A look around practice this spring reveals a lot of familiar faces for Concordia University Football. The Bulldogs return nearly the entire two-deep on defense as well as the bulk of the key 2020 skill position players and offensive linemen. For a fifth year in a year, Head Coach Patrick Daberkow’s defense will be anchored by All-American linebacker Lane Napier, who will take advantage of the extra year of eligibility.
Daberkow’s squad is getting set to appear in front of the public on Friday (April 23) when the program will hold an open practice inside Bulldog Stadium at 7 p.m. CT. Fans are welcome to attend. It will be the culmination of spring ball, which began the week after Easter and has continued with regular 6 a.m. practices.
Here are some storylines surrounding the football program and a quick position-by-position glance as the spring practice season comes to a close.
It’s a ‘G’ thing
As many who follow the program have heard by now, a group of four Concordia Football student-athletes suffered injuries from a single-car crash during spring break. While three of the four were treated and released from the hospital in a rather short time, Gerald Morris needed a longer stay to recover from more serious injuries. On Wednesday (April 20), Morris surprised Daberkow and the team by showing up in the locker room following afternoon practice. A lot of prayers were answered in allowing Morris, who hails from Arlington, Texas, to make his way back to campus.
Said Daberkow, “It was good to see him back on campus. What an answered prayer that is. It’s really hard to describe. The scene that I walked into when I first saw him after the accident – I would not have bet on him being back here by mid-April. The team was pretty excited. It was good to see them all together again.”
Daberkow had made a personal visit to the hospital in Utah where Morris was admitted. In the days and weeks since Morris was hospitalized, many members of the team sent out social media posts in support of Morris. A link to raise funds for Morris’ hospital bills was also widely shared. While his football career may be up in the air, that’s not what has been most important to anyone who knows Morris. T-shirts were even sold on campus to further support Morris.
Meanwhile, the three others who were with Morris are planning to play this fall. Said Daberkow, “None of them have taken team reps but they’ve gotten to do some individual things. We expect to have them back for the fall.”
Napier makes return
While many class of 2020-21 seniors will move on, linebacker Lane Napier will play one more season of college football. It wasn’t just COVID-19 that impacted his 2020 season, Napier also missed two games because of injury. He still managed to lead the team with 54 tackles. That total pushed him to 401 tackles for his career (36 games played). If he stays on pace, the native of David City, Neb., would end up surpassing an incredible 500 tackles for his collegiate career. Napier led all NAIA players in 2018 when he racked up 142 tackles, which is a modern era program record (2000-present).
Said Daberkow, “I think there were a lot of things that went into the decision. He debated it because there were some job opportunities for him. It’s awesome to have him back. Lane leads with his play and it’s great to have a tough linebacking crew – he exemplifies that.”
A number of other 2020 senior starters such as Lane Castaneda, Payton Kidder and Chevy Stout will forgo the extra season of eligibility and attend grad school.
Wyatt Ehlers is being groomed this spring to take over the starting role. The native of Waco, Neb., led Centennial High School to a Nebraska class C-2 state championship as a senior. Ehlers has appeared in 11 collegiate games and has four career touchdown passes. He brings athleticism to the position and is a very capable runner. Last season’s starter, Blake Culbert, will graduate this May. Ehlers is the only quarterback on the roster with game experience.
First team All-GPAC tailback Jonah Weyand returns after a breakout sophomore season. The running game still has room for improvement, but Weyand proved he can carry the load. He rushed for 625 yards and nine touchdowns last season. He put together a memorable five-touchdown performance in an overtime win over Hastings this past season. Concordia has depth behind Weyand with Lyle Whitney and Devin Zeigler having also earned carries last season. “America’s Fullback” Chevy Stout will have to be replaced.
This group remains a strength with Art Anderson, Cayden Beran and Korrell Koehlmoos all returning. Koehlmoos has shown a knack for making the big play having averaged 21.3 yards per catch last season. He has caught 91 passes for 1,399 yards in his collegiate career. The graduation of Lane Castaneda could open up more playing time for someone such as Cole Schaedel, who notched 84 receiving yards and a touchdown in last season’s win over Jamestown. Both Beran and Koehlmoos have been all-conference honorees.
Concordia boasts one of the GPAC’s very best tight ends in Garrett Schardt, another 2020 first team All-GPAC selection. The Davenport, Neb., native made 25 grabs for 430 yards and three touchdowns last season. He isn’t afraid of making the tough catches over the middle. There will be opportunities for others here with Brady Fitzke graduating and moving on.
Four starters are back on the offensive line in the form of all-conference choices in center Johnny Robinson and guard Christian Schlepp, in addition to tackle Gavin Mull and guard Keegan Hornung. Daberkow and the staff are also very high on Caden Peters, who looks to have a leg up on the battle at left tackle. Through maturity, game experience and continued work in the weight room, this group should only improve. The average of 3.3 yards per carry in 2020 must be increased in order to have the success that is hoped for.
The most experienced returners here are Karson Dickson, Eric Kieper Jr. and Payton Stevens. A transfer from Northwest Missouri State University, Dickson has star potential. Last season he made 25 stops, including six for loss, and three sacks. The results were solid up front in 2020 when the Bulldogs held opponents to an average of 3.7 yards per rush and collected 22 sacks.
It all starts with Lane Napier, a four-time first team All-GPAC choice. No. 23 will roam the middle of the field once again while teaming up with the likes of Caydren Cox, Shayne Campbell and Stirling Tonniges. Logan Kreizel moved from tight end to linebacker last season and made 24 tackles. Napier might just be the best defensive player in the entire GPAC in 2021. He has a chance to put himself completely in a category of his own when it comes to production on the defensive side of the ball.
Concordia would like to shore up the pass defense and could do just that considering the experience here. The headliner is safety Peyton Mitchell, a two-time second team All-GPAC honoree. He teams up alongside AJ Jenkins, another playmaking safety. There’s depth at corner with the combination of Jayzen Armstrong, Kamren Baker, Isiaha Conner, Blake Sears and Jourdhin Smith. The plan is to cut down on the 251.5 passing yards per game and 61.1 completion percentage the Bulldogs allowed in 2020.
Concordia will have to replace Lane Castaneda at punter, but it returns kicker Jordan Spilinek, who went 6-for-10 on field goals and 18-for-20 on PATs last fall. The primary return specialists in Korrell Koehlmoos (kick returns) and Jourdhin Smith (punt returns) are also back. Toby Hager returns after handling long snapping last season. The coverage units were overall solid in 2020.
Thoughts from Coach Daberkow: We feel like we’re getting stronger. Our average squat increase for our offensive and defensive line was over 60 pounds and over 55 for the rest of the team, on average. Our strength program has been a key factor in us getting better. Our job as coaches is to take that explosion and power and harness it into a functional scheme. I feel like we’re doing that. We have gotten a lot stronger over the past two years … We took a step forward in the running game last year, but that wasn’t hard because we were that bad in 2019. The step forward was nice, but we’re trying to raise the bar for performance from our offensive line. We feel like we’re on track with that, but we’ll find out in August … We have more depth than we’ve had in the past at certain positions. We have a really good set of linebackers and we have a lot of guys fighting to compete for positions to contribute … I think there were a lot of things that went into the decision (for Lane Napier). He debated it because there were some job opportunities for him. It’s awesome to have him back. Lane leads with his play and it’s great to have a tough linebacking crew – he exemplifies that … Wyatt (Ehlers)’s made a ton of progress over the offseason. He’s got some great leadership potential. The way he can lead is really encouraging to see. He’s a threat with his legs and we’ve seen a lot of progress in the passing game. Coach (Reggie) Corbin’s been working with him on things he can improve at. He’s responding really well. I’m excited with him moving forward. We definitely need our guys to challenge each other at practice and he’s one of those guys who will challenge his teammates. That’s always good to see from a quarterback … I feel like our program is in the process of a steady climb. We haven’t taken off like a rocket ship, but we’re steadily climbing and getting better. It’s happening. There’s no doubt on our staff and in our locker room about where we’re headed. We have to shut up and do it. We have to prove we can finish through the whistle on a consistent basis before we can talk about beating anybody. It’s about doing the simple things right. When we do those things consistently then we can talk about doing the other stuff.