2015 MIAC FB Tour - Concordia

By Matt Higgins, MIAC

In late August, I visited nine schools in nine days and traveled a total of nearly 800 miles. And it was all totally worth it. As I file my ninth and final report from the 2015 MIAC Football Camp Tour, it's safe to say the annual trip around the league was again a rousing success, and hopefully the blogs and videos have everyone ready to see their favorite team in action starting tonight or Saturday.

That's right, the kickoff of the MIAC football season is upon us. Bethel starts things off at UW-Stout tonight (Thursday, Aug. 3) at 7 p.m., and the other eight teams make their 2015 debuts on Saturday. Follow all the action on the MIAC football scoreboard.

The camp tour concluded on Wednesday, Aug. 26, with the second half of my two-stop trip in Moorhead, Minn. I got to Concordia practice early for an impressive display by a Cobber team with annual high aspirations. 2015 will be no different, as the team returns a ton of talent but aims to replace one of the best QBs in school history. Griffin Neal is gone, but there I saw plenty of other reasons to be optimistic around Cobber camp.

My top four observations from last Wednesday's practice are below in "Four Downs" and be sure to check out our updated photo gallery with some images from Cobber practice, as well as a video with highlights and interviews with Head Coach Terry Horan, WR Brandon Zylstra and LB Levi Hintermeister.

Concordia has plenty of playmakers back
to fuel high hopes for the 2015 season.
FIRST DOWN - Next up after Neal
The top storyline in Cobber camp all season has been who will replace graduated star QB Griffin Neal, who started and excelled for three years and had a career record of 24-6 as a starter. After a spirited, three-man competition for the starting spot, Horan gave the nod to Alex Grove for Saturday's opener against Jamestown. During my visit, I thought Grove looked comfortable in the offense and threw some really nice passes, especially the intermediate routes. The junior from Willmar spent the last two seasons learning under Neal and preparing for this opportunity. All eyes will be on him when the Cobbers cruise into the 2015 season. His play will certainly go a long way toward determining the team's success ... but he won't be alone in the spotlight.

SECOND DOWN - Surrounded by Standouts
Grove may be a new starter at QB, but he walks into a dream situation for a new signal-caller. He's got two All-MIAC wide receivers back and four of five starters on the offensive line. Last season, Jon Baune and Brandon Zylstra combined for 77 catches, 985 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns. Zylstra - one of the MIAC's most athletic and electric players - started the season with an injury but both are at full strength and ready for even bigger things as a senior. Horan stressed that Grove just needs to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers and let them do the rest, and with a veteran offensive line up front and experience in the backfield as well, the new QB finds himself surrounded by a ton of talent to ease the transition. If Grove can avoid the big mistakes and make the smart, efficient reads, the Cobber offense should continue to hum.

The Cobber defense works on tackling
fundamentals during last Wednesday's practice.
THIRD DOWN - Tackling machines
The Cobber defense was stout again in 2014, and despite some holes to fill on the defensive line - including 2013 Mike Stam Award winner Nate Adams - the team is loaded at linebacker and at defensive back. Erik Bye and Hintermeister shared the team lead with 54 tackles apiece last season, and both returns as senior captains and will be a huge key to the Concordia defense. Horan is also pleased with all the talent in the secondary, which he thinks improved throughout the season a year ago. I was really impressed with the way Concordia both stressed and coached fundamentals on defense during my visit to camp. They had several stations that focused on tackling, and even though it was the second week of camp guys were being coached up like it was the first day in pads. I was impressed with both the technique, and the safety, being employed by the defensive staff. Now it's easy to see why the Cobbers run out such sure tacklers every year. Concordia had the second-best scoring defense (17.3 ppg) and total defense (331.3 ypg) a year ago, and there's no reason to think the Cobbers won't be every bit as lethal on that side of the ball again in 2015.

FOURTH DOWN - 8-2 and beyond
Horan said before practice that they've certainly enjoyed their recent success . Concordia has finished 8-2 each of the past three seasons and was the only team to knock off MIAC champion Saint John's in the regular season in 2014. However, he said each of the past three teams were just a couple plays away from making a really nice run to either the MIAC title or into the NCAA Playoffs - or both - and he's right. This year the Cobbers expect to be in the mix again with the Johnnies, St. Thomas and Bethel, and will undoubtedly find themselves in close games and key situations against the MIAC's elite. If they reverse their fortunes in those big games, this could be the season the Cobbers take that next step. With strong senior playmakers on offense and a veteran defense, they'll lean heavily on their leadership in those big spots, and all that's left is to see how they respond.

The MIAC Football Camp Tour has hit each of the nine schools, and just in time as the season officially kicks off tonight with Bethel visiting UW-Stout at  7 p.m., and the rest of the MIAC kicking off their seasons on Saturday. Below is the date I visited each school during the preseason trip around the conference, and be sure to visit the tour home page to see the blogs and videos from each stop on the tour to prepare for this weekend's games.

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.

Re-live or discuss the tour on social media, as we've been posting on on FacebookTwitter and Instagram at each stop, and used the hashtag #MIACcamptour for both our football and volleyball treks around the MIAC. Kelsey has also done a great job on the first-ever MIAC Volleyball Camp Tour as well, and you can follow her progress on the blog or the Volleyball Camp Tour home page.

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