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

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