Sixty-eight players unloaded cars. Sixty-eight players and their famiies shuttled boxes and baskets and crates of sports drinks into Ytterboe Hall this past weekend.
If that number is unremarkable to you, you weren't here last year. That's when 51 student-athletes made up the St. Olaf roster, the cumulative effect of two years' recruiting struggles sapping the program of much-needed depth and new talent.
Such is not the case this year, as nearly 30 incoming freshmen and transfer students will help St. Olaf get off on a much better foot. Want to know the difference another 20 players can make? Practices have more bodies to run drills and to model the other team's offensive and defensive plays. There is more competiton for playing time. Greater depth provides a greater ability to weather injuries. It provides the coaching staff with increased roster flexibility to fill positions of need.
So, watching the returning players joined by a sizeable freshman class was reason to smile. It was good to see more enthusiasm, more smiles. More young men.
Now, as they say, comes the hard work. Now, the coaches must develop that talent into competitive, successful MIAC football players. The players, through their hard work and determination and improvement, must come together to build a successful TEAM.
The Oles start their 2015 season with some major questions, and some real reasons for optimism. I will start with the questions:
Can the Oles successfully replace prolific receivers Joel Reinhardt and Alex Nelson? If the St. Olaf passing attack is to be successful, the Oles must quickly get several freshmen wide receivers and tight ends up to speed and contributing.
Can the Oles find effective defensive linemen? St. Olaf must replace three of the best players on the 2014 team in Colin Brown, Chad Wagner and John Bennett. And they are going to have to do it with youngsters. Returning sophomore Damone Coachman will be joined by several large and speedy freshmen who should benefit from the coaching of defensive coordinator Justin Lerfald, who returns to coaching the D line this season.
Will the Oles offensive line continue to grow and improve? St. Olaf lost two starters from last year's line -- center Nate Carlson and tackle Laish Boyd -- but returns with several starters in Justin Schmidt, Ted Dietz and Jaylen Jones, as well as several other players who saw significant game time. In a familiar refrain, it will be the job of new offensive line coach Eugene Crosby and Eric Yuen, promoted to offensive coordinator, to mold this group into a cohesive unit.
Now, the reasons for optimism:
Senior quarterback Nate Penz returns. Nate passed for nearly 1,700 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. A three-year starter, his leadership among his teammates is clear. In fact, he might be among the most well-liked players on the squad. If he can find new targets to replace Reinhardt and Nelson, Penz's senior year could be his best yet.
Senior running back J.J. Strnad, who rushed for 776 yards and had more than 250 yards receiving, should give the Oles' offense a real home run threat. And leaning on J.J's broad shoulders should give St. Olaf time to find and develop its new downfield receiving threats. J.J. played better as the season went on last year and even more will be expected this season.
Defensive backs Coleman Foley and Seamus Walsh, two of the team's three leading tacklers last season, and senior cornerback Tyler Vajdic return to anchor a defensive backfield that is smart and experienced. Foley led the MIAC in tackles with 95, had nine tackles for loss and an interception. Walsh, with 60 tackles, two sacks and more than seven tackles for loss, was in the league's Top 20. Vajdic had two interceptions.
Linebackers Colton Yahn, Ethan Lunning, Sam Kuss, David Jean and Danny Opitz give the Oles good size, speed and tackling ability.
Receiver/slot back/quarterback Troy Peterson had 28 receptions for 251 yards and two touchdowns and is sure to be an even bigger part of the offensive game plan in 2015. Running back Connor McCormick, the Oles' leading rusher in 2013, returns fully healthy after missing much of last season.
Over the next several weeks, Head Coach Craig Stern and his staff will attempt to translate the promise of a bigger roster into the tangible result of a successful football team. After two 1-9 seasons, the coaches know they will be judged on more than improving roster numbers and talent levels. They will be expected to win more games.
The real test begins Sept. 5, when the Oles host the University of Northwestern Eagles at Manitou Field.