2014 Training Camp Tour - GAC

The third time's the charm. I had planned to go to Gustavus for the eighth stop of the MIAC Football Training Camp Tour Saturday, but a change in practice time forced me to reschedule. Then I hoped to get there Monday, but they had another change that made it tough for me so, finally, on Tuesday I got down to St. Peter for a spirited, sharp practice on a beautiful sunny day.

The Gusties were one of the MIAC's most improved teams in 2013, finishing 6-4 overall and 4-4 in the conference for a fifth-place finish. Gustavus had won just five games total the previous two seasons, so last season's performance was a huge step in the right direction. Tuesday's practice revealed a team that is very aware of itself and eager to build on the success it had a season ago.

All good things must come to an end, and today I'll be making my ninth and final stop on the tour when I head to Augsburg to check in on the Auggies. Their blog and video will be online tomorrow, and I'll wrap it all up with a feature and compilation video on the MIAC site on Friday. In the meantime, check out all the blogs and videos on the camp tour home page, or by using the links at the bottom of the post. And here are my "Nine-for-Nine" takes - nine observations from each of the nine stops - on the Gusties.


No. 1 - Unique twists
Since it's my eighth stop, some of the practices were understandably starting to blend together, although Gustavus did several little things that seemed pretty unique that I didn't see anywhere else. The first thing was after the team wrapped up 11-on-11 scrimmaging, the offense and defense lined up and shook hands. I hadn't seen that at a football practice before, but I think it's a great reminder of good sportsmanship, and helps a team remember that even though they were just going up against one another, they're all still on the same team. The Gusties also did more conditioning at the end of practice than I had seen, which especially stood out since they were just four days from their first game. The other new wrinkles all came on defense, where defenders picked up every single loose ball, which I'll cover in depth later in the blog, and when they weren't hitting the linemen and linebackers were all trying to knock the ball loose, so turnovers appear to be an emphasis for the Gustie D. Also in the unique category? Gustavus was the first team that practiced while the entire theme from Star Wars blared over the speakers.

No. 2 - Rebuilding the run
A year ago, Gustavus was built around the running game. Now, they'll need to rebuild. Gone is star RB Jeffrey Dubose and four of the starters on the offensive line. Dubose scored 25 touchdowns last season and led the MIAC in points scored (150) with 30 more than anyone else in the league. He was second in the league in rushing by a single yard with 1,459, and his average of 5.5 yards per carry ranked No. 2 in the MIAC as well. He was an All-Region (First Team) and All-American (Honorable Mention) selection and graduated with school records in rushing yards (3,419) and rushing touchdowns (41). In addition, All-MIAC First Team linemen David Gschneidner and Lyle Opdahl were also among the four starting OL to depart. Those are some really big shoes to fill. How Gustavus rebuilds its run game and restores its identity will be a huge storyline in 2014.

QB Mitch Hendricks is back to lead the Gustie offense.
No. 3 - Going up-tempo
Part of the answer to how the Gustavus offense will replace those missing pieces could be partly addressed by the scheme. Though Dubose and most of the line graduated, starting QB Mitch Hendricks is back after throwing for nearly 2,000 yards last season with a good 61.2 completion percentage that ranked third in the league. Two of his top targets from a year ago - Matt Boyce and George Buchner - are also back, and the Gusties are excited about their speed and athleticism on offense. Expect to see this team air it out more in 2014, and pick up the tempo as they adapt to fit the strengths of their personnel.

No. 4 - Reloading the defense
Gustavus was also hit pretty hard with losses on the defensive side of the ball, but the team feels good about the returning talent coming back and thinks it can be just as good - if not better - on defense this season thanks to its team approach. All-MIAC First Team DL Donte Green and ILB Joe Haas and Second Team DB Torey Asao all graduated, and First Team DB Zach Dilger suffered an injury and won't play in 2014. However, Second Team OLB Anthony Boyce is back after making 37 tackles and several big plays a season ago, as is senior defensive end Cameron Cropsey and his team-leading 13 TFL and 59 total tackles. The team also returns its third- and fourth-leading tacklers in DB Jake Forcier and LB Matt Keller. Rather than rebuild, the Gustie defense could be in position to reload. Last year's unit ranked fourth in scoring and third in yardage in the MIAC, and a similar performance would be a big catalyst to more success.

No. 5 - Speed kills
The Gusties are feeling so good about their chances on defense thanks to their team speed, and their commitment to get as many guys to the ball as possible. Forcier told me that their motto is, "Gusties swarm," and they pride themselves in being fast to the ball and working as a unit. As I mentioned in No. 1, the Gustie defense literally leaves no loose ball uncovered during drills, be it an incomplete pass, fumble, or even just an offense player dropping the ball after the whistle. The Gusties have been coached to flock to any loose ball they see and treat it as a chance to return it to the house. The Gusties were second in the MIAC with 16 interceptions last season, but dead last with six fumble recoveries, so this approach is Not only are they hoping this will help the team create takeaways and be prepared to be opportunistic when a loose ball emerges, but it also helps foster the team-first mindset of getting everyone to the ball. This approach could certainly lead to a few scoop-and-scores this season, but the bigger picture could be the way it fosters intensity and teamwork on the Gustavus defense. clearly an effort to increase those numbers.

The Gustavus defense wants to play fast and physical.
No. 6 - 'Committed to the process'
With last season's improvement to 6-4, Coach Haugen and his squad saw their plan working the way they envisioned, and he told me it's important they stay the course and keep working on the things they've implemented and trusted to get them this far. He said it was important that, regardless of last year's results, the program stays, "committed to the process," and continue building on the tenets that have gotten them to this point. Lineman Zach Vine and Forcier both talked about the work the team did in the offseason, and how they felt that work was evident from the first snap of fall camp, so it appears the whole squad is committed and all pulling in the same direction.

No. 7 - Keeping it close
Last season, Gustavus was no stranger to close games, as half of their 10 games were decided by eight points or less. The team suffered narrow losses to Augsburg (19-16) and nearly beat two of the MIAC's elite teams, losing 20-12 to St. Thomas 38-31 to Concordia in the season's final game. However, they also won a couple close ones too, beating Simpson 28-21 to open the season and scoring a 23-20 double-overtime win over Saint John's. That experience in those barn burners - especially for a returning QB like Hendricks - will be big in 2014. If Gustavus can keep it close into the fourth quarter, it will have plenty of experience playing in big spots, and a couple more wins in those scenarios could mean contending for a MIAC title. Forcier told me the theme of camp has been: "Finish strong," so the team knows how important it will be to play its best in the biggest moments.

No. 8 - Seeking a "signature" win
Along the lines of No. 7, Gustavus came extremely close to knocking off ranked opponents in St. Thomas and Concordia a year ago. To take that next step, the Gusties will focus on beating the other teams joining them in the middle of the pack - Saint John's, Augsburg and Carleton - and trying to knock off the likes of the Cobbers, Tommies or even defending champion Bethel. If they can beat one - or more - of those teams it would serve as a signature, and potentially even season-defining, win, and could be what propels Gustavus to the next level.

No. 9 - Build momentum
The Gusties open at home against Crown, then hit the road to face Lake Forest and open MIAC play against Hamline. That should give Gustavus a chance to start the season strong. If the Gusties play well from the get-go, they have a chance to potentially start with anywhere from four to six wins in their first six games, and game No. 7 will be against Saint John's - a team Gustavus beat a year ago. Lots of wins and lots of confidence will be crucial for the Gusties, as their final three games are all against the MIAC's top three teams from a year ago, with the final two on the road. Gustavus ends with Bethel at home, then on the road at Concordia and St. Thomas. That's a brutal final stretch, but if the Gusties build momentum over the season's opening weeks, there could be a ton on the line for those big late-season showdowns.

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
Sept. 1 - Carleton
Sept. 2 - Hamline
Sept. 3 - Gustavus

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