2014 Training Camp Tour - STO

The 2014 MIAC Football Training Camp Tour is more than halfway complete with today's blog post and video. Friday took me to Northfield, where I checked in with St. Olaf during a morning practice that revealed a team focused on fundamentals, details, and the mental side of the game. It was a great morning with the Oles, who are hoping to put last season's 1-9 record in the rear-view mirror.

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.


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

2014 Training Camp Tour - UST

In most places, 8-2 would be a heck of a season. But in the Glenn Caruso era, St. Thomas has become much more than most places. The Tommies had a string of three-straight MIAC championships snapped, and a team that reached the NCAA Division III national championship game a year earlier found itself at home at Playoff time. This year, UST fully intends to return to the top of the MIAC standings and back to the postseason, and spirits were certainly high - almost as high as the energy level - when I visited them on Wednesday.

The MIAC Training Camp Tour will pause for a couple days so I can get caught up on the videos and blogs from the six stops I've already made, and will resume Monday at Gustavus, with Augsburg and Hamline to follow. (Catch up on all the previous stops with links at the bottom of this post.) The Tommies were my fourth stop, and their "Nine-for-Nine" - nine observations about each of the nine teams on the tour - can be found below. After only a few minutes on the Tommie sidelines, I was ready to put on a helmet and go hit someone ... that's how infections the attitude was.


No. 1 - Two plays from a four-peat
As I mentioned, the Tommies had a  remarkable run of success in the MIAC snapped by their two losses a year ago. In each of the previous three seasons, Caruso's crew ran the table in the regular season, and advanced deep in the NCAA Playoffs. For this team, 8-2 felt a long way from 10-0, but in reality, the team was just two plays away from going undefeated again. The Tommies' game-winning field goal attempt sailed wide at the buzzer in a stunning loss to rival Saint John's, and UST was stopped just short of the goal line on the final play of the game in a narrow loss to eventual champ Bethel. Football is always described as a game of inches, and in St. Thomas' case only about a dozen feet stood between them and another perfect season. When you look at it that way, the Tommies didn't fall quite as far from grace as perception may suggest.

No. 2 - Getting healthy (and experienced) under center
As a sophomore starter, QB Matt O'Connell played beyond his years to guide St. Thomas to the conference title and the national championship game. The expectation that 2012 was just the beginning for the burgeoning young star. However, he spent most of the 2013 on the sidelines with an injury. He's back and healthy in 2014, ready to return to his 2012 form. If O'Connell can play as well as he did as a sophomore - or even better - St. Thomas will find itself back in the driver's seat in the MIAC, and back in the Division III Top 10. However, Caruso told me that O'Connell's injury a year ago allowed them to build depth at the most important position on the field, so if the injury bug bites again, St. Thomas will be better prepared this time around.

The Tommie defense practices its team
approach to tackling last week.
No. 3 - That Tommie defense
Throughout Caruso's tenure, St. Thomas has certainly featured some explosive offensive units, but the Tommie defense has really carried the team's banner. Last season featured another tremendous defense that led the MIAC in points allowed (14.3 per game), yards (261.6), passing yards (189.4), rushing yards (an amazing 77.9 per game) and sacks (28). Senior defensive back Sean Hamlin talked to me about the team's defensive philosophy of getting all 11 guys to the ball and playing sound as unit on every play, and the numbers certainly support that the team continues to do exactly that. For all those gaudy defensive numbers, no Tommie ranked in the top 30 in the MIAC in tackles. That says two things - the defense wasn't on the field much and, when they were, they were all making plays as a unit.

No. 4 - Replacements on the edge
That tremendous Tommie defense lost four First Team All-Conference seniors from a year ago - starting with a dynamic duo on the edge. Outside linebackers Tremayne Williams and Harry Pitera were among the MIAC's top defenders. Defensive lineman Riley Dombek and defensive back Josh Carey also graduated after great careers. However, as Hamlin suggested, the Tommies will continue to play as a unit, and Caruso assured me that have some experienced veterans ready to step into expanded roles in 2014.

No. 5 - Playmakers abound
In addition to the return of O'Connell, the Tommie offense is absolutely loaded, both up front with the return of All-MIAC Second Team OL Ulice Payne, and at the skill positions. RB Jack Kaiser was also a second-team All-MIAC pick last year, and he looks poised for a breakout season as a junior. He was extremely impressive against the Tommies' first-team defense ... that same defense that allowed just 77.9 yards per game a year ago. Promising RB Brenton Braddock, who also has big-game experience, is also back, and Caruso said this could be his best and deepest crop of receivers, led by senior Dan Ferrazzzo. The Tommie defense looked impressive in scrimmages while I was there, but the offense did flash its big-play ability on several occasions. Going against that defense every day in practice will only make it more formidable.

No. 6 - Kicking and punting
The Tommies return one All-MIAC specialist, but will have to replace another. Superb punter and First Team All-MIAC selection Garrett Maloney has graduated, so Caruso will need to find a new leg to help UST in the field position battle. However, junior kicker Paul Graupner is back after earning All-MIAC Second Team honors last season, and he looked good during an extensive field-goal portion of the practice I attended. St. Thomas even practices field goals at a breakneck pace, to help simulate the team rushing out onto the field late in the game with the play clock running down.

St. Thomas looked good during a high-energy,
detail-oriented practice last week.
No. 7 - Details, details
During its three-year run of MIAC titles, St. Thomas almost always was on the right side of the turnover battle, and was one of the league's least penalized teams. Last season, UST finished minus-seven in turnovers, which still seems odd to see in the stats almost a year later. Also, the Tommies committed the second-most penalties in the league - 64 - for the third-most penalty yardage - 596 - in 2014. With how close the two losses were, it's hard not to look at those numbers and wonder what might have been had those two stats looked a little different. Expect St. Thomas to focus on playing clean, turnover-free football in 2014.

No. 8 - High energy
None of the six practices I've visited so far featured the excitement and energy that I saw at St. Thomas. The Tommies sprint from drill-to-drill, and the enthusiasm was palpable on a warm but perfect August afternoon. The team practices a ton of game situations and pays close attention to details on special teams, and they continually mix up the units in scrimmages - ones versus twos, threes versus ones, etc. - to keep giving their players a variety of looks and experiences. No matter what the drill, players were performing at a high level and clearly having fun. Almost every coach talks about his team, "enjoying the process," but never was it more evident than it was in Tommie-ville.

No. 9 - Focused on effort, rather than results
I went into Tommie camp expected the team to have a chip on its shoulder after last year's near-misses and 8-2 record, but I found a team that had totally bought into the mindset its coaching staff was preaching. Both Caruso and Hamlin told me that they focus more on their effort and the way they prepare than the results, because they truly believe if they take care of their business the way they need to, the results will come, regardless if that's 10-0 or 8-2. Caruso told me that he didn't think his team needed to "refocus" because at no point had their focus ever wavered. The consistent message made me believe what they both were saying, and admire the program's ability to get everyone on the absolute same page.

2014 MIAC Football Training Camp Tour
Aug. 25 - Bethel
Aug. 28 - Saint John's
Aug. 29 - Concordia
Aug. 30 - St. Thomas

2014 Training Camp Tour - CON

The 2014 MIAC Football Training Camp Tour treks on with the longest trip of the nine. Tuesday I ventured up to Moorhead for a twilight practice at Concordia College and checked on a veteran, talented Cobber team that has high hopes for the 2014 season. Some rain at the start of practice cleared up and the Moorhead sky was a perfect backdrop for an impressive twilight session. Special shoutout to Cobber SID Jim Cella for showing up with an umbrella to keep my video camera and camera dry while the rain was falling.

This was the third stop on my trip through all nine MIAC football teams. My visits to Bethel and Saint John's have already been featured here, and I followed Concordia with a visit to St. Thomas on Wednesday. That video and blog should be online Saturday. Friday, I visited both Northfield schools - St. Olaf and Carleton - and plan to head to Gustavus Monday afternoon, and then will hit Augsburg and Hamline early next week as well. Stay tuned to the MIAC Media Blog and YouTube Channel as the Training Camp Tour takes you up to kickoff on Sept. 6. 

Back to the subject at hand. I'm filing a blog post with nine items of interest from each of the nine training camps, so here's your 9-for-9 on the Cobbers. Enjoy, and Fear the Ear!


No. 1 - So close
The Cobbers have clearly been one of the top three teams in the MIAC in recent years, but have come up just short of a conference title or NCAA Playoff bid. Concordia has gone 8-2 overall and 6-2 in the MIAC to finished tied for second place in each of the last two seasons. This year's team looks poised for more success, but the hunger for even more was palpable at Cobber camp. In fact, my visit to Concordia in 2014 reminded me a lot of my visit to Bethel in 2013 and it looked to me like I was seeing a team ready to take that final step to the top of the mountain.

No. 2 - Pass the ball...
In the NFL, two types of elite players get paid more than anyone else - players who pass the ball, and players who rush the passer. If that translates to the Division III college level, Concordia has to feel pretty good about the assets it has back. Senior QB Griffin Neal is back for his third year as a starter, and in my six training camp stops, his passing performance was hands-down the best I've seen. Pass after pass hit his intended target perfectly in stride, and he has the combination of experience and physical gifts to write an incredible final chapter to an already-great career.

No. 3 - Rush the passer
On the other side of the ball, Senior DE Nate Adams is back after winning the 2013 MIAC Mike Stam Award as the conference's best lineman - on either side of the ball. His nine sacks were three more than anyone in the MIAC and his 17.5 tackles-for-a-loss were five more than the next-best total. With Adams making it difficult for other QBs to breathe and Neal back under center, Concordia is set at two pretty important positions.

The Cobbers hope for lots of big plays like this
one in the passing game in 2014.
No. 4 - Top target (hopefully) back
Last year, Brandon Zylstra joined his QB on the All-MIAC First Team, and his athletic displays at wideout and on special teams were among the best in the league. He was featured multiple times in the MIAC Play-of-the-Week contest and had 41 catches for 774 yards and seven receiving TDs. He suffered an injury this summer and hasn't been in pads yet, but the Cobbers are hopeful he's close to returning to the field. If he comes back 100 percent, Concordia has an explosive weapon back on the edge and in the return game and he could improve on those impressive stats from a year ago.

No. 5 - Searching for more smash mouth
With a QB like Neal, it's natural to gravitate towards a game plan with the ball in his hands, but traditionally the Cobbers have featured more of a smash-mouth run game on offense, so it was odd to see Concordia's top backs all the way down at No. 15 and 16 on the MIAC rushing leaderboard. Neal actually led the team and ranked 11th in the MIAC with 496 yards and eight TDs on the ground, but this season a storyline in Moorhead will be whether a reliable every-down back can help balance out the offense and increase its potency.

No. 6 - New faces on defense
While Adams is back to lead the Cobber defense, the unit lost some key players to graduation and will lean on some new players to fill in for some major production. Corner Kenyon O'Brien and LB Tyler Berling are gone after All-MIAC careers, and O'Brien was an Honorable Mention All-American a season ago. The Cobber defense was fifth in the league in scoring and sixth in yards allowed, and will hope to move back into the upper echelon in those categories in 2014 to balance out its high-powered offense.

No. 7 -Cobber kicking game
Concordia will certainly benefit from having reliable All-MIAC kicker Ben Wagner back in 2013. The senior set a school record with 78 consecutive PATs that split the upright, and he's 85-for-86 on PATs each of the last two seasons. However, All-Conference punter Brett Harmelink has graduated, so Concordia will be auditioning a replacement with the hopes that the kicking game can still be a huge strength in all facets.

Concordia hopes to take another step forward
after finished second in 2012 and 2013.
No. 8 - Festive atmosphere
Last year, most of the teams I visited were blasting music throughout practice to help the players stay energetic and engaged and to supply a simulation of the noise they'll face on the road on game days. This year, practices I visited had been much quieter ... until I got to Moorhead. Music blared and the coaches and players were in high spirits. When the team went 7-on-7 or full squad, the offense and defense clearly wanted to get the best of one another. The team wasn't in full pads, but the energy was cranked up to 11.

No. 9 - Limit mistakes and play hard
When I spoke to Head Coach Terry Horan and Adams at practice, both stressed that the team needed to limit mistakes and stay sharp for all 60 minutes to take that next step into the Playoffs or first place in the MIAC. Thanks to an NCAA-allowed foreign tour last spring, the Cobbers enjoyed practice and exhibitions and feel that helped them heading into this fall's camp. Because it didn't take as long to get up to speed, they're focused on those details that can seem small, but can actually make a big difference between winning and losing. And for a Concordia team with tons of star power back, those details could again be the difference between a trip to the Playoffs, or Thanksgiving at home.

2014 MIAC Football Training Camp Tour
Aug. 25 - Bethel
Aug. 28 - Saint John's
Aug. 29 - Concordia

2014 Training Camp Tour - SJU

After opening the MIAC Football Training Camp Tour Monday with a blog and video from Bethel's first practice, MIAC Media hit the road Tuesday to visit Saint John's and Concordia, and Wednesday brought a shorter drive to St. Thomas. Today's blog and video are from the tour's second stop at Saint John's, as I checked in with the Johnnies during a picture-perfect afternoon session in Collegeville. Since we'll be visiting nine camps in all, I'm providing nine observations on each team as I make my rounds throughout the MIAC. 

My 9-for-9 takes on the Johnnies are below, as is a video from their practice.
Friday I'll be visiting both Northfield schools - both St. Olaf and Carleton - and will be at Gustavus Monday afternoon. Next week, I'll finish the tour at Augsburg and Hamline as camps wind to a close. Expect the Concordia recap and video on Friday, and St. Thomas to follow this weekend.


No. 1 - Smooth transition
Everyone had their eyes on the Johnnies in 2013 as they entered the season under a coach other than John Gagliardi for the first time in nearly 70 years. After going 5-5 in 2012, the team improved by two games and beat arch rival St. Thomas, and it's safe to say the first year of the Gary Fasching era was a success with a 7-3 record. Now that Fasching enters year two as the head man and that year of transition is in the rear-view mirror, it will be interesting to see how his coaching style shapes the program moving forward. However, it was fitting that college football's all-time wins leader, while no longer coaching, was watching over practice from his suite high above the stands while the program he built still observed may of the traditions (most famously, no hitting in practice) that turned the Johnnies into a national powerhouse.

No. 2 - Johnnie Magic
It's easy to say that SJU improved by two wins on a pair of field goals ... a last-second make in the season opener to beat UW-River Falls, 17-14, and a last-second miss by the Tommies to give the Johnnies a 20-18 win in their rivalry showdown in St. Paul. SJU also scored a two-point win over Augsburg, and a six-point win over Hamline in 2013. The red-and-white faithful were quick to say that Johnnie magic was back, and the team certainly performed admirably in the closing minutes of both games. Those last-second wins can fuel confidence, and if SJU is in a tight spot this season, they know they've prevailed in those circumstances before.

No. 3 - New look offense
Offensive coordinator Kurt Ramler is off to a head coaching position with St. Scholastica, so that means offensive duties will return to the hands of Jim Gagliardi, and any new wrinkles that fans noticed a year ago may have headed for Duluth with Ramler. It will be interesting to observe how the offense adjusts going back under Gagliardi's care, but in Collegeville, that name will certainly go a long way.

Josh Bungum hauls in a one-handed
catch during Tuesday's practice.
No. 4 - Keep throwing
Don't let his 5-9 stature fool you - wide receiver Josh Bungum can ball. The All-MIAC Second Team pick at WR set a new school record for receptions by a sophomore in 2013 with 84 catches, and he's already got 126 grabs in his career. He had 790 receiving yards as well, and he'll be a focal point of the Johnnie offense again in 2014. Oh, and that sophomore receiving record he broke? The previous best was 72 catches by a guy name Blake Elliott in 2001.

No. 5 - Keep kicking
Bungum wasn't the only Johnnie to write his name in the history books in 2013. Kicker Alexi Johnson burst onto the scene with 11 field goals - the most ever by a rookie SJU kicker. His mark also tied the overall school record. The sophomore will need just five more field goals to become the Johnnies' career leader. Not only is his leg a weapon in the red zone, he also proved to be clutch with his 40-yard game winner with two seconds left to beat UWRF, and his kicks were huge in a three-point win over UW-Eau Claire, a two-point win over the Tommies, a two-point win over Augsburg and a six-point win over Hamline.

No. 6 - Special front seven
The Johnnies showed big improvement on defense last year, as they allowed just 17.6 points per game to rank third in the MIAC, and their 336.0 yards allowed per game ranked fourth in the conference. Expect that unit to continue to improve in 2014, led by a pair of key returners in the front seven. All-MIAC LB Andrew Rose is back along with his 85 tackles and nine tackles-for-a-loss, and Matt Workman returns to the defensive line after racking up 10.5 TFL and five sacks a year ago.

No. 7 - Rookie contributions
Fasching and his staff are extremely happy with their incoming freshmen class, which includes numerous Minnesota state all-stars. However, they also went outside the region to find some speed and athleticism at the skill positions, and it wouldn't be surprising at all to see a handful of freshmen step in and contribute from the first snap. Keep an eye on SJU's newcomers ... how quickly they adapt to the college game could be the key to the team taking that next step back into title contention.

The SJU coaches do a great job keeping
all 191 players involved in practice.
No. 8 - Keeping 191 involved
Attending practice at Saint John's is quite a sight, with 191 players on the roster as of my visit on Tuesday. Kudos to the coaches for keeping that many players interested an engaged. It's really something to see a passing drill with three sets of five quarterbacks each throwing to almost an endless crop of receivers, while the rest of the positions break out to work on fundamentals all around them on the perimeter of the field. My stop in SJU in 2013 came on freshman orientation day, so I didn't see the full squad in action. It was a sight to see. On the flip side, it's crazy to be in Clemens stadium where the only attendees are the players. I'm used to seeing 6,000 or 7,000 red-and-white clad fans filling the stadium, so it was certainly a unique perspective to see the place outside of game day.

No. 9 - Measured progress
Progress is usually measured by wins and losses, but this year Saint John's could take a significant step forward and see the same numbers in the standings. The Johnnies play two WIAC schools - River Falls and Eau Claire again - in the nonconference season and will have extremely tough tests against St. Thomas, Bethel and Concordia, and don't forget that the Johnnies were beaten by Gustavus in 2013. It's possible that SJU could take a big step forward in Fasching's second season, but a 7-3 or 6-4 record could still be the result based on the schedule. Fans will need to look beyond the record and use their eyes to gauge the progress in 2014. How did the Johnnies play against the Tommies, Cobbers and Royals? Did they roll against a pair of UW schools? Augsburg and Gustavus are hoping for a similar step forward, so those games will be key as well. Johnnie fans continually have championship aspirations, and the team could certainly contend for - or even win - the MIAC title in 2014, but Fasching told me the two-game jump from 7-3 to 9-1 is a lot bigger than the one the team made last year, so it makes a lot of sense to judge this team not only by results, but also by the game day product.

2014 MIAC Football Training Camp Tour
Aug. 25 - Bethel
Aug. 28 - Saint John's

2014 Training Camp Tour - Bethel

Last summer, I set out to visit as many MIAC football preseason camps as I could in two days. It was certainly a success, as I visited five teams - Augsburg, Bethel, Hamline, Saint John's and St. Thomas - in less than 48 hours, and the result was some great video footage and some serious insights into the preparation our teams were putting in as they prepared for the upcoming season.

In fact, it was so valuable, this year I decided to try and up the ante and visit all nine MIAC football teams between their first practice and their first game, with a blog and a video from each of the nine visits. The videos will include some interviews and highlights, and the blog will include "9-for-9" ... nine observations from each of the nine training camps.

The 2014 MIAC Football Fall Camp Tour started Friday, and I started in style with a visit to the defending champs, Bethel University. I'm still ironing out the rest of the schedule, but tomorrow (Tuesday, Aug. 26) I'll be heading to Saint John's and Concordia, I'll be at St. Thomas Wednesday (Aug. 27) and will be out on the road as well on Friday and Saturday.

Since the Royals are the only MIAC team with a Week 1 bye (they don't play until Sept. 13 against Wartburg), they were in their first full day of practice when I stopped by their morning session and talked to Head Coach Steve Johnson and Senior QB Erik Peterson. Without further adieu, here's my "9-for-9" with the defending champs and a video.


No. 1 - New territory for defending champs
Bethel has clearly been one of the MIAC's best teams since I arrived here in 2010, with numerous second-place finishes and some NCAA Playoff success. However, they had finished second behind St. Thomas each of previous three seasons before breaking through with a MIAC title in 2013. Both Peterson and Johnson told me it was a little different to be the defending champion rather than the challenger, but it seems they're adjusting well to the new role. It always helps to have the MIAC MVP back under center and several other key pieces in place to keep the team grounded and looking ahead, when the temptation to look back at an amazing 2013 season certainly has to be there.

No. 2 - M-V-P, M-V-P
As Coach Johnson said to me (and it's in the video), it's always good to have the MVP back, especially when the MVP is under center. Peterson showed his potential as a sophomore starter, then put it all together last year to the tune of 3,034 yards, 24 touchdowns, just seven INTs and a 70.2 completion percentage. However, some of Peterson's favorite targets have moved on, so seeing how the senior and reigning MVP fares in his senior season will be a serious storyline to watch. In fact ...

No. 3 - Altering the offense ... again
Anyone familiar with Bethel football expects great defense and a power running game, not necessarily a 3,000-yard passer. However, the 2013 Royals were blessed with tremendous weapons at receiver, including Mitch Hallstrom, who was invited to Vikings Rookie Camp. This year's receiving corps is talented, but young and unproven. However, Peterson will benefit from All-MIAC RB Brandon Marquardt (1,146 rushing yards, 17 TDs) and his game-breaking speed among a stable of talented running backs. Don't be surprised if - even with the MVP back under center - Bethel shifts its playcalling back towards the run, with the backs also involved in the passing attack. Peterson's passing stats may take a slight hit this season, but the offense may be just as balanced and potent as it was a year ago.

No. 4 - The face of the defense
Bethel's offense isn't the only unit that could evolve. The face of the Bethel defense for the past four years - All-American LB Seth Mathis - has graduated and the focus may shift from the linebacking corps to the defensive backs. The Royals still anticipate having a very stout defense, but it's possible their star power will reside in the secondary. DBs Josh Treimer and Matt Mehlhorn are both solid, and showcase big-play ability, and should help against both the run and the pass. Expect an athletic, exciting secondary driving the defense this season.

No. 5 - Next Mathis up
Seth Mathis graduated, along with his All-American and All-MIAC honors, but there will still be a Mathis patrolling the field for the Royal defense in 2014. Landon Mathis racked up 99 total tackles a year ago, and was 10th in the MIAC with 7.6 tackles per game in 2013. The younger brother also had two sacks, 4.5 TFL, two forced fumbles and two INTs a year ago. He could improve on those numbers - and on his impact - now while filling some of the void left by his brother's graduation.

No. 6 - Replacements on the line
Another area affected by graduation was the Royals' always-stout offensive line. A pair of All-MIAC First Team linemen - Jeff Schmidt and Bubba Friedlund - have both graduated. Senior Joshua Perkins - a Second Team pick a year ago - will anchor a unit that will have to replace a few key spots. How the new pieces fit in and get up to speed will be a big factor in whether or not Bethel averages 40 points per game again in 2014.

No. 7 - Putting the puzzle together
Coach Johnson told me after practice Friday that Bethel has some exciting new pieces in place, but part of the challenge of fall camp is figuring out how the talent fits in, and how the new players pick up the scheme and maximize their abilities. With all the graduations - especially at WR a year ago - there will be opportunities for new faces to make plays in 2014, so it will be interesting to see how the newcomers mesh with Peterson and Marquardt and the other returning stars. If Peterson completes 70 percent of his passes again, chances are a few new Royals will have burst onto the scene.

No. 8 - Big game ability
Bethel won the MIAC title a year ago thanks to a knack for prevailing in close games. The Royals staved off upset-minded Augsburg, 31-28, and stopped St. Thomas short of the goal line on the final play of the game to score a 28-21 win over the Tommies. Bethel also beat Wartburg twice - 30-17 in the opener, and 34-27 in the second round of the Playoffs. The Royals open their season against Wartburg on Sept. 13, and face Concordia, St. Thomas and Saint John's during a six-week stretch in the middle of the season. If they're to run the table in the regular season again, they'll likely need to prevail in close games again in 2014.

No. 9 - Lessons in Leadership
I heard Coach Johnson talk about something that I've also heard another Minnesota college football coach - Minnesota's Jerry Kill - talk about throughout fall camp. Both have said that when the players become so experienced and ingrained in what the team is doing that they can start to police themselves, and motivate each other and hold each other accountable, that's when teams can really take off. While Kill has mentioned it in the context of the Gophers starting to do it this year, it's clear Bethel has already had that culture in place. It's a big reason the team reached the heights it did a year ago, and why they feel like 2014 could be just as prosperous. It should be another great season - and possibly even another season filled with big wins and a championship - in Arden Hills in 2014.