Kragnes, Cobbers football team look for more balance

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Brandon Bundgaard, a senior offensive lineman for Concordia's football team, can remember the exact moment Blake Kragnes won him over.

Kragnes, then a sophomore backup quarterback for the Cobbers, was put in a difficult spot a season ago, when he was thrust into the starting lineup in Week 5 after a season-ending foot injury to Michael Herzog, a three-year starter who had guided the team to a 4-0 start.

But with seven simple words on the practice field, Kragnes quickly endeared himself to a key member of the offense, and eventually, most of the pieces fell into place.

"I remember I was on the field and he just looked at me and said, 'I'm not worried. I'm ready to go,'" said Bundgaard, a center and preseason NCAA Division III All-American. "The minute he said that, I trusted him. The whole offensive line trusted him."

Kragnes' quiet confidence also won over Cobbers head coach Terry Horan, who called him "a born leader (who will) put us in the best possible situation we can be put into."

At his best, Kragnes did that in 2017. In his six starts, the Cobbers went 4-2, scoring 44 points per game in those four victories.

Contributing nicely to Concordia's triple-option rushing attack, Kragnes finished with 349 yards and five touchdowns on the ground to earn honorable mention all-conference recognition from the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.

The Cobbers open their season at 1 p.m. Saturday against Nebraska Wesleyan at Jake Christiansen Stadium in a nonconference matchup.

And while most parties were pleased with the progress the young signal caller has made, there is one area where everyone is hoping to see improvement as he enters his first full season under center: the passing game.

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The Cobbers offense has centered around the run game in recent years. In the past two seasons, Concordia averaged more than 250 yards per game on the ground, while gaining less than 100 through the air.

This imbalance was particularly high a season ago. Concordia averaged 293.3 yards rushing, ninth most in the country, and 81.3 yards passing, a total that ranked 236th in the nation and was more than doubled by everyone else in the MIAC.

In 10 games, Kragnes' per-game rushing total (34.9) was within striking distance of his passing total (43.4). He finished the year with one touchdown pass, three interceptions and a 57 percent completion percentage.

Though a 70-plus percent ratio of run plays has brought about a lot of success, a need for more balance became apparent against top competition.

A run game that gained at least 238 yards in eight wins a season ago picked up just 190 combined yards in losses to St. Thomas and St. John's, games where Concordia was outscored 31-3.

Personnel losses are also driving the decision to pass more, following the loss of running back Chad Johnson, who led them in rushing each of the past three seasons and gained a conference-best 1,262 yards in 2017 to cap his career.

Despite going 46-12 since 2012, losing streaks to St. Thomas (10 games) and St. Johns (three) have helped add to a long postseason drought that currently stands at 12 years.

Feeling he has the talent to get over the hump, Horan knows his team needs to be able to make weekly adjustments in order to take the next step.

"We make no bones about it, we want to run the football," he said. "But we're also going to take what a defense gives us and we've got to be able to throw to be successful."

To make the needed adjustments, Kragnes spent much of the offseason improving his footwork, which he called "very sloppy" in 2017. Aside from individual drills, he also adjusted his diet, dropping 10 pounds to allow himself to be quicker and more accurate on his rollouts.

He's also worked to establish better chemistry with a receiving corps that returns a lot of experience from last season. Likely to lead the group is senior Kevin Marzolf, who had a team-high 15 catches for 198 yards last fall.

Though Kragnes expects to boost his aerial numbers, he isn't losing sight of how effective he can be with his legs, and says making statistical improvements through the air is not his biggest concern.

"I have no specific numbers I want to reach," he said. "I just want to win games. Hopefully I can do what it takes to do that."

When it comes to wins, his coach does have specific numbers in mind.

"We know what 8-2 feels like, we know what 7-3 feels like," Horan said. "We want a taste of 10-0, 9-1. It's one or two or three plays that we've talked about throughout a season that we've just got to find ways to make."

The new-look offense will take its first game reps Saturday.

"It'll be fun to get out and see different jerseys across from us, see what the 2018 Cobbers have," Kragnes said.

SEASON OPENER

What: Nebraska Wesleyan at Concordia

When: Saturday, 1 p.m.

Where: Jake Chrisitansen Stadium

Radio: 970-AM, 93.1-FM