The 2017 Iowa Conference Preseason Coaches' Poll has been released and Luther College was picked to finish seventh. University of Dubuque was picked to finish atop the league standings and received 60 points. The Spartans were followed by Coe College and Wartburg College that tied for second with 52 points. Central was fourth with 50 points.
Legacy Field at Carlson Stadium, the new top-of-the line synthetic turf (blue) and pad system by Astro Turf, was installed this summer. The first practice on the new surface took place August 14 and the 2017 Luther College football team is excited about the upcoming season. Head Coach Aaron Hafner, who begins his fifth year, returns a squad with 35 letter winners with plenty of game experience.
“The new turf is an exciting addition to our program,” stated Hafner. “It brings a lot of energy and excitement to our current players, our recruiting efforts and alumni. It is very unique and will create a different energy level for game days. Our entire program is looking forward to practicing and competing on a surface that was designed for safety and creating school pride.”
The 2017 squad is top heavy with seniors, a total of 24. This group will be asked to provide the leadership and work ethic that will be necessary for the Norse to be successful this season.
"We return several players that have game experience and have played at a high level for us,” stated Hafner.” We really feel the leadership on this team is excellent. During the off season this team committed to improving physically and took advantage of an excellent strength and speed development program that strength and conditioning coach Jeff Jones implemented.”
Since his arrival, Coach Hafner’s triple option rushing attack has led the Iowa Conference in rushing yards per game and time of possession. On the national level, Luther has been ranked in the top-four the past three years. Last year, Luther was ranked fourth in the NCAA III with an average of 298.5 rushing yards per game. In 2015 they were ranked fifth with an average of 310.6 and in 2014 they finished ranked second with an average of 340.9.
The rushing attack starts up front and four veterans return on the offensive line. Senior Kyle Prudome (Woodbury, Minn./St. Croix Lutheran) and junior Andy Johnson (Hudson, Wis.) are slated to be the starters at right and left tackle respectively. Senior Sean Trewin (Decorah, Iowa) has seen plenty of action at center. Senior Jacob Brunner (Stockton, Ill.), a second team all-conference honoree a year ago, returns at right guard. Tight ends senior Trevor Joiner (Carlisle, Iowa) and junior Matt Foundos (Highland, Ind.) have both been starters the past two years.
Senior Quarterback Brady Letney (Bettendorf, Iowa/Pleasant Valley) is a two-year starter. He finished last season as the second leading rusher, averaging 4.0 yards per carry enroute to 775 yards and six touchdowns, and was named honorable mention all-conference. Also returning at this position is sophomore Ian Kuykendall (Riverview, Fla./East Bay) who saw action in six games during his freshman campaign.
Seniors Nick Slavens (Bettendorf, Iowa/Pleasant Valley) and Sam Houlihan (Holmen, Wis.) averaged 10.7 and 7.5 yards per carry last season and return as the starting slot back and running back.
The fullback position is up for grabs. Christian Moore (Kendall, Wis./Royall) graduated and finished his career with 2,486 yards and 30 touchdowns. Andrew Whalen (South St. Paul, Minn.) is a nursing major and will miss this season fulfilling his class requirements in Rochester, Minn., but will return next season. Atop the depth chart to take over this position is junior Yassine Ouazzani (Tampa, Fla./King).
Justin Montgomery (Dalls, Texas/Hebron) and Bryce Pierce (Decorah, Iowa) are the top returning receivers from a year ago. Pierce also returned punts last season.
“The key to our offense will be how fast we can develop our offensive line and fullback position,” commented Hafner. “We have some players who have worked hard during the off season and now it is time for them to step up and be productive. We will have more speed then we have had in the past, and this will help us execute the triple option more efficiently. We must control the clock and score points when we get into the red zone.”
On the defensive side of the football, eight starters return for defensive coordinator Caleb Padilla. Seniors Sam Scheidt (La Crosse, Wis. /Aquinas), Joe Johnson (Sr., San Mateo, Calif. /Burlingame), Mitch Van Epps (Wild Rose, Wis.), and juniors Jacob Leeps (Decorah, Iowa) and Michael Noll (Lake City, Minn.), are all multiple year letter winners and have been starters during their careers on the defensive line.
Three seniors also return at linebacker. Josh Olerud (Spring Grove, Minn.), David Ponath (Stillwater, Minn./St. Croix Lutheran) and Colton Janssen (Warren, Ill.) are all multiple year letter winners. Olerud, a fifth-year senior, led the team with 83 tackles last season and has 134 for his career.
Seniors Luke Pulliam (Tracy, Calif.) and Damon Stroup (Tracy, Calif.) are returning starters at defensive back, while and junior Dante Joseph (Layton, Utah/Northridge) will begin his third year starting at safety. Joseph was third on the team with 72 tackles, while Stroup recorded 49 and Pulliam 46. The three combined for five of Luther’s eight interceptions a year ago. Also returning is two-year letter winner Sam Fierce (Bettendorf, Iowa/Pleasant Valley) at safety.
“We have a number of players with a lot of game experience returning on defense,” stated Hafner. “We saw great improvement defensively during our spring practices. We are expecting the defensive unit to be much improved.”
Senior Cory Wirth (Maquoketa, Iowa) returns as the Norse place kicker and punter. Wirth enters his final season ranked eighth on Luther’s all-time list for points by place kickers with 79. He has missed just three extra-points (52-of-55) during his career and is 9-of-14 for field goals. Last year, he also tallied 10 touchbacks on kickoffs and did not have a punt blocked in 26 efforts.
“We have a great group of young talented players that will fill valuable roles for us on special teams,” stated Hafner. “There is no doubt that Cory is the leader of our special teams. He has been a great asset to our program during his career. In order to be successful in the kicking game, each player will need to accept their role and perform at a high level every time they are on the field.”
The Norse open the season at UW-La Crosse on Saturday, Sept. 2 at 6:00 p.m. The Eagles, who were 2-5 in the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WIAC) and 5-5 overall last season, have been picked to finish fifth in the WIAC preseason poll released August 8.
Luther’s home schedule begins Saturday, Sept. 9 when it hosts long-time non-conference rival St. Olaf College. This day will begin with the official dedication of Legacy Field at Noon, with kick-off scheduled for 2:00 p.m. The Iowa Conference opener will be at home against University of Dubuque on Sept. 23 at 1:00 p.m