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GPAC Media Day notebook: Bulldogs grab a first-place nod

By Jacob Knabel on Aug. 2, 2016 in Football

SOUTH SIOUX CITY, Neb. – Head coach Vance Winter took a cue from his fellow coaches while making his eighth media day appearance as head football coach at Concordia. He essentially cut his time at the podium in half on Tuesday, as compared to his previous two speeches at GPAC football media events.

It’s not that Winter has nothing to be “excited” about (more on the “excitement” of media day below). He used that word six times over his nearly seven-and-a-half minutes spent in front of the mic. He simply endeavored not to ramble – though he’s at the controls of an outfit that returns 17 starters from a 6-4 squad of 2015. Position-by-position, Winter broke down a roster without glaring weaknesses while speaking sixth in line amongst the group of nine head coaches gathered at the Marina Inn in South Sioux City, Neb.

“I was on a time limit after my last year’s speech so I wanted to see how fast I went,” Winter joked towards the end of his spiel. “Coach (Tony) Harper (of Hastings) was going to hit me.”

Fittingly, Winter devoted the most time gushing about his well-stocked secondary before getting into the quarterback situation. Of course you can’t leave the podium without an update on the signal caller. As for Morningside, no, prolific passer Ryan Kasdorf will not be granted an additional year of eligibility.

Preseason polls are often a reflection of the prior season and typically yield few surprises. But a couple eyebrows may have raised when it was revealed that Concordia received a first-place vote from one of the league’s other eight head coaches (more on preseason polls below).

Good to great
That’s the transformation Concordia hopes to make in 2016. How has that catchphrase caught on? Well, one GPAC head coach (not to name names) jokingly suggested that it will be the title of Kenny Chesney’s new single to be released this fall. Anyway to spread the brand, we’ll take it.

Two-quarterback system
Four different quarterbacks saw time last year. That may not be the formula for success this year, but it’s very likely that TJ Austin and Riley Wiltfong will both see time in the pistol spread. Both have the ability to run and throw with Austin being built like a linebacker and Wiltfong displaying a more traditional quarterback build. Said Winter, “TJ is kind of the thunder package and Riley is kind of a lightning-package type guy. They both do different things very well. I think there are ways both can be used in our offense.”

Loaded secondary
All four starters are back from a unit that ranked in the top five nationally in fewest passing yards allowed per game (144.0) and pass efficiency defense (96.7). You could stop there. This group rightfully elicits plenty of acclaim from the coaching staff. Tarence Roby and D’Mauria Martin are stifling corners while Le’Dontrae Gooden and Matt Keener are playmaking safeties. “I think if you look at a major strength for our team people would look at our defensive back group,” Winter said.

Preseason polls
See the 2015 GPAC football standings. But seriously, the preseason polls rarely deviate significantly from the previous year’s standings. This preseason the Bulldogs checked in at No. 3 in the coaches’ poll and No. 5 in the media poll after tying for fourth in 2015. A glance at Concordia’s past preseason placements reveals the program’s expectations have steadily risen – it was picked 10th in both 2009 and 2010. One GPAC head coach thought enough of this team to give it a first-place vote. Keep in mind that coaches do not include their own teams in their own rankings.

Find complete GPAC preseason polls HERE.

Concordia in GPAC preseason coaches polls
2016: 3rd (finished ??)
2015: 6th (finished T-4th)
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) 

New faces debut in 2016
Three new faces introduced themselves to the media on Tuesday. Exactly one-third of the conference teams will be guided by first-year head coaches as Jeff Jamrog (Midland), Matt McCarty (Northwestern) and Joel Penner (Dordt) make their debuts in 2016. Of them, only McCarty’s Red Raiders are expected to finish inside the top five of the GPAC standings, according to Tuesday’s preseason polls.

We so excited
By an unofficial count, GPAC coaches tossed out the word “excite,” or a variation of, a total of 40 times during Tuesday’s formal press conference. Dordt’s Penner was the most excited. He led the way with eight excitable mentions (again, unofficial). Northwestern’s McCarty uttered his excitement in seven instances. It’s August 2. Everyone is excited, but GPAC coaches actually did a credible job of containing said excitement.

Unsung hero
Erik Small, a 6-1, 245-pound fullback from Los Alamitos, Calif., caught six passes for 36 yards and a touchdown last year as a sophomore. But it's what you don't see that makes Small an important piece of the 2016 roster. Winter has raved about Small's progress. "Erik’s one of our most dominant football players on our team. Very physical player. Really high energy, high motor type of guy. He will win most one-on-one blocks." Small helps make way for star running back Bryce Collins, who has rushed for 2,666 yards in his Concordia career.

Winter media day transcript
Thank you, Lucas (Mohrman). That’s for sure. My wife is ready for me to get back to Seward and take the shift for this evening. Our newborn Jesse is three weeks old, just born on July 11. Also, Coach (Patrick) Daberkow, our defensive coordinator had a baby in May. It’s been busy around our office.

Thank you to Corey (Westra) and Lucas for all their work at this event. Also thank you to the Marinna Inn.

We’re excited about this fall and about the amount returning players we have and the amount of talented returning players we have. We return seven starters off a top-five defense in the country last year. I feel like we have outstanding guys at every level of our defense. I’ll talk a little bit about those guys right now.

At defensive line Trey Barnes made the move from running back to defensive line last year and had an outstanding year – first team all-conference and second team All-American. Another guy that’s a returning starter at defensive line is Ron Jackson. Ron’s an anchor in the middle for us, I think an unsung guy for us, very physical and the strongest member of our program – and also a guy in a pinch who can return some punts.

Linebacker is the area of our team hit hardest by graduation last year. We had three seniors graduate from last year’s team. I liked the talent there this spring. A guy who really stood out last fall for us was Michael Hedlund. He is a senior from O’Neill, Nebraska. Michael was our leading tackler, a second team all-conference player. He’s an outstanding football player overall. He’s a tough guy to take off the field in any scenario for us. He plays on all the special teams, all the kicking game stuff and never comes off the field on D.

I think if you look at a major strength for our team people would look at our defensive back group. We return all four starters from that group and we have five guys coming back that actually started games last fall. Those guys really meshed well last season. I think we were top three in the country defensively versus the pass. It’s a really good group of guys. The guy that’s kind of the headliner for that group is Tarence Roby. He’s a two-year starter. He’s a transfer from Northern Illinois University. Tarence has been outstanding, a really dynamic player. He’s one of the best cover guys, we feel, in the conference. Another guy, who plays opposite of Tarence, that we think is an outstanding football player is D’Mauria Martin. Those guys have improved greatly week after week and year after year. The other guy who felt was a huge addition to our defensive group is Le’Dontrae Gooden, who’s a transfer last fall. Le’Dontrae’s a highly instinctive player and a great leader in our back end. Outstanding football player.

Offensively we return 10 starters this fall. That’s a big group. It also tells you how inexperienced we were last year playing. We went from being a very inexperienced team last year in 2015 to a very experienced group this year. Of the guys who have played varsity we really feel that our offensive line group is the group that grew the most throughout the season. We had four guys who had never played a varsity snap at the start of last season. We have six guys that played and started throughout the year that are back and improved a great deal throughout the spring.

At running back, Bryce Collins returns for his senior year. He’s had an outstanding offseason. I’m really fired up about his work ethic and what he’s been able to do. He’s been a three-year starter and a two-time first team all-conference player. He really sets the tone for our entire offense with how he goes about his business. At fullback, Erik Small returns for his junior year. I think Erik’s one of our most dominant football players on our team. Very physical player. Really high energy, high motor type of guy. He will win most one-on-one blocks.

At wide receiver, Jared Garcia returns for his junior year. He’s been a first team all-conference player last year and was a second team all-conference player as a freshman. He’s about as dynamic as any player in our conference. He continues to improve. We have other guys such as Trae Owens, Kiyoshi Brey and Vince Beasley who we also expect big things.

Tight end, we were dealt a significant blow this spring. Tight end Seth Fitzke got injured during the spring. We don’t know what his status is going to be for the fall. We hope to get him back at some point, but we’re excited about the opportunity for guys to step up. Cam Christiansen is a guy who’s a senior who we think is going to be a good football player. He’s been behind two very good tight ends. This is his opportunity.

At quarterback, we love all three guys that went through the spring. We played all of them last season. TJ Austin and Riley Wiltfong, I think both bring a very different dynamic to the quarterback position. Both in their own way are outstanding football players and both started games for us last year and played well.

In the kicking game, we lost both our punter and our kicker who were three-year starters. It’s an area of opportunity or an area of concern. It depends on how you want to look at it. We’ve got some guys we’re excited about in each role. In the return game we have Tarence Roby back at kickoff return and Aivery Scheffer back at punt return.

Another thing I’m excited about for this fall if for all of our alumni to come back for a football alumni reunion weekend, set for September 16 and 17 in Seward. Football alumni spread out from many, many years will be coming back to campus. We couldn’t be more excited about that. Big thanks to Jen Furr, Larry Noack, Coach (Courtney) Meyer and Jake Knabel for all your work on this event.

I was on a time limit after my last year’s speech so I wanted to see how fast I went. Coach (Tony) Harper was going to hit me. In conclusion, I couldn’t be more excited about the 2016 Bulldog football team. Enjoy the season. Any questions?

Q: Could you expand on your quarterback race between Wiltfong and Austin?

Winter: They both bring different things to the table. TJ is kind of the thunder package and Riley is kind of a lightning-package type guy. They both do different things very well. I think there are ways both can be used in our offense.