By Jake Knabel, Director of Athletic Communications
Head coach: Vance Winter (28-37, six years)
2014 Record: 5-6 overall; 4-5 GPAC (T-6th)
Key Returners: OL Ben Balduc; RB Bryce Collins; TE Seth Fitzke; WR Jared Garcia; DL Michael Gill, K Adam Meirose; DB Tarence Roby; DB Tait Sibbel; TE Josh Slechta
Key Losses: OL Adam Aschenbrenner; OL Glenn Manninger; DB Landon Oelke; WR Logan Otte; OL Josh Powell; DL Kyle Rakow; QB Von Thomas
2014 GPAC All-Conference: Bryce Collins (first team); Adam Meirose (first team); Josh Powell (first team); Seth Fitzke (second team); Jared Garcia (second team); Kyle Rakow (second team); Tarence Roby (second team); Adam Aschenbrenner (honorable mention); Ben Balduc (honorable mention); Sandy Fisher (honorable mention); Michael Gill (honorable mention); Michael Hedlund (honorable mention); Glenn Manninger (honorable mention); Landon Oelke (honorable mention); Logan Otte (honorable mention); Tait Sibbel (honorable mention); Von Thomas (honorable mention)
After a 2014 season filled with close calls (five losses by seven points or less), Concordia looks to turn the page with a more experienced squad. Explosive skill players such as 1,000-yard running back Bryce Collins and record-setting receiver Jared Garcia give this roster plenty of pizazz. Said seventh-year head coach Vance Winter of the 2014 season, “Our highlight film was probably the most entertaining we’ve ever had – flashy with a ton of big plays.”
The 2015 edition promises to bring even more flash and sizzle. Even with the graduation of perhaps the program’s best ever quarterback in Von Thomas, the Bulldogs possess a level of skill talent unprecedented for a school known more for rugged defense than for standout athletes jumping over and running past the opposition.
While there are obvious question marks as to how four starters get replaced along the offensive line, there appear to be playmakers in abundance. Winter thinks this will be the most talented team he’s fielded since taking over as head coach in 2009. Say’s Winter, “I think this will be a team that can really run.”
Senior Ben Balduc, 6-foot-3, 290-pound native of Roanoke, Texas, provides a stabilizing force up front as the team moves on without first team all-conference guard Josh Powell. Balduc started at left guard last year but could slide to strong tackle this season depending upon how the other pieces of the unit come together. Balduc says that having exceptional skill players will help take the pressure off the new starters on the line.
“There’s probably going to be a lot of records broken this year with Bryce, Jared and TJ (Austin),” Balduc said. “It’s no joke. Those guys are going to break some records this year. I can feel it.”
Balduc helped pave the way for Collins to become the fifth 1,000-yard rusher in school history. The native of Boerne, Texas, averaged more than 100 yards rushing per game and ranked sixth among all NAIA players in all-purpose yards per contest (173.2). He was complimented perfectly in the passing game by Garcia, whose 11 touchdown catches represented a new single-season school record. The deadly red zone target piled up 184 receiving yards in week two at Hastings.
Despite the loss of Thomas, the quarterback position is less of a question mark thanks to the late-season play of Austin after No. 10 missed time due to injury. Austin, built more like a fullback or linebacker, threw for 440 yards and four touchdowns and ran for another 168 yards in five games of action in 2014. He’s listed atop the depth chart for Saturday’s game at Southwestern College (6 p.m. kickoff) with senior Garrett Folchert and sophomore Riley Wiltfong following.
“TJ is a different type of guy than Von,” Winter said. “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.
“I really feel great about the quarterback position going into this season.”
Whoever plays quarterback will have the services of a pair of big tight ends in senior Josh Slechta and junior Seth Fitzke. Last season Fitzke stepped in when Slechta suffered an injury in fall camp. The Seward native earned second team all-conference in 2014 after catching 15 passes and serving as an excellent blocker.
While the offense appears in good hands a season after breaking the program record for yards of total offense per game, coordinator Patrick Daberkow’s defensive group plans to move up from its 48th national ranking in terms of total yards from a year ago. With ball-hawking corners Tarence Roby and D’Mauria Martin having put a full season behind them, this unit figures to look more like the dominant 2013 Bulldog defense.
Roby is the defense’s most dynamic playmaker. The transfer from Northern Illinois University notched five interceptions, broke up eight passes and took a pair of returns (one fumble, one kickoff) back for touchdowns in his first season as a Bulldog. Consider him the Collins or Garcia of the defense.
“I think Roby and D’Mauria both had outstanding offseasons,” Winter said. “I’m really fired up about their growth. Roby had never played corner until about two days before the Sterling game (2014 season opener). He may have played a little in high school, but we moved him really late in the process. He’s got a chance to be really special. For me, D’Mauria is right up there too.”
The corners may be the biggest strengths of the defense, but there are other potential stars in linebackers Michael Hedlund and Tait Sibbel and defensive lineman Michael Gill. Sibbel has racked up 181 tackles and eight interceptions as a three-year starter at safety. He’ll move to outside linebacker this season. Up front, Gill has been a disruptive force, totaling 16.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks over the past two seasons.
Despite the loss of Kyle Rakow on the defensive line, the unit has potential to be more productive with the rise of juniors Trey Barnes and Ronald Jackson. All in all, it’s a defense with a good mix of size and speed.
“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 special teams units return a senior at both kicker and punter in Adam Meirose and Sandy Fisher, respectively. Meirose has been one of the program’s most productive kickers ever. He’s nailed 15 of 21 field goals and 71 of 75 extra point attempts over the last two years. The biggest question mark on special teams is who will return punts. Both Collins and Roby served as dangerous options on kick return in 2014. Potentially dynamic freshman Qyalan Clay is listed as the No. 1 kick and punt returner this week.
Winter and the Bulldogs believe they have the makings to post their second winning record in three seasons. Now they must come through in down-to-the-wire contests that are sure to arise. After all, eight of last year’s 11 games were decided by eight points or less.
“It’s usually just those one or two plays that we have to make,” Balduc said. “A lot of those didn’t happen for us last year. You go back to the film and you think, ‘wow, we should have beaten that team.’ It’s a lot of motivation for us coming into this fall.”
Added Collins, “I just feel like we’re right on the edge. We just need to gel and start making some noise. Everybody else had been making noise for Concordia. Football just seems like the last thing people were thinking about (last year). That’s a big motivator for me. I talked to a couple other guys and they thought the exact same thing. We need to contribute to the success of Concordia as a whole. That’s a big motivator.”