Despite a 4-6 record in 2022, Head Coach Patrick Daberkow is dreaming big. The Concordia University Football program has an experienced and proven quarterback in place and a roster full of players the staff believes are the right fit. The growth on the offensive side of the ball last season made the Bulldogs a fun team to watch and provided optimism for this fall. Concordia changed its offense three-and-a-half games into the season and became a much better team.
This spring, the Bulldogs used all allotted 15 practices and made the type of progress that Daberkow hoped to see as he enters his seventh season as head coach. Said Daberkow, “The next step for our program is to make the playoffs. We are very focused on that and we know it happens from an accumulation of stacking great work days on top of great work days. We have goals we want to reach and that doesn’t just happen because you wish it to happen. You have to work for it. We have to maintain it through the summer.”
Spring 2023 position-by-position glance:
Quarterback – There was competition here last spring and through the fall, but DJ McGarvie is the unquestioned starter heading into 2023. Injuries along the offensive line in 2022 necessitated a more pass-happy offense – and McGarvie thrived. In his second year as a starting quarterback, McGarvie broke a 21-year-old school record for passing yards in a single season formerly held by Jarrod Pimentel (2,178). In 10 games, the Lincoln North Star High School product piled up 2,553 passing yards while also breaking season standards for completions (229) and attempts (388). With two years to go, McGarvie already owns school career rankings of fourth in passing touchdowns (37) and fifth in passing yards (4,037). The talented Austin Jablonski is likely to get snaps at quarterback in certain packages, and 6-foot-6 Gideon Stark of Magnolia, Texas, is a player to watch as he continues to develop.
Running Back – The top two backs from last season return in the form of Devin Zeigler and Mark Arp. The duo combined to rush for 961 yards on 216 carries in 2022 and are the frontrunners to shoulder the load again this fall. Arp missed this spring’s practice season due to injury but will have the summer to make his way back. Jablonski will also contribute in this area as someone who ran for 222 yards and three touchdowns last season. There will be competition to see who falls in line beyond Zeigler and Arp for potential carries as a third back.
Receiver – This spot took a big hit with the graduation of Honorable Mention All-American Korrell Koehlmoos, the program’s first-ever 1,000-yard receiver (in one season). There’s a true No. 1 here in Jablonski, the former Nebraska Cornhusker walk on. Jablonski tried his hand at quarterback last fall and then settled into a receiver role. He flourished while catching 36 passes for 483 yards and three touchdowns. Those numbers are likely to increase significantly. The position also includes Carsen Arline, who caught 40 receptions for 409 yards and a score in 2022. A Lincoln Lutheran alum, Max Bartels is an emerging talent at the position.
Tight End – The combo of Luke Lang and Daylan Russell should give Concordia one of the GPAC’s top tight end tandems. A former quarterback, Lang broke out last season and reeled in 39 grabs for 593 yards and five touchdowns. He’s one of the NAIA’s very best tight ends heading into the fall. Meanwhile, Russell contributed with 13 catches for 159 yards in 2022.
Offensive Line – The Bulldogs are seeking better fortune in the health department within this unit. In 2022, only Kaden Peters (left tackle) started all 10 games. Peters has graduated and moved on, but much of the two deep from a year ago is back. The line will be anchored by the likes of past starters in tackle Gavin Mull and Christian Schlepp (fifth year). Others with extensive experience include Jackson Anderson, Toby Hager, Blake Schlegel and Tyler Walford. Anderson moved into the starting center spot last season when Johnny Robinson (aka Pot Roast) was sidelined by injury. Concordia would like to improve upon its 2022 average of 3.8 yards per carry.
Defensive Line – Coordinator Corby Osten will expect strong play from this group. The unit returns the entire two deep with the exception of Eric Kieper Jr. (graduated). Devon Polley took a major step forward in 2022 and was a consistently disruptive force at nose guard. He made 15 tackles for loss and six sacks. He’s flanked by returning starters in the lengthy Kyle Sterup and the stout Jordan Kavulak. Sterup posted 63 tackles (11.5 for loss) at an end spot last season. The depth carries on thanks to the presence of Stephen Hughes, Tal Solo and Carson Fehlhafer. The Utica, Neb., native Fehlhahfer is back on the defensive line after he started on the ’22 offensive line while filling in for injured teammates last fall.
Linebacker – Michael Grindey became the program’s latest First Team All-GPAC linebacker as he made a team high 92 tackles in 2022. Like Lane Napier before him, Grindey can range all over the field to make stops. He’ll be supported by improving returners such as Matt Davis, CJ Dyhrkopp and Nick Leader. This group is always a critical part of a successful defense for Coach Osten. Strong linebacker play has been a hallmark of Concordia Football and its 3-4 scheme.
Defensive Back – The backbone of the secondary is made up of two Seward High School products in corner Carson Core and safety Gabe Knisley. A playmaker from day one, Knisley collected 77 tackles (seven for loss) in 2022. Meanwhile, Core will be entering his fifth year in the program and has been a contributor on special teams throughout his career. Isiaha Conner earned Honorable Mention All-GPAC accolades last season. There is potential for newcomers to make an impact in this area. Opposing quarterbacks finished last season with 15 touchdown passes compared to 13 interceptions.
Specialists – The kicking duties will be decided during August camp after the departures of kicker Ty Harold and punter Korrell Koehlmoos. It’s possible both roles could be held down by freshmen. The punting of Koehlmoos will be missed. Core (punt returns) and Conner (kick returns) both possess experience as return men. The long snapper spot is in good hands thanks to Toby Hager, a multi-year veteran in the role.
Coaching Staff – The full-time staff members remain in place as Daberkow enjoys continuity alongside Corby Osten, Trent Laune and Grady Koch. A couple of notable additions include Kevin Crume (formerly of Nebraska Wesleyan) and Greg Nelson (formerly the head coach at Lincoln Lutheran). Daberkow says they have brought new ideas into the program and have already made a positive impact. Daberkow has won 27 games over his first six years leading the program.
Comments from Coach Daberkow:
We had a really good spring. I thought we got a lot out of it and had a fantastic spring scrimmage. I was pleased with how the guys handled being in a live scenario with people in the stadium. We had more than 70 mostly local high school juniors visiting for the scrimmage. It was a fun environment and we had a good time with it.
We were fortunate to get all 15 practices in. We usually have one that gets rained out or we have issues with lightning. We got some really good looks at certain guys. In the spring you can experiment more and mix up some groups. We saw some guys make a ton of strides. We had just finished a really long offseason program. We pushed spring ball back as far into April as we could, so we could get extra time in the weight room. It really showed. Our squat increase was right on point. We wanted the weather to warm up and get a couple extra weeks in the weight room. We were able to accomplish that and get the full 15 practices.
We’ve been able to add more recruits since signing day and kind of wrap this class up. We feel like we’re bringing in a group of guys that are what we’re about. The pillars of our program are accountability, toughness and authenticity. Those are the qualities we look for in any recruit. We feel like we did a good job in identifying those guys. It’s a lot of hard work to identify the guys who fit, and we feel like we found a whole group that fits.
Every year we feel like we get a little bit tighter in the locker room. We try to do our best to bring in guys who fit what we’re about. I’m really proud of our upperclassman leadership. There are no more freshmen after you get through the fall season. I was proud of how the guys responded to the challenge of the winter months of lifting and eating, hitting our goals and making sure we stay on track. We were able to have some fun too. We took the team to the WWE Smackdown at Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln. We put in 447 volunteer hours throughout the course of the school year. I was proud of our team for that. It’s been good to see the progress and maturity made over the last year.
On opening the season with defending national champion Northwestern: “What a great opportunity to have them come to Bulldog Stadium. We’ll be ready. We’re excited for it.”