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2003 Season Preview: Strong returning group, large incoming class to bolster Knight hopes in year three of Brann tenure

August 15, 2003 at 2:57 pm

A talented running back returning for a fifth year, a strong sophomore class that gained valuable experience in 2002 and one of the largest recruiting classes in the 120-year history of Carleton College football has the Knights anticipating major improvements in 2003.

The Knights, who were young and inexperienced in 2002, will still be young under third-year head coach Chris Brann. Twenty-nine first-year players, likely the largest recruiting class in Carleton history, dot the 66-player roster. Of the returning players, 20 of the 37 are sophomores. Balancing this youth, however, is the fact that nine starters are back on each side of the ball.

"With the young men we’ve been able to attract to this program and institution, I think that it’s a very strong group of young men that are, over the course of the next four years, going to help turn the corner for Carleton College football," Brann said. "We’re blessed and grateful for this year’s class."

Off-season improvements, Fisher's return bolsters offense
"After our last game of the season, the first thing I said walking into the locker room is 'We will win the battle in the weight room'," Brann said. "That was the most important commitment that we could make at the time. The players started to hold each other accountable. They’ve done things that I’ve been waiting two years for a football team to do. They’ve probably been more committed on this off-season than just about any team I’ve been around. I’m extremely proud of them and their work ethic. There are some guys who have made huge gains in the weight room, some who have put on 20-25 pounds and their speed has increased. If you’re going to win football games, it’s not between August and November, it’s between December and football camp."

While first-year players and sophomores dominate the roster, it will be fifth-year senior and last year's team MVP Erik Fisher (Maple Lake, Minn.) who holds the key to Carleton's success, at least offensively. The tailback returns as Carleton's top rusher and receiver from a year ago, gaining 540 yards on the ground and 253 yards through the air. He finished the season very strong despite an elbow injury that forced him to miss one contest, averaging 28.5 carries for 117.5 yards over Carleton's last two games. He successfully petitioned for a fifth year after missing all of 2001 with a knee injury.

"For him to take a term off of school so that he could come back and play in the fall says a lot about his commitment to this program and him believing in where we’re going," Brann said.

Fisher won't have to carry the load on his own, as a pair of talented rookie backs should see significant action in 2003. Wade Thompson (Peterson, Minn./Rushford-Peterson) gained 1,700 yards during the Trojans' Class A state title run. Thompson rushed for 104 yards on 23 carries in the championship game, leading his team to a perfect 14-0 season. Brann also pointed to Adam Lichtenheld, (Prairie du Sac, Wis.) who posted more than 3,000 rushing yards in his junior and senior years combined, as another strong rookie candidate that may earn significant carries in 2003. Sophomore Kevin Hanley (Chicago/Holy Cross) and first-year player Tom McHugh (Elmhurst, Ill./York Community) will handle the fullback duties.

With Fisher back and Thompson and Lichtenheld in the fold, senior Dale Williams (Bloomington, Minn./Gov. Dummar, Mass.) will shift to the wide receiver spot, as Brann hopes to utilize his athleticism and speed in the open field. Last year's back-up quarterback, sophomore Nick Wanka (Ft. Lauderdale, Fla./Pine Crest School) will move permanently to the wide-out spot. Returning seniors Nate Flaherty (Oakdale, Minn./Tartan) and Ernie Asp (Foster City, Calif./San Mateo) are the top two returning wide-outs, combining for 41 catches for 358 yards last season. Rookie Thompson could also get some snaps at the wide receiver spot, according to Brann, while sophomore Tyler Young (Wheaton, Minn.) and transfer Matt Phillips (Woodstock, Ill./Air Force Academy) should see significant action.

The quarterback spot could provide the most intriguing battle of all. Incumbent Ben Cooprider (So./DeKalb, Ill.) started all 10 games as a rookie, one of only a handful of Carleton quarterbacks to achieve such a feat. He passed for 864 yards and four scores last season, but will be pushed by newcomer Darren Caspers (Bemidji, Minn.).

"Cooprider’s our guy right now," Brann said. "We are really looking at Darren Caspers, who we think is a tremendous quarterback coming out of high school, to challenge for that starting quarterback position coming into camp. They both are great athletes and quarterbacks, so it will be fun to watch that battle."

The offensive line lost four-year starter and All-MIAC performer Conor Crimmins to graduation, but returns its four other starters and most of its regular reserves from a year ago. Senior Travis Moncrief (Roseville, Minn.) will be the anchor of the line. Two-year starter David Derksen (Jr./Rochester, Minn./John Marshall) is back along with sophomore David Molzahn, (Hopkins, Minn.) who was forced to play center last year due to injuries but should move back to his natural tackle position this season. Bobby McMillan (New Hope, Minn./Robbinsdale Cooper), another sophomore who saw significant action last season, also returns.

This group is joined by a solid contingent of newcomers that should step in and help immediately, according to Brann. "Benjie Tashish (Fy./Golden Valley, Minn./Hopkins) is really going to be able to contribute to our offensive line," Brann said. "Andrew Roberts (Fy./Ft. Lauderdale, Fla./Pine Crest School) should be a great player for us as well." Brann also tabbed Nick Peterson (Fy./Oxnard, Calif.) and Tom Schwarze (Fy./Grant, Minn./Mahtomedi) as players to watch on Carleton's offensive line. "We've got some big offensive linemen coming in and I think they'll challenge for some jobs and give us more depth."

The tight end spot, manned mostly by Hanley last year, will be filled by newcomers this season. Brann tabbed Ryan Richards (Hibbing, Minn.) as a possibility, along with fullback McHugh.

Experienced secondary, line highlight defense
Defense is where Carleton's most experienced players reside, with a quartet of two-year starters back and an ultra-talented sophomore leading the charge. Cornerback Nick Brokke (So./Roseville, Minn.) paced the Knights with 92 tackles, three interceptions and 11 passes broken up in his rookie season. The entire starting secondary returns with Brokke in two-year starters Dan Karlgaard (Jr./Brainerd, Minn.) and cornerback Ben Phillips (Jr./Woodstock, Ill.) and sophomore strong safety Luke Muellerleile (White Bear Lake, Minn./Mahtomedi). Muellerliele was second on the team with 88 tackles, Karlgaard ranked fourth with 68 tackles and broke up six passes and Phillips tallied 49 tackles, broke up eight passes and blocked two kicks.

" I think Nick had a great season and he’s worked very hard in the off-season to get himself prepared – he’s our fastest player on defense," Brann said. "Karlgaard and Phillips have started back there for three years now, so that experience will really start to pay off for us. Luke Muellerleile is just a great, strong safety force and great on run support and very aggressive, so between Brokke and Muellerleile, we have a couple of guys who were just super tacklers in the open field. We’re really looking forward to their sophomore year."

The defensive line returns every starter and key reserve from last year and adds a talented group of newcomers to the mix as well.

"I think we have a nice group of young men," Brann said. As with the entire team, Brann has been especially pleased with the gains made in the weight room by this group. "Adam Witt (So./Champlin, Minn./Champlin Park) was at 230 pounds last season and now he's 247 pounds and his lifts have gone way up. Doug Lind (So./Braham, Minn.), who played at 255 pounds last year, is now at 276 pounds. They haven’t lost any speed, they’ve gained speed." Brann also pointed to veterans Matt Sevcik (Jr./Lake Forest, Ill.) and Ben Olson (Jr./Glenwood, Minn./Minnewaska Area) as strong returners. Both have started since their first season in the maize and blue, combining for 78 tackles, 11 for losses, in 2002. Tim Blaha (So./Northfield, Minn.) has made "great strides" in the off-season as well, according to Brann.

As for newcomers that may contribute, the most highly touted may be Rich Majerus (Fy./Rochester, Minn./Mayo), a Minnesota all-state defensive lineman, and Pat Frett (Fy./Ann Arobor, Mich./Huron), who played in the Michigan All-State game at defensive tackle. "We’re looking forward to those two new guys coming in and contributing up front," Brann said.

Senior captain and linebacker Andrew Wild (Janesville, Wis./Craig) is a three-year letterwinner and is in his third year as a starter. He ranked third on the squad with 75 tackles a year ago along with a team-high three forced fumbles. He'll lead the linebacking unit that lost two starters to graduation but hopes to get a healthy Tom Kiner (Jr./Woodbury, Minn.) back on the field full-time in 2003. Jonathan Eichten (So./Plymouth, Minn./Benilde-St. Margaret's) will battle for a starting spot, according to Brann. The Carleton head coach does expect a collection of first-year players to help Carleton shore up the weakest part of its defense, including Randy Foss (Hastings, Minn.), Mike Gravelle (Austin, Minn.) and Adam Rossow (Le Sueur, Minn./Le Sueur-Henderson).

Rugged MIAC slate, only four home games await Knights
For the first time since the Knights rejoined the MIAC in 1983, Carleton will open its season with a conference contest, playing at archrival St. Olaf College on Sept. 13. Home dates with conference powers Gustavus Adolphus College (Sept. 20), Concordia College, Moorhead (Sept. 27), national number two St. John's University (Oct. 11) and resurging Bethel College (Oct. 25) loom, with non-conference games at Macalester College (Nov. 8) and at Colorado College (Nov. 15) ending the season.

"Opening up in the MIAC is tough," Brann said. "Our home schedule is very interesting because we have some of the top teams in the MIAC coming here, but any MIAC school you play is a battle every week and I don’t care who you’re playing or who you are. I don’t care if you’re St. John’s, when you’re playing Concordia, Bethel, and St. Thomas, you’ve got to show up every Saturday or somebody’s going to get you. Hopefully, people will take us lightly and underestimate us so we can sneak up on some of these big dogs and scare them and hopefully even beat a few."

Brann and the Knights are looking forward to their non-conference slate as well. "We’re looking forward to playing Macalester up there and going out to Colorado College and ending our season that way," he said. "It should be a lot of fun and I think our kids will really enjoy the trip."

Despite returning 18 starters and the large, talented incoming class, Brann knows it will be a dogfight to post significant improvements in 2003. "I’m like everyone else – I’d love to have a crystal ball going into the season but we’re encouraged by the work ethic that this team has and the commitment that they’ve made in the off-season," he said.

Brann is excited about the potential of the incoming first-year class and what they'll add to the program. "I think that we’re going to end up starting some freshmen and they’re going to challenge for jobs and that should be exciting. This year is going to be an interesting year," Brann said. "I fully expect to be competitive and win some games and take that next step. We're still going to be young. We won’t have that many juniors or seniors, but we’re starting to get more depth. I think the most important thing right now is to make sure our athletes are working hard and having fun and I think the winning will take care of itself."

With their largest roster in five years, Brann and the Knights have come a long way from the 2001 season when they finished with less than 40 players and graduated a very strong class that spring. "That was difficult," Brann said of that first season. "It’s like you have this big puzzle and you’ve got the pieces, but you’re missing something. Last year we started 12 freshmen, which was actually more than we played against. In all the other teams combined, I think they only started six freshmen total." Luckily for Brann, nearly all of those sophomores are back with a full season's experience under their belts, ready to lead the Knights in 2003. "This year, I feel like the foundation has been laid," he said. "Over the course of the next couple of years, bringing in two classes of 25-30 freshmen, Carleton College football will be back on track."