2015 MIAC FB Tour - Gustavus

By Matt Higgins, MIAC

Hopefully the official kickoff of the 2015 MIAC football season goes a little smoother - at least weather-wise - than the start of the 2015 MIAC Football Camp Tour. Mother Nature rained on my parade to St. Peter - literally - as I made my first visit of the tour to Gustavus. (Although the extremely hard rain made the drive home much more interesting ... I've never been happier to reach the MIAC office in one piece.)

Huge thanks to Gustavus Sports Information Director CJ Siewert & Asst. Sports Information Director Nick Hoelmer for showing up with umbrellas to help me out, and for getting me access to all the various indoor locations once the inclement weather set in. Thanks also to Head coach Peter Haugen, his staff and players for welcoming me into their camp for my first stop.

Despite the rain during the outdoor portion of practice, and the lightning that chased the practice indoors, the weather couldn't dampen the excitement of the first stop on the tour. It was actually really interesting to see a team adapt their practice on the fly due to the conditions, and I saw some new things due to the circumstances that I hadn't seen in previous years, and I'll outline my top four observations below with "Four Downs" from my trip to Gustavus. Also, check out the photo gallery and video from my trip to St. Peter (embedded below and on YouTube).

Gustavus QB Mitch Hendricks throws deep
during Tuesday's practice in St. Peter, Minn.
I got to see about 15 minutes of outdoor drills - mostly full team and seven-on-seven stuff before lightning sent the Gusties indoors, but both phases of Tuesday's practice revealed that this is a veteran, experienced team. Just three days into camp, they appear to pretty advanced, and worked on some very detailed, specific things. I saw some interesting special teams drills once they moved inside that I haven't seen too often - working on technique on kick/punt block, fielding kicks and punts on the hop, blocking downfield on punt return. It will be interesting to see Gustavus apply that attention to detail in game situations once the season kicks off.

Speaking of detailed, it's clear this team has been able to warp ahead during its offensive install. All-MIAC QB Mitch Hendricks (3,403 yards, 35 TDs) and preseason All-American WR Matt Boyce (1,170 yards, 17 TDs) are among the 10 starters back on offense, and the group's experience shows. Limited somewhat in the field house, the offense focused on getting in and out of formations and getting in play calls and audibles and, for the third day of camp, they looked extremely in-sync. Now a senior, Hendricks appears to have complete command of the offense, and it wouldn't be surprising to see the Gusties work on pushing the tempo and putting even more on his plate. After practice, Head Coach Peter Haugen, Hendricks and Boyce all referenced "offensive improvement," so if this unit really can get better after finishing second in the MIAC in scoring (37.9 poitns per game) and total offense (485.4 yards per game), that will be a sight to behold. Haugen described the defense as, "Young but very athletic," so the learning curve may be a bit steeper on that side of the ball, but if that athleticism can yield some improvements, the Gusties could have a pretty complete team.

Mother Nature forced Gustavus to move indoors Tuesday,
but the Gusties still got in a great practice.
A year ago, Gustavus raced out to an impressive 6-0 start, only to go 0-4 down the stretch against the MIAC's top four teams. The above-.500 finish was certainly solid, but the team had higher aspirations heading into the home stretch after its hot start. This year, the Gusties are likely facing a same script. They open with Crown on the road, home against Lake Forest, then face Hamline, Augsburg, Carleton and St. Olaf in their first four MIAC games, again closing with the murder's row of Saint John's, Bethel, Concordia and St. Thomas. It's clear this team feels its trending in the right direction, and another 6-0 start won't be a surprise, but those final four weeks will once again truly tell the tale of Gustavus' season. If they can find a way to flip a couple of those losses into wins, suddenly contention for a MIAC title and an NCAA Playoff bid become realities. If Gustavus could knock off either Saint John's or Bethel on the road to close October, it would make its final two games - both at home against Concordia and St. Thomas - extremely interesting and must-see events in St. Peter.

One of the coolest aspects of this camp tour is the all-access that our coaches are kind enough to grant me. I particularly enjoy hearing the coaches address the team at the end of each practice, which really helps get a feeling of how the staffs will guide their teams through camp and toward the first game. Two things really stuck out to me about Coach Haugen's post-practice talk today. No. 1 - the team had a pretty good laugh when a handful of guys were asked to stick around to re-do their bio forms due to poor handwriting. As a former SID, I really appreciated a coach doing that. But the second and bigger takeaway was the emphasis on building his team and bringing his guys together. He told his players to eat each meal during camp with a different teammate, or different group of teammates, so they all bond and get to know each other, and to be sure they integrate the new faces into inner fabric of the team. That might seem like a really small detail on Aug. 18, but starting to build those bonds now won't only make a difference on the field down the road, but they'll also develop into something these guys take with them long after their playing days are over.

The MIAC Football Camp Tour continues Wednesday as I head to Bethel for a visit with the Royals. The remainder of the schedule is listed below. I've been calling this a "tentative" schedule, but if today's storms didn't keep me away from Gustavus, I'm thinking this is pretty much finalized.

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 Facebook, Twitter 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 on Thursday most likely, so expect plenty of updates on your favorite teams in the coming days and weeks.

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