The record still leaves something to be desired, but coaches and players within the Concordia University football program see signs of progress. For one, the defense slashed its scoring average allowed from 27.1 points in 2018 to 22.2 in 2019. That tough-nosed defense kept the Bulldogs in the majority of their games, including a 20-14 loss to NAIA playoff qualifier Northwestern.
The 2019 campaign featured the first night game at Bulldog Stadium since 2015, a 44-0 drubbing of Hastings, a 16-14 slugfest of a homecoming win over Briar Cliff and a four-overtime “mud bowl” battle at Jamestown.
“We were in a lot of games,” said head coach Patrick Daberkow. “A couple inches here or there and we could have had six or seven wins and we would be feeling pretty good. That’s not how it went for us so we have to look in the mirror. You are what your record says you are. We have to figure out how to mature. Physically we have to get bigger. The weight room is going to be a big deal for us.”
With a back-loaded schedule, Concordia dropped each of its final four games of the 2019 season and finished at 3-7 overall. Despite such facts, Daberkow will always hold this set of linebackers in high regard because of their physical and emotional investment into the program. Senior starting backers Riley Bilstein, Derek Tachovsky and Zac Walter epitomized the toughness and relentlessness Daberkow would want in any of his players.
Those three seniors teamed up with All-American Lane Napier to form what Daberkow believes to be among the best linebacker crews ever assembled at Concordia. There is well over 100 games of college experience between the four of them. In the immediate aftermath of the season finale at Morningside, the goodbyes were the hardest part.
“It’s the relationships with the players,” said Daberkow of the lasting memories from this fall. “It’s such a blessing to get to work with 18 to 22 year-olds who are motivated young men. What an honor it is to spend every day working with them and pushing them and trying to get the most out of a group. When I think about this season, the record is hard to forget, but in time you remember that group of linebackers we had and the seniors we had.”
At one point early in the campaign, the Bulldogs held three-straight opponents below 200 yards of total offense. Up front, senior Aaron Rudloff put together a monster campaign that included a team high nine sacks. The defensive front as a unit was consistently solid while regularly rotating six main contributors. Four-year baseball standout Kaleb Geiger made a smooth transition to the gridiron and bookended Rudloff at another end spot.
On the offensive side of the ball, the receiver group developed into a top notch unit. After biding his time as a freshman in 2018, Cayden Beran crashed the scene with 49 catches for 701 yards and two touchdowns. His breakout performance was a 10-catch, 193-yard day at Hastings. Four different Bulldog pass catchers produced at least one game with 89 or more receiving yards. Beran teamed up with the likes of Art Anderson, Lane Castaneda and Korrell Koehlmoos to make up one of the school’s best ever receiver groups.
Things just didn’t quite materialize on offense in the way that Daberkow would have liked. Concordia averaged only 15.6 points per game and was held to 1.8 yards per rushing attempt. The offensive line was still a relatively youthful bunch.
“After that 2017 season we graduated a lot of seniors,” Daberkow said. “In 2018 we were freshman heavy and in 2019 we were sophomore heavy. We’re still going through some growing pains. Everything that we do, I believe, is a reflection of preparation. When you have a season with some games you felt like you should have won, you have to look in the mirror. How are we preparing our guys for success on Saturday? Do we need to look at tweaking this or scrapping that? As a coaching staff we look at ourselves first and try to do things better and be an example for our players.”
Unfortunately, senior running back Ryan Durdon was unable to finish out his senior season on the field. A knee injury suffered in practice forced him to miss the final two games. The Decatur, Texas, native concluded his career with 2,525 rushing yards (sixth most in program history), exactly 3,000 yards from scrimmage and 22 total touchdowns.
The future of the running back position appears to be bright. In Durdon’s absence, several young players got opportunities against Midland and Morningside. Said Daberkow, “We’re really excited about Devin Zeigler, Jonah Weyand and Cori Pumphrey. It’s a really talented room. They’ve been earning their keep, working hard and being patient. Those guys were ready to step up.”
Junior Jake Kemp got the majority of time at quarterback, but that spot is unsettled heading into the offseason. Kemp had his moments, including a 296-yard, three-touchdown performance in a win over Dakota Wesleyan, but another camp battle is likely to unfold prior to the kickoff of the 2020 season. Freshman Wyatt Ehlers is an up-and-comer with dual threat abilities.
Daberkow identified three main position groups in need of improvement moving forward – offensive line, quarterback and defensive back. The good news on the defensive side of the ball is that Napier (346 career tackles), a three-time first team All-GPAC choice, will return to form the backbone of what figures to be another stout group. Concordia also made progress with a kicking game that featured Jordan Spilinek at kicker and Castaneda at punter.
Certainly the aim for next season will be to transfer productive offseason training into more positive results on Saturdays.
“Hard work gets you a seat at the table, but it takes something extra to take that next step,” Daberkow said. “We worked them hard this past offseason and they responded to that. They worked their tails off. We were in a lot of games late and lost a lot of games by a touchdown or less to some good teams. It’s extra stuff that I think can take us to the next level and we’re ready for that work.”