Friday was the first two-for-one of the 2015 MIAC Football Camp Tour with a great trip to Northfield, Minn., to visit both St. Olaf and Carleton. First top was Ole camp, as I caught the first half of practice, and then I headed over to catch the latter part of the Knights' workout. It was a nice, sunny day for some football, even if the winds were swirling (evidenced by the audio on the videos).
We'll check in with St. Olaf first so we stay in chronological order, and I'll follow with a report from Carleton camp tomorrow. The Oles appeared to be a loose, optimistic bunch. They went with some high-tempo offensive team drills first to work on the playbook, while the defenders buckled down on fundamentals. St. Olaf has a lot of key pieces back in critical positions, a few questions on the defensive line and at receiver, and hopes to improve on the 2-18 record over the past two seasons.
My top four observations from Friday's practice are below in "Four Downs" and be sure to check out our updated photo gallery with some images from practice (from both stops), as well as a video withhighlights and interviews with Head Coach Craig Stern, RB J.J. Strnad, LB Colten Yahn and QBs Nate Penz & Jack Goldstein.
DL Colin Brown was one of the MIAC's brightest defensive stars a year ago with 16.5 tackles-for-a-loss, and St. Olaf will have to replace him and some other key members of the defensive line, but the Oles have a lot back on defense and hope to dial things up on that side of the ball in 2015. LB Yahn (38 tackles, 3 TFL) and DB Coleman Foley (95 tackles, 3 sacks) both earned All-MIAC Second Team honors as sophomores, and they're ready to lead an athletic, aggressive unit in 2015 that returns 10 of its top 12 tacklers from a year ago.
SECOND DOWN - Strnad steps up
St. Olaf is looking for a breakout star on offense, and it just might have one in the backfield in Strnad. The senior went over 1,000 all-purpose yards a year ago (743 rushing, 257 receiving, 18 kick return) and he gives the Oles a big, physical talented back that could be the engine that drives the offense. He showed his durability and versatility and could be a huge factor on the ground, and catching passes out of the backfield. St. Olaf has a big offensive line and it wouldn't be surprising to see St. Olaf ride Strnad and focus more on the ground in 2015. The team will also be looking for playmakers on the outside after graduating WR Joel Reinhardt last season, so if another No. 1 target can emerge on the outside, the Oles could have the pieces to score some serious points.
This marked the second stop on the tour with an open battle for the starting QB slot, but this one is a little difference because the incumbent is in the race. Penz is a senior and has started for the previous two seasons, but Stern likes the development of sophomore Goldstein and both are getting reps with the No. 1 offense. Penz (1,671 yards, 10 TDs in 2014) has shown some great flashes during his two seasons as a starter, but after going 1-9 in each of the last two seasons, Stern and his staff are exploring every option to give the Oles the best chance to win. Competition is always a good thing, so if Penz retains the job, the battle will likely test him and get him fully prepared for the season. If Goldstein's the guy, he'll clearly have had a great camp to unseat a two-year starter and will be ready for the spotlight. Either way, having two capable QBs offers both hope and insurance.
FOURTH DOWN - Fun, fun, fun
The prevailing theme from my interviews and my observations on Friday were that this Ole team is having some serious fun. I was there early before practice started, and got to watch the team filter in and interact with one another and the coaching staff. To a man, each player I spoke with talked about how much more fun they're having this season, both during practices and in their time together off the field. Stern said that the closeness they're developing outside of practice is filtering into their workouts and building a strong, deep bond throughout the team. The Oles clearly want more tangible success in terms of wins in 2015, and they're hoping the closeness permeating throughout the roster brings them closer together to persevere through the ups and downs of the season and, ultimately, help them prevail when they face their biggest challenges.
CAMP TOUR CONTINUES FRIDAY
The MIAC Football Camp Tour continues Monday with a short trip across the metro area to St. Paul for my first look at the 2015 St. Thomas squad. 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.