MIAC mini camp tour

So I was watching the Big Ten Network's football preview series, which involves the network's football crew visiting each team's preseason training camp for a day an discussing the team's prospects for the upcoming season, interviews with players and coaches and highlights from that day's practice.

The MIAC doesn't have our own network, but we do have MIAC Media, so I got the idea to try and recreate the same concept, on a smaller scale. Since it was a late-blooming idea, I wasn't able to get around to visit all nine MIAC teams. However, I did cram in five campus visits into one weekend and gathered a ton of video, and some initial impressions of the teams I visited.

I stopped by the first full-pads practice for Augsburg, then headed up to catch a half-squad workout at Saint John's, as its massive freshman class was attending orientation for first-year students. The following day I hit the latter part of a Bethel practice in the morning, a St. Thomas scrimmage against Rochester Technical  and Community College (RCTC) and a spirited late-afternoon practice at Hamline.

The first of the video series debuted on Thursday - along with the MIAC Football Preview and Preseason Coaches' Poll - and the rest of the footage will be used in the MIAC Media video series throughout the season.

All-in-all, it was a gorgeous three days to be outside and I came away with football fever a week or two earlier than usual. I loved the chance to visit our teams and talk with the coaches and players during their preparation. Preseason training camp truly is a time of optimism. For the moment, everyone is tied for first place at 0-0 (except 1-0 SJU), and excitement and expectations are never higher.

Next year, I hope to make this more of a full-blown preseason tour. My lofty aspiration at this time is to visit all nine teams and file both a video and blog from each stop. (Whether or not that will actually happen with our hefty preseason workload will remain to be seen.) However, here is an abbreviated report from my trip around (half of) the conference, with 10 observations from my travels (in no particular order) mixed with some thoughts and questions about the upcoming season. Thanks a ton to the coaches, SIDs and student-athletes that allowed me to look into their preseason preparations, and my apologies to those I missed this time around.

No. 1 - Crank it up
NFL fans have undoubtedly heard about Seattle Head Coach Pete Carroll's tendency to pump music - crank the volume to 11 - throughout practice. It's been reported he does this to prepare his teams to perform in deafening situations on the road later in the season, and to help the energy and spirits run high. MIAC teams aren't reaching the Seahawks' decibel level, but many employ the same tactic.

Augsburg rocked a good variety throughout its drills, seven-on-seven work and full-squad scrimmage, highlighted by B.I.G.'s "Hypnotize." The blaring, upbeat country music coming from Bethel's sound system easily guided me to their practice like the pied piper. Speaking of Pipers, Hamline's practice started with Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" and some dance-fueled warm-up exercises.

No. 2 - Tommie defense in midseason form
Though it was just a preseason scrimmage, the St. Thomas defense looked to be in midseason form in their scrimmage against RCTC. Second-ranked UST didn't lose much from last year's D-III runner-up squad, but the most significant losses were on that side of the ball in Ayo Idowu (DL) and Chinni Oji (CB). However, the Tommies were their usual fast, aggressive, swarming selves in my look at them. Anytime RCTC tried to find some space - screen passes, a flare to a back, tosses ... the Tommies were there in tandem to shut it down, often behind the line of scrimmage.

On that day - at least the 90 minutes I saw - St. Thomas' offense was solid but perhaps lacked a little explosiveness. A lot of that could be vanilla preseason play calls and winds that affected the vertical passing game, but the Tommies are loaded with returning talent on that side of the ball and are expected to put up big numbers. But on this day, my biggest takeaway was that the defense will survive graduation and continue to thrive.

No. 3 - Gary Fasching is having fun
Saint John's has received a ton of attention for its coaching change - the first in 60 years in Collegeville - so I was excited to get a look at a Johnne practice. My number one takeaway was that new Head Coach Gary Fasching, his assistants and his players are having a ton of fun.

Practice was upbeat and uptempo on the final two-a-day of the season. From calisthenics through drills and eventually scrimmaging, there was a lot of energy and a lot of smiles. I'm guessing the Johnnies had a fun bus ride home after their season-opening win last night over UW-River Falls. The Fasching era got off to an unforgettable start as his team scored 10 points in the final minute for a 17-14 win. However, SJU will need to show continued improvement for the good times to continue in Collegeville as they start conference play with UST, and most of the conference's contenders over the first half of the season.

No. 4 - The message at Bethel
The Royals enter 2013 ranked as high as No. 6 and optimism was high at their Saturday-morning workout. My biggest takeaways were the talk of taking the offense to the air more than usual. Bethel has built its reputation with a strong ground game over the years, but this year's team is blessed with talented junior QB Erik Peterson and a strong class of upperclassmen wideouts, so the Royals could take to the air more in 2013. The defense - led by All-American LB Seth Mathis - should still be the heart of the team, but it will be interesting to see if a more explosive offense changes up tradition at Bethel.

However, the No. 1 thing I took away was the way Head Coach Steve Johnson and his coaches navigate their players through the process that is the season. Johnson assured his players in a post-practice talk that everything they're doing and all the work they're putting in are for very specific reasons, and the tough times on the practice field will build their mettle and resolve for those tough Saturday afternoons that require players to dig a littler deeper.

No. 5 - Augsburg's ascent
Since I started in the MIAC office in 2010, Augsburg's football team seems to take  step forward each year. That process appeared to accelerate last season with the emergence of freshman QB Ayrton Scott, who played well beyond his years and racked up mind-boggling offensive numbers. Now, with a lot of talent back around their star sophomore under center, the Auggies are optimistic their rise can continue, and I heard the world "Playoffs" more than once from players when discussing the upcoming season.

A lot of that hinges on Scott's development, and how MIAC defenses will prepare for his combination of speed, strength and savvy in year two. However, he's got All-America TE Adam Carl back as his favorite target and RB Jerise Washington to team with Scott on the ground. The defense is led by Hakeem Bourne-McFarlane, and if it can progress alongside the offense, the Auggies could join the conference title conversation with Bethel and St. Thomas.

No. 6 - Hands-on at Hamline
The Pipers clearly have a lot of work ahead of them after going 1-9 and 0-8 in the MIAC a season ago, and at their practice it was clear first-year Head Coach and Hamline alum Chad Rogosheske is working to improve the Pipers' fortunes by building from the ground up. I saw a lot of enthusiasm and hands-on teaching from Rogosheske as his staff, with a focus on fundamentals and doing the little things right.

I like that approach a lot. I saw some innovative drills that really focused on the key fundamentals at each position. The players were learning, working hard and having fun. For Hamline fans, that should be good news as Rogosheske and his staff works on rebuilding.

No. 7 - Hitting someone else
All the players and teams I visited last month have been waiting for this weekend for a long time. It seemed each team was about to the point in camp where they were ready to hit someone wearing a different colored uniform. This weekend offers that first opportunity in real game action, so this weekend I'll be watching for which teams enter the season sharp and focused and can channel that aggressiveness into positive results on the field. Sometimes, the desire to move from preseason camp to that first game is so great, it can result in almost too much aggression, which can stray from fundamentals and game plans.

No. 8 - Star watch
Which MIAC stars will continue to shine, and which stars will become familiar names by the end of the season? Last year, there was a new wave of QB talent with sophomores Matt O'Connell (UST) and Peterson (BU) and freshman Ayrton Scott (AUG). All three of those are back, and looked impressive in my visits to their camps.

But who are some of the players that aren't on the MIAC radar yet that will emerge throughout the season? That' s always part of the fun of a new season, and I'll be combing the box scores the first few weeks to look for standout performances from the conference's new faces.

No. 9 - Coaching carousel
In a conference that was recognized nationally for coaching stability, led by John Gagliardi's 60 years at SJU and NCAA record 489 wins. However, a third of the MIAC will debut new head coaches this season, with Carleton's Bob Pagel entering his first year as the full-time head coach after having the interim tag a year ago. Which new head coach will have the best debut and the biggest impact? I liked what I saw in camp from both Fasching and Rogosheske, and St. Olaf's Craig Stern has been a big part of the Oles' success as the assistant head coach, so it should be a comfortable transition in Northfield.

It will be fun to learn the identity of those teams under their new leadership. Will we see any drastic stylistic changes, as we did with Hamline's last hire and John Pate running the option with the Pipers? Will any of those teams take a significant step forward under its new coach? How will the players respond to new leadership? It all adds to the intrigue of a new seaosn.

No. 10 - Excited about the rest
It was great to get a look at five of the MIAC's nine teams, and I'm excited to get a look at the rest of the league as the season kicks off. I'll have seen seven teams in person after today, as I'm heading to Northfield to catch some of both Carleton's and St. Olaf's home openers. Some of the things I'm looking forward to learning about the league's other teams ...

What will be the bigger transition at St. Olaf - the coaching change with Stern taking over, or the change under center with the graduation of star QB Dan Dobson? Speaking of QBs, is Concordia junior Griffin Neal ready to take on more command of the offense with MIAC MVP Brett Baune no longer there to ground things out for the Cobber offense? How will Carleton progress in the second season under Head Coach Bob Pagel, and how will the Knights rebuild their secondary after the graduation of talented defensive backs Mike Elder and Paul Hoffer? And just how big a load can Jeffrey Dubose carry at Gustavus? The star RB has been tremendous as an underclassmen, so how will he write the final chapter of his collegiate career, and what kind of success will follow for the Gusties?

Let's kick it off
 The MIAC couldn't have scripted a better start than Saint John's amazing comeback win over UW-River Falls last night. I had planned to finish this blog then, but I was glued to the web cast and couldn't break away to do any writing. Today, we'll see if he MIAC's amazing stretch of nonconference success can continue (16-2 last season, 13-0 over the first two weeks in 2012) and we'll start to answer some of those pressing questions about the league's teams and players.

If you're craving more MIAC previews, check out the most recent MIAC Media Podcast with Mike Gallagher, which is preview heavy and features an interview with Bethel's Steve Johnson, and check out the MIACFootball Preview & Preseason Coaches' Poll.

Enough speculation. Enough practices. Enough scrimmages. Let's kick it off. 

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