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

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