Facing tough early-season road games at UW-Eau Claire and St. John’s, the No. 8-ranked Tommies are looking to start fast in 2012 as they chase another MIAC championship and NCAA playoff berth. Coach Glenn Caruso graduated four All-Americas but returns All-America center Curtis James and 17 other players with starting experience.
A few new assistant coaches joined the staff. Former assistant Joe Lepsche (offensive line) returned after a short stint at Hill-Murray High. Newcomers are Robert Hollway (DL), Mark Kubacki (ILBs), Mitch Schnaeuble (TEs), Ryan Coleman (Specialists) and Tyler Flynn (Admin. Asst.).
St. Thomas has been selected No. 8 in the 2012 preseason top 25 poll by D3Football.com. It's the 31st consecutive D3Football.com poll that has included the Tommies in its top 10, all since 2009. UST was ranked as high as No. 3 in other preseason rankings. In the MIAC coaches’ preseason poll, the Toms come into the season ranked first for the third consecutive year.
The Tommies won a school-record 13 games and reached the NCAA playoff semifinal round in a 13-1 finish. They also set a school record with five All-America honorees. They posted another 10-0 regular-season record and became the MIAC’s first program with consecutive 10-0 regular seasons. The Tommie defense ranked in the top three in Division III in sacks (49); third-down conversion percentage (21.9%); and fewest points (10.1), rushing yards (56.7) and total yards (216) allowed per game.
At least eight key graduated players won’t be easy to immediately replace: WR-KR Fritz Waldvogel (2X All-America, 2X MIAC Player of the Year; Career: 50 starts, 46 TDs, 7,433 all-purpose yards); LB Tony Danna (Career: 47 games, 325 tackles, 43.5 TFL; 2011 All-America); RB Colin Tobin (Career: 3,654 rushing yards, 50 TDs; 2011 All-America); OT Dan Chapman (2011 All-America, 2X Academic All-America. Stam Award recipient; three-year starter); QB Dakota Tracy (Career: 28-2 as starter, 17 rushing touchdowns, 48 passing TDs; 2X All-MIAC); LB Willy Baregi; OT Chad VanderGriff; and PK Tim Albright.
For the first time in the 107-year history of St. Thomas football, the Tommies have improved their win total for four consecutive seasons -– improving from 2-8 in 2007 to go 7-3, 11-2, 12-1 and 13-1 the last four seasons.
St. Thomas football is 25-2 at home at O’Shaughnessy Stadium in Caruso’s four-year era, including an 8-0 record in 2011. The Toms will have pregame “Purple on the Plaza” parties next to the stadium to the south on the John P. Monahan Plaza at all five home games. Also enhancing the game-day experience is a new Daktronics scoreboard behind the north end zone that will add color, video and messaging.
New starting QB Matt O’Connell played in 10 games as a freshman backup in 2011. He rushed for four TDs and passed for a fifth touchdown. O’Connell started all 39 games in high school (2006-09) in Clear Lake, Wis., (population 1,151). He broke a Wisconsin prep state record as he surpassed 10,000 yards in total offense (5,465 rushing yards, 4,761 passing yards). He threw 52 TD passes and scored 87 touchdowns, including one on defense, one kick return, one punt return, one as a receiver, and 83 via rushing.
The Tommies have four fifth-year seniors. All-America center Curtis James redshirted as a freshman in 2008 for the Minnesota Gophers. Ryan Deitz, an All-MIAC CB in 2010, missed last season with an injury. Linebacker Michael Valesano and OL Mitch Taffe missed one year each due to injury.
Deitz is among five returning starters at defensive back, joining seniors Chinni Oji, Josh Carey, Tyler Erstad and Jack Gavin. That quintet has combined for 14 interceptions over the last two seasons.
Placekicker Tim Albright passed up his fifth and final season of eligibility to enroll in dental school. Albright went 61-of-61 in PAT kicks last season and made 84 in a row dating back to October 2010. In two seasons as a starter, Albright broke the school record for career points by a kicker. Junior Griffin Snyder leads the contenders to start at placekicker.
Junior punter Garrett Maloney received preseason All-America honors. He’s averaged 40 yards on 69 career punts in 27 career games, with 21 inside the 20-yard line.
Among the transfers expected to compete for starting roles spots this fall are St. Thomas Academy grad and OT Luke Marks (6-5, 300), a redshirt last fall at Div. I-AA South Dakota State; and two defensive linemen (6-0, 270-pound sophomore Derek Vonnahme of Northern State; and 6-0, 250-pound freshman Sam Pokornowski of North Dakota State. Freshman KR-WR Jack Gilliland of Simi Valley, Calif., likely will be in the mix.
The roster’s 20 offensive linemen have an average frame of 6-foot-3, 280 pounds. James is among five who return with some starting experience. He joins sophomore guards T.J. Woodrow and Ulice Payne III; junior Jason Flesher; and senior Grant Geris.
The Tommies graduated All-Americas Ben Wartman and Colin Tobin as their feature running backs in each of the last two seasons. That duo combined to score 100 touchdowns and gain 7,739 rushing yards over the last four seasons. Tailbacks pushing for playing time include sophomores Aaron-Terrell Byrd (5 TD, 391 yards) and Ryan Toney (3 TD, 294 yards); and freshman Brenton Braddock, who missed 2011 with an injury.
St. Thomas graduated two-time All-America WR-KR Fritz Waldvogel (46 TDs, 7,433 all-purpose yards, 300 receptions, school-record 50 starts). Top receivers back are junior WR Kyle Whitley (Career: 38 catches, 440 yards, 2 TDs); senior TE Logan Marks (31 catches, 346 yards, nine TDs); and junior WR Dan Noehring (42 catches, 714 yards, 3 TDs).
St. Thomas’ 128-man preseason camp roster includes eight graduates of St. Thomas Academy; six each from Cretin-Derham Hall and Wayzata High; and four each from Eden Prairie High and Totino-Grace High.
St. Thomas recorded a school-record 49 sacks in 2011 while allowing just 15. In the four-year Caruso era, covering 50 games, UST has 141 sacks and has allowed just 39.
The Toms come into 2012 with a 24-game regular-season win streak. That includes a 19-0 record in conference regular-season play since a 2009 overtime loss at St. John’s. St. Thomas has won its last 36 games when it scores 21 or more points.
Glenn Caruso (43-7) needs 13 victories to move into first place in career wins among Tommie football coaches. He has improved his season win total in all six years as a college head coach (2-7 to 4-5 at Macalester; 7-3 to 11-2 to 12-1 to 13-1 at St. Thomas).
UST will attempt to win its third consecutive conference football title, a feat last accomplished at the school from 1947-49.
Two-sport Tommies on this year’s roster include Maloney, who also plays basketball for UST’s MIAC championship team; junior CB Will Hersman, an All-America lacrosse player on UST’s national champion club team; and from track and field, junior DB Jeff Rada (sprints), Ayo Idowu (hammer) and Vonnahme (throws). Rada was conference runner-up last May at 200 meters for UST’s team champions.
UST opens Sept. 1 at UW-Eau Claire. Its home opener is Sept. 8 against UW-River Falls, while its first conference game is Sept. 15 at archrival St. John’s in Collegeville. The Toms’ Homecoming game is Oct. 13 against nationally-ranked Bethel.