Friday also took me across town to Carleton, where the Knights were holding a scrimmage against UW-River Falls. Expect that blog and video tomorrow (Monday). I'll head to Gustavus to catch up with a Gustie team that hopes to continue their ascent on Monday afternoon, and hope to visit Hamline and Augsburg Tuesday or Wednesday. Check out all the previous stops on the tour with the links at the bottom of this post.
At each stop of the tour, I'm doing "Nine-for-Nine" - nine items of interest from each of the nine teams in the MIAC. With no further adieu, here's your "Nine-for-Nine" for the St. Olaf Oles.
2014 MIAC FOOTBALL TRAINING CAMP TOUR - ST. OLAF
No. 1 - Onward and upward
St. Olaf was one of the MIAC's biggest surprises last season, but not necessarily in a good way. The Oles - who were coming off a 7-3 season - went 1-9 overall and 0-8 in the conference in the first season under head coach Craig Stern. The team's record was a bit deceiving, as four of the team's nine losses were by seven points or less. But this year, the Oles are hoping to reverse their fortunes in those close games and begin ascending back to where they were just a few seasons ago.
No. 2 - Finish strong
The Oles lost a 20-13 game at Luther, nearly upset Concordia 33-29, fell to Hamline 31-28 and were upended 42-37 by rival Carleton in those four one-score losses. Each of those games was decided in the final seven minutes. QB Nate Penz told me one of the big focuses heading into 2014 was really focusing on playing hard for four quarters. The Oles certainly had bright spots last season, and the team's offense certainly performed better than 1-9, but by paying attention to how the team performs in crunch time, the Oles could flip some of those close results and, in turn, drastically improve their record with a few big plays at the right time.
|The Oles are excited to have 2nd Tm All-MIAC|
QB Nate Penz back under center.
No. 3 - Experience where it counts
The 2014 Oles won't be a particularly deep or experienced bunch, but the return of Penz and some key offense weapons means the team has veteran leadership at important spots. As a sophomore, Penz earned All-MIAC Second Team honors after throwing for 2,480 yards and 17 TDs - both numbers ranked third in the league. He said he feels more comfortable in his second season as a starter, and the whole team will have an improved comfort level in the second season under Stern.
No. 4 - Replacing playmakers
St. Olaf graduated a pair of amazing wideouts a year ago, as Stephen Asp and Jake Schmiesing both exhausted their eligibility after All-Conference careers. However, Stern is confident that the Oles have players ready to step into the spotlight. Joel Reinhardt was 11th in the MIAC with 497 yards a season ago, with three TDs and 32 catches and a very good 15.5 yards-per-catch average. Stern said Reinhardt is more than qualified to step into the No. 1 role and be the go-to guy in the passing game. Connor McCormick also returns after leading the team with 473 rushing yards again, and Stern is extremely high on Troy Peterson, a versatile freshman from Edina, that will add some excitement and athleticism to the Oles' offseason game plan.
No. 5 - Areas for improvement
While the Ole passing attack was one of the best in the MIAC, the team has some serious room for improvement in the rushing game and on defense. The St. Olaf defense ranked second-to-last in both points and yards allowed a year ago and struggled to generate sacks and turnovers. The Oles are excited about the defensive front they'll return, and hope to make a few more big plays in 2014. The team also hopes for a little more balance on offense, with McCormick back at RB and some other athletic options to kick-start the running game.
No. 6 - Defensive leaders
Despite the team's struggles on defense, Stern really likes the leadership he's seeing on that side of the ball. Colin Brown (DL) and Chad Wagner (DE) are both team captains and will lead the Ole defense in 2014. Brown had 13.5 tackles-for-a-loss and 1.5 sacks a year ago, and he has 24.5 tackles-for-a-loss in his career and is poised for a breakout season. Wagner had 33 tackles and a pair of sacks last season, but Stern said he finally enjoyed a healthy offseason and has really worked hard on improving his play in 2014. Stern is also excited about a young, talented crop of defensive backs and thinks they'll be a big key to the team's defensive hopes this season.
|The Oles are hoping to improve the running game|
and defensive numbers in 2014.
No. 7 - Kicking confidence
Ole specialist Eric Tusa had a strong freshman season as the team's kicker and punter giving St. Olaf reason to be optimistic about special teams in 2014. Tusa scored 32 points on four field goals (4-of-7) and was a near perfect 20-for-21 performance on PATs. His long of 45 was the second-best mark in the MIAC last season. He also ranked third among punters who qualified for the leaderboard in the MIAC with an average of 33.2 yards per punt and a long of 52 yards. His abilities can help the Oles in the red zone, and in the field-position battle.
No. 8 - Coaching camaraderie
Stern told me the biggest benefit of his second season has been his staff. He is really pleased with the group he's assembled, and said he really feels the entire unit is in tune with one another and on the same page. In year two, he doesn't feel the need to micro-manage all aspects of the program, and that's made for a fun and productive training camp. A fine-tuned staff can get the team all focused behind the same message, while also delivering more individual and positional attention to benefit each and every guy. Stern thinks he's got that in year two, and we'll see if it results in a step forward for the Oles.
No. 9 - Mental focus
One thing that was evident at St. Olaf camp - both through Stern's words and the team's actions during practice - was the emphasis on being mentally tough. The Ole coaches are stressing the mental side of the game, and how mental toughness will help the team persevere through those difficult moments that they encountered in so many close games a year ago. Training camp is typically a time for teams to work themselves into peak physical condition, but the Oles are also spending as much energy sharpening their minds. After four losses by a single score a year ago, they're banking on improved thought process - and the elimination of costly mental mistakes - will make a big difference this season. That emphasis on learning and thinking appeared to be really taking hold with the teams, so it will be interesting to monitor as the team looks for improvement in 2014.
2014 MIAC Football Training Camp Tour
Aug. 25 - Bethel
Aug. 28 - Saint John's
Aug. 29 - Concordia
Aug. 30 - St. Thomas
Aug. 31 - St. Olaf