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Excitement grows for UMD spring football

Minnesota Duluth linebacker Robbie Aurich lugged a 70-pound sandbag to and from Malosky Stadium on Monday afternoon as part of the Bulldogs' first spring football practice.

Minnesota Duluth linebacker Robbie Aurich lugged a 70-pound sandbag to and from Malosky Stadium on Monday afternoon as part of the Bulldogs' first spring football practice.

"It's not light," UMD coach Bob Nielson said. "It should take a lot of effort."

Nielson used the sandbag as a teaching tool to show that grains of sand aren't much individually, but combined together and put in bags through hard work, they have the ability to achieve the impossible.

UMD is proud of what is has accomplished the past two seasons, winning its first national football championship in 2008 and making the NCAA Division II quarterfinals last season, and the Bulldogs want to keep it that way. Perhaps the biggest question this spring will be how the team adjusts to new defensive coordinator Todd Strop.

Early indications are it will be smooth.

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"When you step in for a team that has won 26 games in two years and won a national title, you just try to not screw things up too bad," Strop said, laughing. "We'll change some things, we'll tweak some things, but overall, you want to keep things pretty consistent."

Strop, 41, was at the University of South Dakota the past two seasons and served as the Coyotes' defensive coordinator last fall, but the rest of his family continued to live in Hudson, Wis., while his wife, Chris, looked for a counseling job in South Dakota.

"It wasn't a fun situation, so when this opportunity presented itself, it felt like going home," said Strop, a native of Ladysmith, Wis., who played defensive back for the Wisconsin Badgers. "We're looking forward to getting the crew back together again."

Strop replaces John Steger, who left in January to coach at Southern Illinois. Steger helped mold the Bulldogs 3-4 defense into one of the best in NCAA Division II, with UMD finishing second in points allowed last season (12.5 ppg), fourth in rushing defense (69.1 ypg) and fifth in total defense (251.0 ypg).

"The great thing about spring practice with the new coordinator is that it gives everyone an opportunity to get on the same page," Nielson said. "Spring practice conveys a sense of excitement. Your guys train all year for football, but really, there is something special when you're back on that field practicing. It's more tangible. That first game feels a lot closer today than yesterday."

UMD will continue to use a 3-4 defense under Strop, who said he "fell in love" with the 3-4 while coaching at Wisconsin-Stout from 1998 to 2006. He will emphasize an aggressive approach that starts with stopping the run, and rather than making his players adjust to him, Strop learned the Bulldogs' terminology.

"I was shocked by how many players were coming in to try to watch film and get on board, when I didn't even know what the heck I was doing yet," Strop said. "The first week I was here we watched every piece of film from last year, every snap, and I kind of took my defensive package and Coach Steger's defensive package and squashed them together. I'd say 75 to 80 percent of it will really be the same, so to the outsider looking in, things won't look a whole lot different."

Strop is a high-energy, hands-on type of coach who unlike Steger plans on being on the sidelines on game days. Whereas Steger was a perfectionist and more reserved, Strop is outgoing and emotional.

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"Coach Strop carries such a high energy level that you almost have to match it in practice or else you're going to get left behind," Aurich said. "You can really tell how much he loves football and how much he cares about it, and that inspires you to care about it as much as he does. If you could put a helmet on him and let him play, I know he would. He's that kind of guy."

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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