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.

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