In coaching, there's something to be said for having "your guys." Even if a coach served as an assistant, even if a coach was perfectly satisfied as an assistant, when he or she moves to the top job, that coach moves through a period of transition, learning to accommodate the players, coaches and systems already in place.
For even the most loyal and hard-working assistant - fans can appreciate - will have their own approach to and philosophy about the game.
In his third season as the University of Minnesota, Morris' head football coach, Todd Hickman finds himself emerging from that murky period into a place where he is more and more surrounded by "his guys."
But that's not to say you won't see familiar faces at Big Cat Stadium these days. Hickman's 2009 coaching staff (including veteran assistants Raven Battle, Mark Ekren and Grant Harding) remains relatively unchanged from a season ago with the exception of some new student coaches and new defensive line coach, Mike DuFrane.
The new faces will be inside the helmets this year, 30 new faces (10 transfers, 20 freshmen) to be exact. With assistant coach Matt Johnson heading up the recruiting efforts, 2009 marks the second year of bringing in Hickman's recruits, "his guys."
"In 2008, in five of six losses, we had a chance to win going into the fourth quarter. This season we're going to win in the fourth quarter through our experiences of last year," Hickman says.
The Cougars bring back two first-team all-UMAC performers on offense. Running back and 2009 offensive captain Robert Koranda of Becker is coming off a stellar freshman season when he rushed for 1,046 yards. Many of those yards were due in part to lineman Theo Powell of Oshkosh, Wis. who enters his senior season anchoring an offensive line that returns all five starters, including juniors all-UMAC honorable mention Wyatt Nolan of Prior Lake, Billy Newman of Brooklyn Center, Kris Peterson of Osakis, and sophomore Gabe Sturtz of Winnebago.
Koranda will get relief and excellent blocking from his backfield mate senior Ernest Tucker of Cleveland, Ohio who will start at fullback.
The quarterback position remains a three-way competition between returning sophomore Ted Hoffman of Paynesville, and freshmen Daniel Garrigan of Tallahassee, Fla. and Derrick Foss of Hancock. Last season, Hoffman shared snaps with Seth Hubbard, who transferred in the off-season.
"Hoffman's hard work this summer has expanded his offensive repertoire extensively since last season," says Hickman.
The receiving crew lost an all-UMAC performer to graduation (Matt Fragodt), but makes up for it with the return of junior captain tight end Brady Rose of Morgan, who missed 2008 with an injury. Captain Matt Throngard, a junior from Grantsburg, Wis, who also missed 2008 with injury, has moved from running back to receiver this season. Beyond those two familiar names, the receiving corps will all be new players, a swift and sure-handed mixture of freshmen and transfers.
The Cougar defense returns seven starters from 2008, including all-UMAC captains senior Shane Fickes of Herman, sophomore Nate Lund of Cyrus, who was second on the team in tackles, and sophomore Mitch Zimmer of Little Falls.
Senior captain Paul Carlson of Tracy will bookend the defensive line with Zimmer and senior Matt Howell of Tampa Bay, Fla, as new players compete for the other slots available, including freshman Ben Kettler of Melrose and sophomore Matt Anderson of Hibbing.
"Our defensive backfield will have great depth this year," Hickman says with well-reasoned confidence as Lund and Fickes will line up with a third all-UMAC player, interceptions leader Corey Hemphill-Crowder, a senior from Chicago, Ill. and the team's fourth-leading tackler in 2008, sophomore Todd Gramenz of St. Paul. In addition, junior James Watkins of Brooklyn Center rejoins the team this season along with touted freshman Shannon Cleare-Glover of Minneapolis.
The linebacking corps will be led by returning junior captain Adam Gertken of Richmond, and senior Scott Barta of Faribault. They will be joined by recruit Josh Ledin of Big Lake, who at six-foot and 215 pounds will be a sizeable presence. The loss of all-UMAC player, Blair Elliott, is softened by his switch to the coaching staff in 2009.
Fresh off an internship with the Library of Congress, sophomore Matt Privratsky of Walker returns for a second year of kicking duties. Freshman Erik Lasserud of Richfield has been recruited to assume the punting duties. In his senior year, Lasserud averaged 38.5 yards per kick.
With Matt Fragodt's graduation and Koranda's duties limited to offense, the kick and punt return spots remain an open competition. Hickman expects to see contributions from transfer John Russow of Plymouth, and two freshmen: Josh Hiltner of Albany and Jerrod Nohner of Eden Valley, who set multiple school records at Eden Valley-Watkins, where he earned honorable mention all-state honors.
In addition to the new faces mentioned above, Hickman expects to see immediate contributions from other freshmen, including offensive linemen Evan Beranek of New Prague, Eric Hunt of Spring Lake Park, transfer Cody Perkins of Shaftsbury, Vt., and Eric Nelson of Delano, who earned all-state honors in wrestling at Delano High School.
The Cougars' 2009 schedule includes some familiar teams from last season as they play the back ends on some two-game agreements. They will travel to Madison, S.D. to play NAIA team Dakota State. UMM will meet Macalester in this year's Dome Day match up (Oct. 30) in Minneapolis, and rounds out the season at home against Lawrence College.
"Looking at our non-conference schedule, you can see we haven't beaten these teams, but we want to change that," Hickman says.
The UMAC schedule starts with the first game. The Cougars play at Trinity Bible College (Sept. 1) and host their home opener against UMAC south opponent Westminster College on Sept. 19.
For homecoming, Crown College comes to Morris on Oct. 10. The Cougars face 2008 UMAC champs, Northwestern College, at home two weeks later.
Hickman believes that with a tough year under their belts, the Cougars may surprise some teams this season.
"From a program standpoint, we have to work hard to recruit and develop our players, and we do that," he says. "And that's why we expect to be fighting for a conference championship this season."