New Whitworth football coach Rod Sandberg barks out instructions as his linebackers and defensive ends run through a series of padded dummies and deliver sweeping haymakers before they run and tackle the last one and roll to their feet.
The players and coaches all sprint to their next station and all must answer the coach when he yells out a question.
“What are we about?” ‘FAMILY,’ the team screams in response.
After a defender failed to meet his expectation, Sandberg ordered all the defensive players to stop their drill and do pushups.
“Good habits now,” the coach yelled as he walked among the players. “Great teams take great painstaking attention to detail. We want to be a great team.”
Only a few years ago, the NCAA started allowing Division III programs to practice in the spring. The Pirates are limited to 15 practices over a five-week period. But the extra workouts come with a catch: no pads or helmets, which makes it useless for Sandberg to hold a spring game.
Instead, the team practices on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday and will conclude May 10 with the Spring Fling where Sandberg will have the players go through competitive drills in the Pine Bowl. It will end with a picnic for all friends of the program and the presentation of off-season awards.
“We will paint up the field and have some competitions that matter,” Sandberg said. “We want to have something to include the parents and the alums.”
The inability to practice with pads and helmets has its limitations, but Sandberg said it can also get more players included.
“If you practice with helmets and pads, you are already deciding who will be the starter. But if you don’t have pads, it’s ‘Let’s Learn.’”
All the players get to go through all the drills.
“The fourth-string quarterback gets as many reps as the first-stringer,” he said. “It ups the energy because everybody has a chance,” he said.
While Division I programs held a national letter of intent signing day on Feb. 5, Division III Whitworth has a self-imposed deadline of May 1 to get most of its recruiting complete. However, some junior-college transfers could be in play well into the summer.
Because the players don’t receive scholarships to play, as they do at schools like Eastern Washington and Washington State, it often takes much more time for the private institutions to both accept the player academically and to get the paperwork completed for financial aid.
“We are still working like a dog to find the right men for what we are looking to do,” Sandberg said.
Whitworth hired Sandberg, the former defensive coordinator for Wheaton College (Illinois), last December to replace John Tully, who resigned after 19 years of leading the program.
Fighting through the late start to recruiting, Sandberg said he already has about 20 players who have agreed to join the program and he is waiting to hear from another 30 recruits.
“I obviously won’t take 50 players, but I’d love to have 35 or 40,” he said. “We are more concerned about quality versus quantity. Three or four difference-makers can change the whole outlook of the class.”
Through graduation and attrition, Whitworth had many new faces running around in jerseys and shorts this week.
Among the returning players is quarterback Bryan Peterson, a senior who started most of the games last year when the Pirates finished 4-6 overall and 2-4 in the Northwest Conference.
Also competing at quarterback will be senior Michael McCune, sophomore Ian Kolste – who received a couple starts when Peterson was injured last year – and Zac Hill, a sophomore from North Central who took a couple years off but has rejoined the program.
Lars Blix, also a sophomore, was listed as a quarterback last year and did some punting. Sandberg said he’s moved to safety.
Many of the running backs return, including former Gonzaga Prep star Griffin Hare, who looks like he’s added some muscle to his 6-foot-1 frame. As the primary backup to departed senior D.J. Tripoli, Hare ran for 263 yards on 80 carries and eight rushing touchdowns.
But Whitworth also has Kyle Brownell, Duke DeGaetano, Caleb Garza and possibly Ricky Abernathy, who missed time last year with an injury.
“We have a lot of potential in the defensive line and linebackers,” Sandberg said. “We have guys who can run and move. But we don’t have depth at safety, offensive line and receiver. With those positions, we have to stay healthy and get young guys to develop.”
Former Rogers coach Matt Miethe was hired to coach the offensive line and Sandberg brought in former Wheaton assistant Adam Richbart to coordinate the defense.
Former Shadle Park coach Alan Stanfield has brought the Pirates an up-tempo offense, which Sandberg hopes to use to mask any questions in depth.
“We don’t have the power to line up and run it at you every time,” Sandberg said. “In (Stanfield’s) offense, it’s spread you out … and go where the defense is weak. We will come at you hard and fast.”
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