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Season Preview: 2023 Concordia Football

By Jacob Knabel on Aug. 25, 2023 in Football

Head Coach: Patrick Daberkow (27-31, 7th year)
2022 Record: 4-6 overall, 4-6 GPAC (T-6th)
Key Returners: WR Carsen Arline; DB Isiaha Conner; LB Michael Grindey; WR Austin Jablonski; DL Jordan Kavulak; S Gabe Knisley; TE Luke Lang; QB DJ McGarvie; OL Gavin Mull; DL Devon Polley; OL Christian Schlepp; DL Kyle Sterup; RB Devin Zeigler.
Key Losses: DB Kam Baker; DL Eric Kieper Jr.; WR Korrell Koehlmoos; OL Kaden Peters; OL Johnny Robinson.
2022 NAIA All-America: Korrell Koehlmoos (Honorable Mention).
2022 GPAC All-Conference: Michael Grindey (First Team); Korrrell Koehlmoos (First Team); Kaden Peters (Second Team); Devon Polley (Second Team); Kam Baker (Honorable Mention); Isiaha Conner (Honorable Mention); Luke Lang (Honorable Mention); DJ McGarvie (Honorable Mention).

Media Day wrap up from July 17


Over the final six outings of the 2022 season, Concordia University Football averaged 33.2 points per game while adding explosive offensive capabilities to a program already known for rugged, run-to-the-football defensive tenacity. Behind returning record-breaking quarterback DJ McGarvie, the Bulldogs aim to hit the ground running this fall in a reversal of how things got started a year ago. There’s a quiet confidence brewing and a belief that the final 2022 record belies the talent inside the program.

Now entering year seven as head coach of his alma mater, Patrick Daberkow guides an outfit not far removed from a 7-3 campaign in 2021. The expectation is that Concordia will be much better than the squad that tied for sixth place in the GPAC last season. The Bulldogs were pegged sixth in the 2023 GPAC preseason coaches’ poll.

“We feel like we worked a lot of our kinks out last year,” Daberkow said. “We had some guys step up into some different roles. A year ago, going into our first game, where we were at compared to where we’re at this year, I feel a lot more confident. There were some unknowns going into last season. We feel like we have a lot pieces in place now. I just love the leadership of our locker room. I think our upperclassmen do a really good job. We have some new coaches on staff who have made a huge impact. We’re really excited about what’s happening in our program.”

Concordia boasts legitimate star power on both sides of the ball as McGarvie and receiver Austin Jablonski highlight the skill position group on offense and tackling machine Michael Grindey and disruptive nose tackle Devon Polley rank among the top returners defensively. In scrimmages this preseason, the Bulldogs have passed the tests with flying colors. An offensive line ravaged by injuries in 2022 is beefed up and decidedly more veteran while there appears to be more speed on the outside. Defensively, coordinator Corby Osten’s units have been consistently solid year-to-year.

That’s not to see there are no question marks. Concordia said goodbye to its top offensive lineman (Kaden Peters) from a year ago and lost the services of record-setting receiver Korrell Koehlmoos. Like many others in the GPAC, the Bulldogs have yet to get over the hump that exists in the form of league powerhouses Morningside and Northwestern and recent playoff qualifier Dordt. Daberkow would like to believe his program is in the process of closing the gap.

“It’s a different year,” Daberkow said. “Every team has its own unique identity. I’m really excited about how our staff has embraced what we’re trying to build as far as building up young men to grow in their faith and compete for a GPAC title. That’s something that we want to do. If we’re serious about that, then it’s about the steps we take. It’s the direction of your feet, not the words from your mouth that matter.”

The 6-foot-1, 230-pound Grindey can talk with the best of them – he’s a sociable guy. But he certainly backs it up. The Arizona native earned First Team All-GPAC accolades in his very first season as a starter. The former club rugby player and Creighton University student exemplifies the type of high character player that Daberkow and his staff seek in recruiting.

Grindey joked at a media day in July that he’s “super loud,” but the joking stops when it comes to football. Says Grindey, sounding like a seasoned coach, “We’re just taking things one day at a time. The next step is film this afternoon. It’s having a great film session this afternoon and having a great practice this afternoon. We just continue to take steps one at a time. We just had a scrimmage and I think that went pretty well. We’re excited about our game against Northwestern.”

Grindey and the defense feel confident they will be backed by a strong offense. McGarvie threw for 2,553 yards and 18 touchdowns last season and will have a nice group of targets at his disposal this fall. Jablonski (36 catches for 483 yards and three touchdowns) is a breakout star in the making and Carsen Arline (40 catches for 409 yards and a touchdown) is a proven pass catcher. Tight end Luke Lang came on strong last season while transfer receiver Adam Van Cleave has home run hitting ability.

In the backfield, the duo of Devin Ziegler and Mark Arp combined for 961 rushing yards and five touchdowns last fall. They will run behind a bulked up offensive line with an average weight of 283 pounds within the projected lineup. At guard, former all-conference performer Christian Schlepp is back from injury for his fifth year inside the program. There are plenty of others with various levels of experience here such as Jackson Anderson, Toby Hager, Nathan Miller, Gavin Mull, Blake Schlegel and Tyler Walford.

The program’s highest scoring average during the GPAC era was 29.4 in 2015. This team appears plenty capable of flying past that mark. Said Daberkow, “Yards and points are what I care about – that’s it. I don’t care how we get first downs. If we have to run a fake field goal every down to get points, we’ll do that. We are comfortable doing things we haven’t done before if they can be effective. Trying out new things is fun. Last year we had some things that were broke, and we had to fix it. This year we feel like we can get creative with things and have some more fun with what we’ve built.”

As for his quarterback, Daberkow has glowing remarks. “He’s gotten better every year that he’s been here. He’s a competitor. He knows football so well. Coach (Greg) Nelson, our quarterbacks coach, has done a great job with that whole room. Our quarterback play has really improved. It’s been fun to see DJ step into a leadership role. If there’s a mistake that’s been made, he knows about it before you even talk to him. He knows what went wrong, and he can diagnose and troubleshoot things. We really have a high level of trust with him. I love his leadership.”

Polley picked up Second Team All-GPAC accolades last year on the other side of the ball. He made 15 tackles for loss while tearing up opposing backfields. He’ll have help up front from the likes of Kyle Sterup, Carson Fehlhafer, Stephen Hughes and more. Fehlhafer is back on the defensive line after filling in on the offensive line when injuries struck in 2022. Sterup registered 63 tackles and five sacks in ’22.

The aforementioned Grindey is the leader of the linebacker crew, featuring CJ Dyhrkopp, former defensive lineman Tal Solo, Michael Doiel, Zach Downs and Grant Huss. Concordia is essentially replacing two starters in this group after graduating Lukas Coe and watching Nick Leader get sidelined by injury.

In the secondary, there are plenty of veterans as starters return in the form of Isiaha Conner, Carson Core and Gabe Knisley. Both Core and Knisley are Seward High School graduates. The latter ranked second on the team with 77 tackles in 2022 while Conner paced the squad with four picks. In its 3-3-5 alignment, Concordia will make use of several other defensive backs, including returners such as Myles Lyons, Jaden Seier and Karsten McCarter, among others.

The defense was steady last season in limiting foes to 25.3 points and 369.4 yards per game. Says Grindey, “It all starts with the guys up front – Devon Polley and Kyle Sterup are two guys that come to mind. My job would be extremely hard without them – and also the guys in the secondary. It’s a team thing. Stats and all that are cool, but I love how the team plays and performs as one unit.”

The special teams units (overseen by Trent Laune) will have a different look as the Bulldogs may wind up with a true freshman at both kicker and punter. Burners in Jablonski and Van Cleave are candidates at the returner spots. Elsewhere, Hager is back for another season of long snapping and McCarter is likely to serve as the holder. Daberkow was encouraged by what he’s seen in the kicking game up to this point.

He’s already been asked about it several times this offseason. Daberkow is well aware that the defending national champions are coming to Seward for the season opener on Sept. 2. Concordia knows what kind of challenge that will be, but it remains focused on internal improvement, rather than being overcome with worry over any single opponent.

As Daberkow poses to his team, “Are we backing up what we say we’re about? Does our behavior match our talk? That’s something I think this group has embraced. I’m excited to see it get lived out.”

Grindey offers similar words, “It’s about the process. If we take the right steps, the outcome will take care of itself. This team is really focused on the day-to-day, one day at a time and what the next right thing is in the process.”

The entire 2023 schedule can be found HERE. After the matchup with Northwestern, the Bulldogs will go on the road for two outings before coming back home to host their homecoming game on Sept. 23.