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Young Thunder team aims to qualify for playoffs for third year in a row

Members of the Thunder offensive line practice for extra points, with Cloquet’s Logan Crowser kicking and Jamie Fore holding the ball. Fore also plays strong safety while Crowser will likely punt and play linebacker, Coach Keith Turner said. The team hosts Minnesota State-Fergus Falls at noon Saturday, Aug. 23, at Esko’s new field for its first game. Jana Peterson/ 1 / 4
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If it seems like the football season is starting early for Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College — it is.

Training camp started Aug. 3 for Coach Keith Turner’s staff and 65 players, who will open their schedule Aug. 23 and play their first two games before Labor Day.

“We are starting really, really early,” Turner said. “We are young and have a lot of freshmen who have never played together before.”

Last year’s Thunder qualified for the Minnesota College Athletic Conference (MCAC) playoffs for the second straight year despite a 3-5 regular season record, but this year’s team is going to have to gel quickly for the program to make a third straight playoff appearance.

The team hosts Minnesota State-Fergus Falls at noon Saturday, Aug. 23, at Esko’s new field, where it will play three of its home games this fall. The Thunder’s second game is also at Esko on Aug. 30 against Minnesota West.

“The early part of the schedule is home-friendly,” Turner said. “I’m glad we get the first two at home, because a lot of times you get on the road and kids get nervous about playing in a different place. We get to sleep in our own beds.”

Finding a sense of team is going to be vital for the Thunder, who have 23 returning players in their 65-player roster.

The squad is very young at some very important positions. For example, every quarterback on the roster is a true freshman, and there will be plenty of competition for the starting place.

Right now Turner says Travis Brown, a true freshman from southwest Minnesota, is the best bet to start at quarterback but notes that nothing has been decided.

“He throws a nice ball,” Turner said. “But we have others who are hot on his tail. We need guys to develop some confidence and get ready to play.”

Perhaps that’s a bit brave from Turner, who jokingly suggested that a better way to deal with his quarterback situation might be found in the trainer’s kit.

“I’ll be taking a lot of Advil and Aleve,” Turner laughed. “But Travis likes us and he wanted to be here so we’re glad to have him.”

But the fact remains that two-thirds of Turner’s squad has never played together before.

“They’re either transfers or true freshmen,” Turner said. “We have to get them playing together quickly.”

Turner says the team should be strongest on the defensive side of the ball.

“Our defensive line and our defensive backs are where we have most of our returning players,” he said. “I think we will be real strong there. I don’t see people throwing the ball on us much.”

Turner said that the team’s defensive prowess will help the offense develop.

“We’ve got a bunch of young cats at receiver and they’re competing against guys who are older and stronger in practice,” he said. “That will definitely help us.”

One notable absence in the offensive line — because you can hardly miss him when he’s there — is 6-foot7, 330-pound lineman David Love from Waunakee, Wis. Turner said that Love has already attracted attention from Arizona State.

“He was projected to be All-American and then he tore the labrum in his shoulder so he’s out for the year,” Turner said. “He can run, has lots of athleticism at that size, and we’re going to miss him.”

The team’s running game will be by committee, with Turner looking to Saturday’s 10 a.m. intrasquad scrimmage at Hilltop Park to see who stands out.

“We’ve got three fullbacks and you might see some I-formation and pistol out of us,” Turner said. “We’ll look a little like UMD at times. We’ll be able to run some inside zone and outside zone and come back with counter. We should be fun to watch.”

Turner is also excited about the return of sophomore tight end Deandre Bell, who lost 25 pounds over the off-season and looks very good.

Among local players, Moose Lake’s Hunter Herzog is expected to start at either offensive guard or tackle, while Hermantown’s Jahaad Gow may find an offensive line spot as well. Gow’s brother Xavier may find a special teams position.

“Herzog will slot right in, and Jahaad Gow is a man-child,” Turner said.  

Logan Crowser and Payton LeBoeuf of Cloquet are also on the roster and will compete for playing time.

That battle begins Saturday morning at Hilltop.

“We’ll go as far as our quarterbacks will take us,” Turner said. “But the offensive line looks good and we are well ahead of where we were last year in terms of understanding where we need to be.”