Despite a new starting quarterback, a completely revamped offensive line and a fresh defensive alignment, expectations are high for Concordia Lutheran in 2019.
But pressure? Nah.
“Our players are excited to be Concordia football players and be part of that continuing brand of excellence,” Coach Tim Mannigel said. “But excellence for us in the regular season could be 4-5. It’s tough. You’re playing a lot of games you aren’t picked to win.”
The Cadets traditionally take their lumps during the grind of the SAC season, only to emerge as one of the teams to watch in the 3A north once the playoffs begin. Concordia has never won the SAC and has captured just a single recognized city championship (1967).
Does that bother Concordia?
“I think we have done a nice job with the kids to which they understand we have to be at our best once sectionals begin,” Mannigel.
Who can argue with that after the Cadets won the 3A state title in 2016.
For this year’s team to repeat that feat, they will need to gel over the regular season with plenty of new faces. Jake Byrd threw for over 2,000 yards and 18 touchdowns a season ago. His replacement will be junior Brandon Davis, who has seen spot action in his first two seasons at Concordia. He was pushed in the preseason by fellow junior Jackson Valentine.
One of the top running backs in his class in the area (one could argue for Braeden Hardwick of Homestead) returns in Amir Drew. The junior eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing and added 11 touchdowns. while averaging 20 carries per game. Drew seemingly never tires, but Mannigel will look to keep him fresh by mixing in some other ballcarriers.
Kamari Anderson-Drew and his 992 yards receiving and 12 scores have departed, but Mannigel feels the wide receiver position can still be a strength with junior Tyler Grossman (37 receptions, 659 yards, 3 TDs) and seniors Jeren Kindig (9 receptions, 211 yards, 4 TDs) and Jalen Vanderbosch (13 receptions, 211 yards, 1 TD).
The big concern for the offense is up front, where the Cadets will go with a new starting five across the line. Mannigel has faith in the newbies, but also factors in some uncertainty.
“We think (the line) could be good, but they are going to be young and haven’t played on Friday nights before, plus we play some pretty good defensive lines,” Mannigel said. “If you can’t move people and protect the quarterback, it doesn’t matter what you have everywhere else.”
The Cadets will sport a different defensive look, switching to a 3-3 from a 4-2. With pure defensive linemen at a premium, Mannigel feels the new scheme fits his personnel.
“The (3-3) asks for different things from those guys up front,” Mannigel said. “We are going to be a bit more attacking. We think we have the kids to do that.
“We may end up giving up 82 points per game and you can come back and laugh at me.”
The defense will also be rather young, with Liam Fletcher (6 sacks, 16 TFL), Michael Fairfield (82 tackles, 8 TFL) and Nick Craddock (55 tackles, 7 TFL) all graduated.
A pair of juniors could emerge as leaders in the secondary in Kameron Johnson and Luke Speckhard, each of whom had a pair of INTs as sophomores.
There are more questions than answers for the Cadets heading into the season opener against South Side. With only seven seniors in the program, this could be a bit of a rebuilding year. But if Concordia can survive the SAC and gain some experience and confidence, it will be a threat again in 3A.
This ranking may seem a tad high, particularly after a 5-6 campaign last year, but expectations for this program have steadily risen following Mannigel’s first three campaign from 2010-12 that saw just three combined victories.
There is enough talent on both sides of the ball to believe that this team will be in the convoluted mix in the SAC between the “Big 3” of Snider, Bishop Dwenger and Homestead.
WHY NOT HIGHER?
Four of Concordia’s six losses last season came by seven points or less, including a surprising loss to Bellmont in sectional play. Traditionally, close games eventually even out, but a strong senior group from a year ago has given way to much in the way of youth.
This new cadre of Cadets needs to prove it has what it takes to knock off the big boys.
Week 4 at Bishop Luers
The barometer game for the Cadets in the regular season is always against the Knights – although now Bishop Luers is in Class 2A instead of in Concordia’s 3A sectional.
Even so, the Cadets have dropped two straight to the Knights, including last year’s 34-31 loss in double overtime. This matchup is the best way to judge where each team is at against the kind of competition it will face in their respective classes.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Brandon Davis, junior, quarterback
In limited action last season, Davis completed 70 percent (21-of-30) and threw three touchdowns and zero interceptions.
Now, we aren’t saying Davis can be Peter Morrison (52 TDs, 4 INTs in 2016), but his skill set is only going to get better. With a host of talented wide receivers to throw to, and an ace running back to keep defenses honest, Davis could really put up some gaudy numbers over the next two years.
But his success, and probably Concordia’s, will come down to the five men along that offensive line.