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Forget the 'Holy Grail,' St. John's vs. St. Thomas has become The Battle of Bulk

The Tommie offensive line
Mike Ekern/University of St. Thomas
The Tommie offensive line, including David Simmet, 75, and Zach Brennan, 70.

Fifteen years ago, in 2000, St. John’s football team reached the Division III national championship game with an offensive line averaging a smidgeon over 245 pounds.

If that sounds light even for D-3, you’re right. Legendary St. John’s Coach John Gagliardi preferred quickness to bulk, and those Johnnies featured a right guard (Bryan Bohlmann) and a right tackle (Brent Vogt) weighing just 225 — closer to linebacker size these days.  

Here’s how much things have changed: When the Johnnies face arch-rival St. Thomas on Saturday in the second round of the NCAA playoffs, their lightest starting lineman will be five pounds heavier than that 2000 line averaged.

This year’s Johnnies average 271 pounds across the front, topped by 6-4, 290-pound center Ben Eli. Sam Sura, the school's standout senior running back from South St. Paul, weighs only 20 pounds less than Bohlmann and Vogt did. 

And St. Thomas is even bigger. The Tommie line, with 6-9, 350-pound David Simmet towering at right tackle, averages 306.2 pounds — exactly the same as the University of Minnesota line. Take away Simmet, and the remaining four Tommie linemen still average 295.25 pounds. The “runt,” right guard Zach Brennan, goes 6-4, 287. 

“I was 272 when I played, and not very impressive looking,” said St. Thomas Coach Glenn Caruso, a center at D-3 Ithaca (N.Y.) College from 1992-95. “Even back then, you weren’t routinely finding offensive lines averaging 300 pounds. You could find enough guys at that time that might have been [300], but they wouldn’t have been good. Now, not only are they bigger and faster and stronger, but they’re more athletic in general.”

Given their superior lines, it’s not surprising to see the 11-0 Tommies and 10-1 Johnnies — the two best teams in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) this year — meet up again in postseason.

St. Thomas, the MIAC champion, and St. John’s, an at-large qualifier for the NCAA playoffs, easily won their first-round games last week. 

 The colorful St. John’s-St. Thomas rivalry dates to Thanksgiving Day 1901, but this is their first time tangling in the NCAA playoffs since the format’s inception in 1973. That these two Catholic universities play for a trophy called the Holy Grail says everything about the rivalry’s significance.

The visiting team has won the last four games and five of the last six. St. Thomas claimed this year’s Grail while handing the Johnnies their only loss, 35-14, in Collegeville on Sept. 26. The crowd of 17,327 is believed to be a record for a D-3 game.

Don’t expect similar numbers at St. Thomas on Saturday — thanks to Thanksgiving weekend, sketchy weather, etc. But the rivalry vibe among players, coaches, students and alumni shouldn’t diminish. The dilemma of the day: whether to wear that rude T-shirt over or under the parka.

Saint John's running back Sam Sura
Sean Donohue/Saint John's University
Saint John's running back Sam Sura

Whatever the crowd, they will watch some of the best small-college players in the country. Sura and Simmet are among ten semifinalists for the Gagliardi Trophy, the D-3 version of the Heisman, named for John Gagliardi. Each team’s stout line produced stout running games.

Sura, the Johnnies career rushing leader, and St. Thomas junior Jordan Roberts both made All-MIAC. Sura (1,590 yards) edged Roberts (1,514) for the rushing title, with Roberts leading in rushing touchdowns, 25 to 23. Both teams averaged well over 200 yards per game on the ground, and each line permitted only nine sacks in 11 games. Roberts is a story himself; he transferred from South Dakota to study for the priesthood at the St. John Vianney College Seminary.

Nationally, St. Thomas leads D-3 in scoring at 56.5 points per game and ranks second in total offense, 566.7 yards.

Both Caruso and St. John’s Coach Gary Fasching, who replaced the retiring Gagliardi three years ago, recruit Minnesota high schools heavily for linemen. All five Johnnies and three of the Tommies hail from Minnesota. (The other two come from Iowa and Wisconsin.) 

Gagliardi was never big on weight training, a philosophy Fasching changed by necessity when he took over. MIAC teams are too strong now to compete without it. The Johnnies shifted over Eli and senior right guard Matt Kadrlik from defense to bulk up the line.

“Coach Gagliardi never used to worry too much about size,” Fasching said. “He was more worried about athletic ability, being able to run. But in our league, almost every team has an offensive lineman around 300 pounds. In the pros, they go 330 and 340, and they can run.”

Mike Ekern/University of St. Thomas
Jordan Roberts rushing during the Oct. 24 game against Bethel University. The Tommies beat the Royals 45-14.

Fasching said he doesn’t invest much time determining if a high school lineman projects as a D-1 or D-2/D-3 prospect. He waits for the D-1s to claim theirs, then recruits the rest. Caruso, as a former lineman, takes a clinical approach. While declining to specify the traits he seeks — “non-negotiables,” he calls them — Caruso said he can tell from 15 to 20 snaps whether a prep lineman can play at St. Thomas. 

“A lot of people would say, `I want a guy to be 6-foot-8 and weigh 340 pounds and run a 4.9 40 (yard dash) and have a pro agility of 4.3 (seconds in a 20-yard shuttle run) and have great hands and great first step,'” Caruso said. “No kidding. We all want those. And the only guy who’s getting them is Nick Saban, or whoever is on top of the food chain in Division I.

“It so happens size for us is not one of those non-negotiables. There are other things that are. But when you find those other attributes and also get the size, that’s when you have a line like we have this year.”

Precision counts. Quality linemen know a step six inches the wrong way, or an improperly-leveled block, can wreck a play at the point of attack. Both lines understand this and conduct themselves accordingly. Caruso said he has had better individual linemen since coming to St. Thomas in 2008, but never a unit as cohesive and dominant as this one.

“If you were judging the importance of a position, you might say it’s more important to have a great tailback than a great guard,” Caruso said. “In my opinion, you can’t judge the offensive line individually because it’s the one position that those guys are always on the field, always five of them, and they all play together and with one another. You really have to look at in totality: How good are the five of them operating together?” 

Quite well, for both schools.

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Comments (2)

St. Thomas

Another thing that has changed over the years at St. Thomas, are the athletic facilities. When I was on the track team back in the 90's, we lifted weights in a dusty attic. Now the equipment and facilities are second to none.

For a D3 school, it's very impressive. St. Thomas has some great supporters.

As The Size of Football Players At Every Level Increases

It hastens the demise of the game itself. Ever larger players running into each other at ever higher speeds, resulting in ever more concussions and other injuries. Calls for the end of the game, like those of two doctors on Minn Post recently, are easy to ignore now. But despite the resistance of institutional forces that are motivated by large amounts of money, there will more and more voices speaking louder and louder that this game belongs on the ash heap of history, in ways similar to the way Abolitionists in the 1830's were ignored in the 1830's, but who eventually triumphed.