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Strides made in 2020; offseason will set tone for 2021

By Jacob Knabel on Dec. 8, 2020 in Football

A memorable start to the 2020 season saw the Concordia University Football team defeat rivals Doane and Hastings while Crete native Jonah Weyand ran wild behind a growing offensive line. These were sights for sore eyes following a summer of hot debate in regards to whether a college football season could be played amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The Bulldogs managed to play eight of their nine scheduled games against GPAC opponents.

Following the 24-7 domination of Doane on Sept. 12, Head Coach Patrick Daberkow couldn’t hide a wide grin. His description of the night: “Beautiful. Perfect. America.”

Concordia rattled off four-straight wins to begin the season before falling in the last four. Undeniably, the schedule stiffened over the second half of the season as the Bulldogs went up against three potential NAIA playoff teams in Dordt, Morningside and Northwestern. However, the 4-4 record and enhanced offensive production showed the program had made strides from the 2018 and 2019 seasons that yielded identical 3-7 overall marks.

Beyond the results and statistics, Daberkow took pride in a unified locker room of players that rallied around each other during a time of unrest in the United States. In response to the climate of social issues, members of the team put together a powerful video message entitled “Follow Us,” as a way to promote unity. In three separate home games, Seward police officers walked hand-in-hand with the Bulldogs in pre-kickoff processions.

The team’s maturity and camaraderie showed in obvious ways. Said Daberkow, “We saw a lot of resilience from day one of the season to the last bus ride. We grew a lot. Our players got to know each other better than they probably would have in normal years, just because of all the things we went through – everybody went through. To be able to be part of this locker room and this program and see that development is such a fun thing. Our guys definitely will be better for it in the future – better husbands, better fathers and better leaders. They learned how to roll with the punches, improvise and adapt and overcome challenges. We certainly feel like we’ll take lessons away from this year for many seasons to come.”

The hope is that 2020 will help lay the groundwork for future success. Had there been official NAIA coaches’ polls this fall, Concordia may have cracked the top 25 with its 4-0 start that also featured wins over Briar Cliff and Jamestown. During that run, the Bulldog defense held three opponents to single-digit point totals while Weyand flourished on the offensive side of the ball.

In Blake Culbert’s first year as a starting quarterback, the offensive improvements were tangible. Concordia jumped from averages of 280.2 yards and 15.6 points per game in 2019 to 351.4 yards and 21.9 points in 2020. The progress may be a bit more gradual than Daberkow would like, but it was a step in the right direction. Stability that came from a consistent group of five up front made a difference.

“We had zero fumbles from any running backs all season,” Daberkow said. “I was really proud of that position for that. Obviously everything starts with your offensive line. Not only did we run the ball better, we protected a lot better this year too. We’ve gotten a lot better, but we haven’t arrived at where we need to be. We feel like there’s a lot more room to go before we hit our ceiling with that position group.”

The 34-28 overtime win over Hastings is one that deserves to be remembered for years to come. An incredible fourth down catch by Korrell Koehlmoos kept alive an eventual game-tying fourth-quarter touchdown drive. Weyand had himself a day in rushing for 177 yards and a school single-game record five touchdowns. He was subsequently named the NAIA National Offensive Player of the Week. Weyand finished with 625 rushing yards and nine touchdowns for the season.

On the defensive side of the ball, All-American linebacker Lane Napier battled through injuries and still led the team with 54 tackles (despite missing three games). With 14 stop in the season finale at Dakota Wesleyan, Napier eclipsed 400 tackles for his career, giving him an impressive average of 100 tackles per season. The three-time first team All-GPAC choice will go down as one of the top linebackers in program history.

“Lane is one of the toughest competitors I’ve ever been around,” Daberkow said. “Lane is a winner and he loves to compete. He has a nose for the ball. He makes tackles that other people don’t make. He makes run-throughs that we coach other linebackers not to take. He’s a very tough-minded football player. He’s accountable, he’s tough, he’s authentic. I love coaching him and he’s a pleasure to have around.”

The defense experienced some struggles over the final four games, in part due to injuries that sidelined dependable veterans like Napier and team sack leader Chase Hammons (five sacks). Concordia proved it has depth at linebacker and a pair of reliable safeties in AJ Jenkins and Peyton Mitchell. Daberkow and his staff feel strongly about the future of a unit that has frequently been a strength for the program.

Another quarterback battle could ensue this offseason with Culbert expected to graduate and move on. The emerging starter will have Weyand and a solid set of receivers to throw to, including Art Anderson, Cayden Beran and Koehlmoos. In addition, Garrett Schardt (25 catches for 430 yards and three touchdowns) has developed into one of the GPAC’s best tight ends.

The plan right now is to have a more normal spring practice season next semester. The Bulldogs (and many college football programs around the country) missed out on 2020 spring ball due to the pandemic. By April, Concordia should have an idea of what next fall might bring. It may even get some of the current seniors to return (the NAIA ruled that no athlete would be charged with a season of competition in 2020).

The work put in over the next few months will help determine whether the Bulldogs can soon get over the hump against teams like Dordt, Morningside and Northwestern. Said Daberkow, “The guys understand just how much work it’s going to take to get from where we’re at to where we need to be. They’re excited to do that work. We have guys who are excited to step up and be leaders in the weight room. That’s where it all starts. You have to fall in love with training in the offseason because I think a lot of games in September are won in January and February.”