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Spring Update: Seasoned Bulldogs believe the time is now

By Jacob Knabel on May. 18, 2024 in Football

Head Coach Patrick Daberkow joked that his 2024 roster will have more married players than he’s ever seen before in his time at Concordia. Without question, the Bulldogs are a veteran group, at least in terms of the projected two deep. The Bulldogs will feature a senior quarterback in DJ McGarvie, a 24-year-old inside linebacker in Michael Grindey and a whole lot of players who understand what college football is all about. On the offensive line, nine of 10 players from the 2023 two deep are back in the fold, typifying a roster that’s seasoned in just about every area outside of a growing defensive backfield.

Those dynamics gave Concordia the chance to operate a bit differently this spring. Daberkow and his staff implemented offensive and defensive installments for specific opponents while expanding upon the positives that came out of 2023. The ’23 offense was the most productive in program history by many measures, and there’s no reason it can’t be even better in 2024.

Said Daberkow, “We’ve got a veteran group of leaders. It’s been so refreshing to have them in the locker room leading the team. Any time you have a player-led team, it’s going to go farther than when you just have a coach standing in front of a room telling guys what to do. When guys own it and are intrinsically motivated, you have a group with a higher ceiling. We recruit to that and we push our guys to be like that. Our upperclassmen have been phenomenal. Christian Schlepp, one of our offensive linemen, had an injury year and a COVID year. He’s in his sixth year of college football. You might come into the program as a 17- or 18-year-old and go against a married guy. We’re excited with our leadership and how that’s going to play out on Saturdays.”

The first official practice of the spring was held on April 8. A total of 15 practices took place between then and the open-to-the-public intrasquad on April 26. The Bulldogs welcome back eight of their nine All-GPAC honorees from last season: receiver Austin Jablonski (first team), defensive lineman Kyle Sterup (first team), linebacker Michael Grindey (second team), quarterback DJ McGarvie (second team), offensive lineman Tyler Walford (second team), defensive linemen Carson Fehlhahfer (honorable mention) and Devon Polley (honorable mention) and offensive lineman Blake Schlegel (offensive lineman). Jablonski was also recognized as an NAIA First Team All-American.

The report date for the start of preseason camp is Aug. 6. A Blue-White scrimmage will be open to the public at 7 p.m. on Aug. 17. The 2024 schedule can be found HERE.

Spring position-by-position glance:

Quarterback – DJ McGarvie returns for his fourth season as QB1. Named a Second Team All-GPAC honoree in 2023, McGarvie has set a new standard for Concordia quarterbacks while breaking program career records for passing yards (6,679) and passing touchdowns (54). His 2,642 passing yards last season also broke the school record. With 26 career starts under his belt, McGarvie will enter 2024 as one of the most experienced signal callers in the NAIA. Next in line behind McGarvie is the strong-armed Texan, Gideon Stark. The Magnolia native Stark saw action last season in five games and threw his first career touchdown pass. The staff also likes the progress of Collin Reetz of Estes Park, Colo.

Running Back – The four-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust workhorse Devin Zeigler has graduated after rushing for 1,800 yards in his Concordia career. He will transition to a graduate assistant coaching role in 2024. In his absence, McCook, Neb., native Mark Arp got reps at the No. 1 spot in the backfield this spring. He rushed for 467 yards and four touchdowns in 2023. The question heading into the fall will be about who gets playing time as the No. 2 back. The Bulldogs rarely went beyond Zeigler and Arp this past season.

Receiver – McGarvie will again lean upon one of the best receivers in the country in Austin Jablonski, a First Team All-America in 2023. The former Cornhusker walk-on broke the program’s single season receiving record with 1,134 yards on 91 catches (eight touchdowns) last season. The major departure here is Carsen Arline (37 catches, 553 yards). Fortunately, Adam Van Cleave returned to health this spring after being sidelined for the final seven games of last season due to injury. In just three games, Van Cleave caught 15 passes for 200 yards and has the potential to be another major threat. In addition, Max Bartels reeled in 10 receptions in 2023. He served as the team’s No. 3 wideout after Van Cleave’s injury. Dominic Philippi is another veteran who has taken snaps out wide.

Tight End – It’s Daylan Russell’s time to shine as he steps into a starring role formerly held down by the likes of Luke Lang and Garrett Schardt. Russell hauled in 10 catches for 157 yards and two touchdowns last season. A close friend of Jablonski, John Goodwin transferred in from Nebraska at semester and figures to be a factor. As a Husker, Goodwin appeared in two games in 2023. Recently featured by 10/11 News after having a tumor removed, Maddox Rickertsen adds depth to the room and has been a special teams performer.

Offensive Line – Of the 10 players who graced the final two deep of 2023, nine were back in the fold this spring. The offensive line is about as experienced as it gets. The starters at the end of last fall were Cohen Carpenter and Blake Schlegel at the tackles, Tyler Walford and Christian Schlepp at the guards and Jackson Anderson at center. They’ll get competition from the likes of Toby Hager, Nathan Miller, Seth Moore and Noah Schaedel. The line helped pave the way for Zeigler and Arp to run for a combined 1,262 rushing yards. This position group is as deep as it’s ever been during Daberkow’s tenure.

Defensive Line – The entire two deep returns up front in the 3-4 scheme employed by Defensive Coordinator Corby Osten. The headliner is defensive end Kyle Sterup, who wreaked havoc with 19 tackles for loss in 2023. Daberkow considers Sterup to be an All-America type of player. The likes of Carson Fehlhafer and Devon Polley are similarly disruptive in their roles. Both have earned All-GPAC accolades. Also a national qualifying thrower, Fehlhafer could be in for a monster season of his own (he’s headed to the NAIA national meet as a qualifier in the shot put). Stephen Hughes will also see regular time on a unit that projects to be the strength of the defense.

Linebacker – Yes, Michael Grindey is still here. The former club rugby player at Creighton has paced the Bulldogs in tackles (92 in 2022 and 89 in 2023) in back-to-back years while earning two all-conference honors. He headlines a crew that also features Deegan Barnes, CJ Dyhrkopp and Talatau Solo. A starter in 2022, Nick Leader (50 tackles in ’22) stands a strong chance of reclaiming a starting role. The linebacker crew is tasked with continuing a strong tradition at Concordia.

Defensive Back – Some lumps were taken last year by a young secondary (276.4 passing yards/game), but Daberkow and his staff believe the group will be better because of those experiences. Osten has been particularly pleased with the growth of Braxton Borer and Luke Penrod, two sophomores-to-be vying for starting spots at safety. Others who gained starting experience last season were Daylan Henson, Will Potratz and Jaden Seier. Another name to watch is Jha’mauri Erilus from Killeen, Texas. Concordia expects to be much tighter against the pass this fall.

Specialists – Competitions here will likely continue into the fall. Braxton Borer and Jayson Guthard shared punting duties last season while Peyton Atwood (48 points in 2023) took on the placekicking role. The punting battle could include Braxtyn Koch, the son of former Baltimore Ravens punter Sam Koch. Toby Hager and Max Wurdeman are experienced long snappers and Austin Jablonski brings game-breaking ability to the kick return team.


Comments from Coach Daberkow:

It was fun to get out after we’ve been lifting in January, February and March. We push all of our spring ball back as far as we can so we can spend more time in the weight room. Philosophically, we feel like that’s going to help us as much as anything. For a lot of guys, it’s like test driving a new car, especially for the guys who were freshmen this past fall. We have a lot of guys who are freshmen who were playing basketball or wrestling and then doing track or baseball in high school. This is the first time that some guys have focused on football year-round. To have them come out and play football in April for the first time is a fun thing to experience. We had 15 practices, and it went really well.

We installed the offense and defense, and we were able to experiment with some things we want to try out next fall. Then we were able to evaluate our guys and see where we’ve made improvements and where we need to shore some things up and make sure we’re robust heading into the fall.

Any time you install different plays or formations in the spring, there’s some learning. I put a lot on our coaches to teach the game of football in the proper order. I was an education major here. We need to layer our learning and we need to do it in a specific order. It’s really important that we teach the game right. You come into the spring and you need to have a baseline understanding. Most of them were in the room in the fall as well. You can see them pick up on what we’re doing and what we’re tweaking, and why we’re tweaking it. I think our coaching staff does a really good job of teaching the game of football. You can spend a little more time on fundamentals because there is a base understanding of the offense, defense and special teams tactics.

This is when we get into our summer phase. There’s a lot of lifting and sprint-based training throughout the summer. Whether you’re an offensive tackle, wide receiver or defensive back, we sprint. That’s going to be a big part of the summer program. We want to make sure that when we report back in August, we didn’t just coast through the summer – we made gains through the summer. We talk about accountability a lot in our program. If we’re serious about doing what we say we want to do, we’re going to see it in the weight room over the summer. Everybody reports in when they lift. We don’t feel like we have to prod a lot. They’re very hungry to lift, train and get better. That’s been really refreshing and a joy to see.

Opening games of 2024 – I’m excited to play at night. I think it’s always fun to play under the lights at Bulldog Stadium. That night game environment is a little bit different, especially early in the season. We start the season off with two home games, two night games. It’s a really exciting thing. You think about it in the back of your mind throughout the summer. It’s really fun to go there mentally before we report and you kind of start to get excited for the season.