2015 MIAC FB Tour - Bethel

By Matt Higgins, MIAC

Two days, two stops, two thunderstorms, two indoor practices. I'm starting to wonder if I'm bad luck...

Wednesday (Aug. 19) took the MIAC Football Camp Tour to Arden Hills, Minn., and Bethel University, where the Royals were in their first day of full-pad workouts. However, that excitement was tampered a little by the move indoors into the Sports and Recreation Center. Regardless, the team was excited for ramping up the contact (especially the defense) as it worked on a wide range of things from fundamental drills to an 11-on-11 scrimmage.

As always, it's great to see Head Coach Steve Johnson and his staff work with their guys. Few are better at building a culture within their program, and it doesn't take long for that culture to become apparent during a visit to a Bethel practice. My top four observations from Wednesday's workout are listed below with "Four Downs," and check out photos and a video from the visit as well.

Yesterday the Fargo Forum had a great piece on the three-man race to replace departed Concordia QB Griffin Neal, and Bethel finds itself in the exact same situation. Gone is three-year starter and former MIAC MVP Erik Peterson, which means the Royals will have a new face under center in 2015. How both Bethel and Concordia reload at the QB spot is one of the biggest questions in the whole conference this season, and how each team answers that question could make a big different in the balance of power at the top of the standings.

Joey Lee (4) is one of three QBs competing
for the Bethel starting job in 2015.
The Royals, a few days into practice, are locked in an entertaining three-man race for the job, with each showing very different levels of experience. Senior QB Andrew Dzurik transferred in last year from Division I Lafayette and sophomore QB Joey Lee also has a year in the Bethel system, while freshman Trey Anderson has also inserted himself into the conversation. Will they go with Dzurik and his experience while the other two get a year to learn, or will they go with youth in either Lee or Anderson? Wednesday, I thought all three certainly had highlights and couldn't really distinguish a leader from my vantage point.

Whoever Bethel names as its starting QB will have the benefit of plenty of returning weapons around him. The Royals return not one, but two, workhorse running backs in senior Marshall Klitzke (859 rushing yards, 12 rushing TDs) and sophomore Bridgeport Tusler (812 total yards, 11 total TDs), and junior WR Bryce Marquardt (56 catches, 933 yards, 13 TDs) leads a dynamic group of receivers that can go three- and four-deep. With Klitzke and Tusler in the backfield and its usually stout offensive line, expect Bethel to shift back to more of a run-heavy offense that had become more balanced in recent years with Peterson's passing ability. And when Bethel does take to the air, it could be more in the form of quick-hitting, high-percentage passes both to ease the new QBs transition and to get the ball into the hands of its speedy playmakers as soon as possible. It will be really fun to see how this offense comes together and develops its plan of attack.

Head Coach Steve Johnson teaches technique
to the Bethel defensive linemen Wednesday.
Bethel's identity is always built around a stout, aggressive defense and the 2015 team shouldn't be any different, but the team will look back at 2014 and notice one area where they need to get better - passing defense. The Royals had the top-ranked run-stuffing unit in the MIAC last year (108.8 yards allowed per game), but they were seventh against the pass (225.9) and fourth in scoring (23.0) and overall (334.7) defense. Now, part of those numbers are thrown out of whack by the season-ending 62-61 record-setting loss against Augsburg, which was basically played on an ice rink, but with several MIAC teams looking to unleash an aerial assault in 2015, how Bethel fares against the pass could be a huge indicator of success. The defense starts with senior LB Landon Mathis (64 tackles), and he'll have experience and talent behind him in fellow seniors Matt Mehlhorn (51 tackles, 7 pass breakups) and Daniel Leidall (70 tackles), so expect those upperclassmen to shoulder an even bigger load and lead the way for the Royals this fall.

This was my third time at a Bethel practice, and I'm always amazed at how consistent the message and the culture is from Johnson all the way down through the coaching staff and the roster. During my interviews with Johnson, Klitzke and Senior DB Daniel Liedall, all three said some form of one of Johnson's catchphrases, "You gotta live it." As he explained it to me, his team can't put forth one effort during practice and weight lifting and other workouts, and expect a better effort and result on game day. They need to ingrain a level of excellence on a day-to-day basis, so it becomes second nature when they need it most. You can see this in the team's attention to detail, in the way they approach each drill and repetition, and in the palpable camaraderie throughout the squad. They're definitely "living it" and it will be really exciting to see how that translates to wins and losses on Saturdays, especially with a huge home nonconference showdown looming with a great Wartburg team in Week 2 and a daunting slate in October and early November.

The MIAC Football Camp Tour continues Thursday as I head to Minneapolis for a late-morning session at Augsburg. The full camp tour schedule is listed below with my date that I'll be visiting each team, and expect a blog and video to go online a day or two after each stop.

Tuesday, Aug. 18 -Gustavus - St. Peter, Minn.
Wednesday, Aug. 19 - Bethel - Arden Hills, Minn.
Thursday, Aug. 20 - Augsburg - Minneapolis, Minn.
Friday, Aug. 21 - St. Olaf and Carleton - Northfield, Minn.
 Monday, Aug. 24 - St. Thomas - St. Paul, Minn.
Tuesday, Aug. 25 - Hamline - St. Paul, Minn.
Wednesday, Aug. 26-  Saint John's and Concordia - Collegeville and Moorhead, Minn.

Follow along with the tour on social media, as I'll be posting on FacebookTwitter and Instagram at each stop, and we'll be using the hashtag #MIACcamptour for both our football and volleyball treks around the MIAC. Kelsey will be starting the volleyball tour today as well with her first stop, which will be at Macalester, so stay tuned to the blog and YouTube channel for information from each stop.

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