog coaches for their support.
“Another group that deserves special mention – and I’d say this for everybody here – are the coaches’ wives who are going to be without their husbands here pretty quick,” Winter said. “I have a special bias for the Concordia wives. I would be remiss not to use a forum to talk about and recognize them. So thank you to Tanya, Jodi, Emly, Sara, Anuhea, Connie and Beth. Thank you for all you do and all your support.”
GPAC commissioner Corey Westra addressed media with highlights from the 2013-14 athletics season and mentioned Concordia for its academic prowess. Concordia tied Hastings for most scholar teams in the GPAC with 17 apiece. The Bulldogs also led not only the GPAC, but the NAIA as well with 101 scholar-athletes in 2013-14.
Westra also brought up the rise in number of Concordia student-athletes, now totaling more than 600.
The recently introduced GPAC-KCAC football challenge is set to debut in 2015. Concordia will play at Southwestern on Sept. 5, 2015, to open the season.
GPAC preseason polls
*First-place votes in parentheses
1. Morningside – 81 pts (9)
2. Northwestern – 66 pts (1)
3. Dakota Wesleyan – 58 pts
4. Concordia – 57 pts
5. Doane – 52 pts
6. Nebraska Wesleyan – 51 pts
7. Hastings – 27 pts
8. Briar Cliff – 25 pts
9. Midland – 24 pts
10. Dordt – 9 pts
1. Morningside – 90 pts (9)
2. Northwestern – 78 pts
3. Dakota Wesleyan – 62 pts
4. Concordia – 59 pts
5. Nebraska Wesleyan – 55 pts
6. Doane – 54 pts
7. Midland – 31 pts
8. Hastings – 30 pts
9. Briar Cliff – 27 pts
10. Dordt – 9 pts
Vance Winter full media day transcript
I’m going to echo what everyone else has said today. Thank you, this is a great venue for this event. Thank you to Corey (Westra) and Lucas (Mohrman) for organizing this, and also to Coach (Brian) Keller.
I’d also like to thank our Director of Athletic Communications at Concordia, Jake Knabel, or ‘Knobsy,’ as our football staff likes to call him. I said it two years ago that if we could improve as a football team as much as we improve in our media guides, we’d have great success. We haven’t quite improved in that way yet. Jake’s done just a phenomenal job. I think the attention to detail he puts into every sport and the work on the website has been pretty awesome. He’s done amazing things since he’s came on board. I’ll speak for the entire athletic department at Concordia and say ‘thank you’ to him.
I’d also like to thank our football staff, which is probably making fun of me right now in Seward. I’m blessed to work with such a great group of people. It’s so fun to come into the office every day and work with guys with a common purpose and common goals and who are so focused on the betterment of our young men and our young people.
Another group that deserves special mention – and I’d say this for everybody here – are the coaches’ wives who are going to be without their husbands here pretty quick. I have a special bias for the Concordia wives. I would be remiss not to use a forum to talk about and recognize them. So thank you to Tanya, Jodi, Emly, Sara, Anuhea, Connie and Beth. Thank you for all you do and all your support.
I sit here and listen to everybody talk. Everybody sounds good. You go into this day, everybody sounds good and the adrenaline starts pumping. You start getting more and more fired up for the season. The GPAC, to me, being around it for a while – from top to bottom – this is the best the league’s been. It’s very exciting to see. You have to prepare. You have to be ready to play every week and that’s exciting.
We feel like we made great strides as a program the past couple years. We expected to have a good football team last fall. We had high goals. Maybe to the people on the outside our season was somewhat of a surprise but for the people in our building, the people on our campus, we had high expectations. Ultimately, we did not reach all of our goals last fall but we did make a lot of great strides. It was the first winning season – as Lucas said – at Concordia since 2001 – the 2001 playoff team. It was a step for us that we needed to take. We sincerely believe as a staff and our players, that it was part of the progression.
Like everyone up here, we’re excited for the 2014 season. I feel like we have a great mix of veteran players returning and also some young, green talented players who we’re excited to see and develop relationships with. And then there are program guys who have been itching for an opportunity to compete and play – guys who may have been behind some outstanding players. They’re going to get their opportunity this fall.
I feel like we have a group that’s very hungry, hungry for success and has a lot to prove. I think from day one we’ve talked about that. We have to have a chip on our shoulder and play with energy and aggressiveness all the time.
We are replacing a lot of good football players. Our defensive football team – I’ll talk about that more as we go – but a lot of great football players and great people from last season (have graduated). We also know we have a great group to work with in 2014.
Offensively, Coach Curran White has been our offensive coordinator the past two seasons. He’s just done an outstanding job leading our offense. My first three years as head coach I really felt we didn’t have an identity on offense. We struggled for any offensive identity and we were kind of bottom tier nationally in offensive rankings and bottom tier GPAC. Since Coach White has come on board, we’ve improved dramatically. It’s across the board and in every phase offensively. I think the most important thing that has changed offensively is just the player buy in and the player belief in what we’re doing and in our system and what we’re teaching. We return a lot of guys offensively – a lot of guys who were first-year players last season. Von Thomas is obviously a main returner. He’s going to be a three-year starter at quarterback for us. We have 10 guys that have started games for us returning this fall, including our quarterback, two running backs, our fullback, tight end and five linemen.
A position where we’ll be relatively new is at wide receiver. We also feel like we’ll be really talented there. This is as talented a group as we’ve been able to work with at Concordia since my time here. I think that’s going to be big with how they develop and how they mature throughout the season. It’s a young group but a very talented group and we’re excited to see what they do. I think there’s going to be a lot of competition within that group.
A big word for us throughout the offseason and spring was consistency. For all our improvements last season last fall from a statistics standpoint, we had some games last fall, especially towards the end of the year, where we did not come close to playing our best football. For us to take the next step we need to eliminate those performances in these types of games. We’re offense that’s based on, we need to be efficient. Our longest offensive play last season was 39 yards and that was a run by our quarterback. We were not very explosive, but we were very efficient. That’s something we have to be to be very effective. Hopefully we can gain more explosiveness throughout the season.
Defensively, Coach (Patrick) Daberkow, our defensive coordinator, year-in and year-out has done just a phenomenal job since he took over in 2010. I think he does a fantastic job of getting our guys – whatever group we have that season – to play to their potential. Last season was the best season statistically that we’ve at Concordia since I’ve been there in terms of national rankings. We need to replace some really outstanding football players – the conference defensive player of the year (Darnell Woods), a first team all-conference four-year starter defensive lineman (Dylan Heithoff), a first team all-conference three-year starter linebacker (Langston Jones), another guy who was another two-year starter at defensive line, a linebacker that was a starter and a corner that was a starter. We have some guys to replace defensively.
With all that being said, we’re really excited about how our group played and competed in the spring. We’re really excited about our potential as a defensive group. I believe that defensively especially – they’re being told a lot of things right now maybe from the outside and around campus and those things – I think they have a chip on their shoulder. We have high, high expectations for that group regardless of who graduated. I’m confident Coach Daberkow and company will get the most out of that group.
Special teams coordinator, Coach (Corby) Osten has done a great job leading our special teams group year-in and year-out. It sure has been fun for us to watch Derek Blessing run around in the return game the past couple years. He’s not back next year. All spring we auditioned a lot of guys and going into this fall we’ll be auditioning a lot of guys for the return game role. We also lose our punter from last season so we’ll be replacing a lot of things in the kicking game. We do return a second team all-conference kicker (Adam Meirose), who I feel is just outstanding and scratching the surface of what he can be. We feel like he is a definite difference maker for us.
Finishing up here, this day is fun – kind of the hype machine a little bit. It’s fun to talk about our teams and the excitement for the 2014 season. Everyone here has high expectations. For us all the old clichés can be said – ‘we need to stay healthy,’ ‘we need to develop depth.’ We need all those things. That is true. This is the time of the year we all love and we’re all excited about. I’m excited to get out and coach our guys. I’m excited with the guys have coming back and I’m excited to meet the new guys. We’ll have guys start filtering into campus next week. I’m excited to see all those guys coming back. I’m as biased as can be, but I love our group. I love what we’re building and I love our entire group that we have at Concordia – our brotherhood there. I’m excited, fired up and blessed to get to coach this team. We’re looking forward to the 2014 season.
We open week one, Sept. 6, with an outstanding – watching film – an outstanding Sterling team from Kansas. They were a playoff qualifier and KCAC conference champs last season. Any questions?
Question: What was your downfall last season after starting the season 6-0?
Coach Winter: I think if you look at it, we played some really good football teams. That’s part of it. A lot of those games were fourth-quarter games. We just didn’t come through and make that play in those games. That’s something we’ve talked about quite a bit this offseason. Every game in our league comes down to that – fourth-quarter games. It’s so competitive. You have to be sharp. You have to be ready to play. Any play throughout a game can affect (the outcome).
Question: Do you have any Darnell Woods kind of guys?
Coach Winter: We’re really excited about our safety position coming back. Tait Sibbel is going to be a junior next year. He’s going to entering his third year as a starter from O’Neill, Nebraska. He’s an outstanding player. Drew Baxter, we moved him up to outside backer last season. He’s going to play more back-end type stuff. He’s been a four-year player four us too. They’re going to be different than Darnell. Darnell was such a dynamic hitter and explosive player. They’re going to be a little different but I think they’re going to be very, very good.
Question: Can you talk about Von Thomas, your quarterback, and how important he is to your offense?
Coach Winter: Part of the progression offensively is that he’s just done a phenomenal job. I thought his growth last season as an overall quarterback was very good. We were very pleased just with his grasp of the offense. You know all the things about him and the stuff that’s easy to see is the athletic ability and all those things that he brings to the table that way, but he’s such a tough, hard-nosed football player. We have to back him away sometimes from throwing his body into too much stuff. Our players feed off that toughness and feed off that mindset and will to win. That’s kind of been his imprint in our program. More so than the athletic ability, more so than the other things, I love – and sometimes hate – his toughness. We’re trying to tell him to run out of bounds once in a while.
Question: Von Thomas always seems to save a really good game for Briar Cliff. In fact, after the game last year I offered to pay for his credits to have him graduate early. Have we just scratched the surface of what he’s capable of?
Coach Winter: I think his growth has been outstanding in two years. I think we need to become a little more explosive around him. I think that’s a big key for us – if we can become a little more explosive and dynamic around him. Last year we played two true freshmen running backs throughout the entire season. Those guys got the bulk of our carries and they did a great job. I think those guys are going to continue and improve. If we can become a little bit more explosive receiving the ball and make some more explosive plays in the passing game, that’s going to open up more stuff for him. He’s done everything we’ve asked. He’s competed and we’re excited to see what he’s going to do his senior year.
Question: Oct. 27 – you’re back in here in Lincoln to play against Wesleyan. Talk a little bit about that game, the history of it and what you expect this year. I know it’s a long way off and there’s a lot of football to be played between now and then.
Coach Winter: When Concordia and Nebraska Wesleyan play, I don’t think there’s been too many times– maybe on Wesleyan’s side – where the scoreboard’s exactly lit up. It’s been a hard-nosed, physical football game. That’s kind of the trademark for both teams. That’s a program when I was hired that I talked about wanting to be, getting to that level in terms of their competiveness week-in and week-out. I have a lot of respect for Nebraska Wesleyan.