Expectations high for upcoming football season

[slidepress gallery=’100828_footballpreviewvideo’]

The St. Thomas community saw its fair share of construction around campus this past summer.

But while Opus Corporation was tearing down buildings and putting up new ones, another type of construction was going on: Coach Glenn Caruso was busy building an improved Tommie football team.

National college ranking polls have placed the Tommies as high as No. 4 overall – the best preseason ranking any St. Thomas football team has ever received. The following are six reasons why the 2010 Tommie football team will bring St. Thomas its first national football title in school history.

#1 – There’s an all-star cast of returning players.

The team is returning 20 of 22 starters coming off a season where the program collected the most wins in school history – 11 – and was a couple games shy of a national title shot.

St. Thomas also showcases more preseason All-Americans this season than any other Division III team in the country. Senior running back Ben Wartman, senior center Josh Ostrue and junior kick returner Fritz Waldvogel were selected to the prestigious D3football.com All-American roster earlier this summer. Only two other Tommies have ever made that list: Josh Ostrue last year and former running back Jake Barkley in 2002.

Junior offensive tackle Chad Vandergriff and fifth-year senior safety Brian Villar also joined the All-American trio when they were named to separate All-American teams this summer.

But the list of star-studded returners doesn’t stop there. The team also has eight All-MIAC players returning to starting positions this year.

Even with all that talent and hype, players such as senior linebacker Tommy Becker have managed to stay humble and focused.

“We have a lot of talent, but at the same time, we haven’t done anything with that talent yet,” Becker said. “We want a national championship, and that’s all we’re focused on.”

#2 – The Tommies have Coach Caruso – other teams don’t.

During his two-year stint as head coach at St. Thomas, Glenn Caruso has resurrected the Tommie football program from a 2-8 record in 2007 to an 11-2 record in 2009. Of the 625 active NCAA football teams, the Tommies have the second-best two-year turnaround, which Caruso is largely responsible for.

Caruso has built a reputation for rebuilding football programs. Before coming to St. Thomas, Caruso doubled the roster size as the head coach at Macalester and brought the team to 4-5 in 2007 from 2-6 in 2006 – the same team that went 2-25 from 2003-2005.

Coach Caruso instills “pride and passion,” his favorite motto, in his players the moment they step into the locker room.

“He’s a huge part of our success, [he] gives us the fire and drive to keep going,” senior center Josh Ostrue said. “[He] teaches us ways to be good players, good men.”

#3 – Fritz Waldvogel is the Tommies’ X-Factor.

The sophomore special teams extraordinaire worked hard in the off-season to make sure he has another successful year. He’s likely to top last year’s All-American and MIAC Player of the Year honors.

Becker said that even though Waldvogel is one of the smallest players on the team, this off-season “he gained about ten pounds of muscle, he’s faster, he’s stronger. His work ethic is great.”

Last season, Macalester saw just how dangerous Waldvogel was when he returned two punts for touchdowns in the same quarter, tying an NCAA record.

He’s one of the most versatile players on the offense, because he also plays wide receiver and gets a few carries. He led the team in receiving yards last season.

#4 – The nation’s best center is back to lead the nation’s best O-line.

Senior center Josh Ostrue, winner of the 2008 Rimington Trophy for the nation’s most outstanding center, will again lead the nation’s top offensive line, which allowed just three sacks in 13 games last season.

Becker dubbed Ostrue “The Iron Horse,” because of his leadership, toughness and talent, but Ostrue said each offensive lineman is a leader in his own right.

“These guys are driven, they want to be the best at what they are,” he said. “We feed off each other.”

The offensive line lost two seniors last season, but each player who started at the end of the season has returned, which means they will continue to create large holes for senior running backs Ben Wartman and Colin Tobin, and great pocket protection for quarterback duo Dakota Tracy and Greg Morse.

#5 – The Tommies have so many different ways to score.

Between quarterbacks Tracy and Morse, running backs Wartman and Tobin, special teams whiz Waldvogel and a slew of experienced receivers and tight ends, the Tommies’ offense won’t miss a beat this year.

Last season, the Tommies averaged 39 points per game, shattering team single-season records for touchdowns (70), points (506), rushing yards (3,238) and total offensive yards (5,556).

You could call it a good problem to have, but one of Caruso’s toughest tasks this year will be managing the amount of offensive talent each game.

“We sit there in front of the personnel board and we honestly believe we have 25 to 30 guys that can play winning football for us, and I can only put 11 of them on the field at the same time,” Caruso said.

#6 – The defense – underrated last year – will be even better.

In comparison to the high-octane offense, the Tommie defense sometimes takes a backseat. But last season, the defense allowed an average of only 15.6 points per game, placing St. Thomas third in the MIAC behind St. Olaf College (14.7) and Bethel University (14.2).

Last year’s defense was just as valuable as any other unit, Caruso said.

“Last year, I think they were probably one of the top ten defenses in the nation,” Caruso said.

With the same group of players returning, Becker said the defense is more experienced than ever, and they’re taking advantage of every opportunity in camp to improve before the season starts.

“If we run the five extra yards that we need, if we do the little things and (pay) attention to detail we can go a long way,” Becker said. “But we’ve got a lot of work to do and it’s important for us not to peak too early. We hope to have a long season.”

Miles Trump can be reached at mttaylorjohn@stthomas.edu.