Last Wednesday I finished off the 2015 MIAC Football CampTour where it all started. In 2013, Gary Fasching was taking over as the Saint John's head coach and we wanted to do a "changing of the guard" story on our site after he took over from the legendary John Gagliardi. So to do my interviews & research, I went up to Collegeville for a day, took in practice, talked to coaches and players and gathered the info I needed for my story.
My time at practice was even more enjoyable and insightful than I could have predicted, which led to me reaching out to a few other coaches and hitting a few other camps that fall. Last year (2014), we expanded it to include all nine teams, and here we are doing it again with a side of volleyball in 2015.
In my three visits to Saint John's, things have evolved a lot. The 2013 trip revealed a team hoping to improve, which it did to 7-3. Last year, the team hoped to take the next step, which it did with a 9-1 regular season, the MIAC title and a trip to the second round of the NCAA Playoffs. This year, there are a ton of major pieces back in place surrounded by another strong recruiting effort, and the Johnnies find themselves back in the role of the hunted, rather than the hunter. But along with that comes even bigger expectations, and the team revealed many of the same strengths that made them so good a year ago, while working to polish things up in a few areas.
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 Saint John's practice, as well as a video with highlights and interviews with Head Coach Gary Fasching, RB Sam Sura and LB Carter Hanson.
|The Saint John's defense hopes to be|
among the MIAC's best again in 2015.
The 2014 MIAC MVP is back in the Johnnie backfield, so everything starts with Sam Sura's senior campaign. A year ago, he defined the term "workhorse," leading the MIAC in carries (301), rushing yards (1,769), rushing yards per game (147.4), and rushing touchdowns (19). However, Sura suffered an injury in a second-round Playoff loss to Wartburg and it completely altered SJU's game plan. This year, keeping him fresh and healthy for the team's biggest spots will be a key, so don't expect him to tote the rock more than 300 times again. He told me that he's happy to help out in the passing game or block if it helps the offense, but he's also ready to carry the load again if needed. Coach Fasching stressed the need for more balance this season, but it's got to feel pretty good knowing the MIAC MVP is there and ready to finish his career in remarkable fashion when you need him.
SECOND DOWN - Read your Keys
Aside from Sura, SJU can credit last year's title to a remarkable season on defense. The Johnnies led the MIAC in scoring defense (12.6 ppg allowed), yards allowed (325.4 ppg), interceptions (22), fumble recoveries (12) and was third in sacks (20). All-MIAC First Team LB Carter Hanson talked about how the Johnnies work on reading and reacting ... they work to combine the mental side of the game with the physical, and last season, the reads were often right and the reactions led to big stops or turnovers. The team has graduated a few standouts over the past two seasons, but has a lot back to expect further big things from the defense. Hanson and company certainly looked sharp in 11-on-11 drills during my visit, including impressive work against the pass and in the red zone when it went up against the first team offense. SJU is famous for not tackling during practice ... but they definitely still do some hitting. The linebackers and defensive backs certainly showed me some impressive physicality on my visit.
|A little more balance could go a|
long way for Saint John's in 2015.
I kind of covered this already in First Down, but any improvement through the air will not only boost the team's chances to repeat as MIAC champs, it would also make the team a legitimate threat to go deep in the NCAA Playoffs. The experience is there as Nick Martin returns under center, and standout WR Josh Bungum leads a deep crop of playmakers on the outside. Last year, Saint John's was eighth in the MIAC with 127.1 passing yards per game. A lot of that was the game plan to get a lead early and rely on the run game and defense, but even if that number crept up closer to 200 yards per game it would make the offense infinitely more dangerous. Fewer defenders in the box will make Sura even more dangerous, and a more balanced attack could have Saint John's soaring to new heights in Fasching's fourth season.
FOURTH DOWN - Reloading
Part of SJU's resurgence over the last two seasons can definitely be credited to some solid recruiting classes, and 2015 appears to be no different. The team had 213 players at practice during my visit, and some of the newcomers could definitely step in and contribute. If nothing else, the team should be deeper - particularly at running back behind Sura and on defense. If the Johnnies can successfully replace a couple departed All-Conference players on defense and fill out some of the offensive line and skill positions with some new talent, there's no reason the 2015 edition won't be even better than a year ago. The veterans certainly appeared to do a great job in the leadership department during my visit, and I really felt a sense of them incorporating the newcomers into the Johnnie football family, and getting them up to speed to step in and help.
CAMP TOUR RECAPS CONCLUDE THURSDAYThe MIAC Football Camp Tour has hit each of the nine schools, and we'll finish off another entertaining trip around the conference with our friends up in Moorhead, Concordia College. The full camp tour schedule is listed below with my date I visited each school. Visit the tour home page to see the blogs and videos from each stop on the tour.
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.