Football: New beginnings abound for Wingers
With a new head coach and a new slew of conference opponents, Red Wing is hoping to revitalize its football program. Losers of their last 17 games, the Wingers are hungry to win again.
“When you look at it, all those schools (in the now-defunct Missota Conference) were a bigger size than us,” said Red Wing senior lineman Nick Connelly. “This year, people don’t know what to expect. I’m all right with being the underdog. I’m all right with surprising some people.”
If the first week of practice under new head coach Rickey Foggie is any indication, the players’ hopes are rising in 2014 as the team moves back to the Big Nine Conference after 32 years.
“We’ve handled it pretty well so far,” wide receiver Ben Miller said of practice. “It’s different than from previous years; expectations are higher.”
Where Foggie, a former University of Minnesota and Arena League quarterback, hopes to make his mark is on the offensive end. The task won’t be easy — the Wingers averaged just 8.9 points per game and were shut out four times in 2013 — but there is talent across the field.
“I want to develop the offense and defense that’s suitable for our kids. I think we’re doing a good job of that as a coaching staff,” Foggie said. “We’re also doing more individual work, teaching the kids the basic fundamentals.”
Foggie will break in a new quarterback in junior Tait Kelly, who saw limited action behind center for Red Wing last season. He also returns as the team’s top rusher from a year ago (76 carries for 151 yards).
“Tait’s really progressed,” Miller said. “His ball’s gotten a lot better, and hopefully he’ll be able to help us win some games this year.”
Kelly will have plenty of weapons at his disposal at receiver with the return of Miller (41 catches, 426 yards, four touchdowns) and tight end Travis Toivonen (27-394-2).
“We got some pretty athletic guys at wide receiver and slot (receiver),” Foggie said. “Those guys play baseball and basketball, and they’re tall and lanky.”
Miller added, “With our experience and our base talent (at wideout), we’ll be a tough team to deal with.”
But at the heart of Foggie’s spread offense is the run game, which will be spearheaded by junior Omonte Bowens and an offensive line that returns four starters from last year’s unit.
“The offensive system I have is a run-first offense. I’m still holding onto that because it sets the tone of being physical,” Foggie said. “With a guy like Omonte, who can break two or three (tackles), that’s a win-win for us. It sets the physicality up front and lets your guys on the line tee off on the defense. You get them flying off the football and putting guys on their butt.”
Hoping to make the biggest impact on the line is Connelly, a three-star offensive line recruit who verbally committed to the University of Minnesota in June.
“You walk out here and you know who he is; he’s the biggest kid out here but he works hard,” Foggie said about Connelly. “He’s not one of those kids who’s in the back of the line when we’re sprinting. He’s up there at the front. He’s the first kid up there for the drills. He leads by example.
“We don’t need a rah-rah guy. We need Nick to go out there and be physical and show these kids how to get it done.”
After struggling to slow down opposing offenses in 2014, the Wingers will try to throw out different defensive packages. Red Wing will have to find playmakers after Tyler Rea (62 tackles, three sacks), Thate Peterson (59 tackles, two fumble recoveries) and Lucas Knowlton (49 tackles) graduated.
“The coverage is the same as last year; some simple cover-1, cover-2 and 3 in our 4-3 (formation),” Connelly said. “We’re trying some different types of stunts and blitz packages. It’s been pretty confusing, but we’re starting to get a hang of some of the stuff.”
Foggie added, “Our whole philosophy is not to get beat deep. We’re hoping teams want to come out and pass the ball on us. We do have a stud named Nick Connelly (at defensive end), and we’ll see how they can shut that guy down. I don’t think it’s possible, but we’ll see.”
The reintroduction to the Big Nine begins Friday at Northfield in a battle between former Missota Conference teams. While Red Wing may not replicate its success from the last season in the Big Nine — a share of the conference title in 1981 — the goal is to get into the win column.
“Expectations are so much higher,” Miller said. “More conditioning, a different mindset; hopefully that reflects in our record. … Our goal is to be .500 this year, hopefully get better on every end and coming out on the winning end.”