Talented Tommies Ready To Retain Title
Updated: Aug 7
St. Paul, Minn. - Two years ago, the University of St. Thomas became the first program in college football history to go directly from Division Three and straight into the FCS.
The consensus was that St. Thomas would struggle to compete at D-I. After all, what the Tommies were doing had never been done before. There was no guideline, no example to follow. Others proclaimed the gulf in talent was too great. Tommies head coach Glenn Caruso heard the noise but ignored it.
Caruso has been at the private Catholic university nestled between the Twin Cities of Minnesota since 2008. He knows what his players were capable of. After all, this was a program that had battled for national championships and boasted a roster bursting with talent.
“I think there's probably two things that people don't notice that worked in our favor in making that transition. One is that we had a lot of kids on our roster before we made the jump that we're absolutely Division One talents, like there's no doubt,” Caruso says with great conviction.
The other factor working in Caruso’s favor was that he had essentially run his football team as if it was already an FCS program. This meant that St. Thomas had less of a learning curve when adjusting to their new home in the Pioneer Football League.
Class was in session in 2021, but the Tommies proved to be star pupils, finishing 7-3. It was a good beginning, and a harbinger of things to come. The following year St. Thomas shocked the college football world again when they went 10-1 overall, 8-0 in league play, won the PFL outright and finished ranked inside the top 25 of the FCS.
Caruso and his Tommies now enter 2023 not as the hunter, but the hunted, with their rivals in the PFL eager to wrest the title from them. They wouldn’t want it any other way.
“Being hunted is nothing new for us. It's what we spent the better part of a decade and a half in, and with all due respect to any opponent that we’ve ever had, we don't control them,” Caruso explains calmly. “We control us, we control our actions, and so our focus revolves around ourselves and our actions and how can we be a little bit better tomorrow than we were today?
Defending The Crown
The Tommies return a tenacious defense, strong special teams and a strong offensive line, but there are still holes to fill. Arguably the biggest losses are All-Americans Matt Weimann at center and Luke Glenna at defensive back.
The Tommies will need to replace a pair of All-Americans from last year's Pioneer Football League championship squad. Both defensive back Luke Glenna and center Matt Weimann graduated and were the first All-Americans for St. Thomas at the Division One level. (PC: Dan Borgeson)
The Tommies also need a new QB after last year’s starter Cade Sexauer exhausted his eligibility. Sexauer finished 2022 with over 1,800 passing yards, completing fifty-eight percent of his passes with 17 TDs to 8 INTs enroute to Second Team PFL Honors.
The Tommies have some holes to fill after last year's starting QB Cade Sexauer exhausted his eligibility. Sexauer earned Second Team PFL honors in his final year in pads, after completing nearly 60 percent of his passes and throwing for nearly 2,000 yards and 17 touchdowns. (PC: Dan Borgeson)
All eyes will be on sophomore quarterback Amari Powell, the presumed starter. The California native struggled with accuracy during spring ball, and fellow Californian QB Travis Plugge has yet to attempt a single pass in a college game. The other two quarterbacks on the roster are incoming freshmen.
“We always have to replace guys, and it’s my job to find the best guy. Certainly, replacing Cade Sexauer will be tough,” Caruso says. “Another piece to replace is Matt Weimann, who was an All-American center for us. And then Luke Glenna on the defensive side, you know not just a lot of tackles, but a tremendous culture guy, one of those guys that started for us before we made the transition, was able to stay ahead of the curve and did an amazing job leading this team.”
The Tommies are fortunate to return leading rusher Shawn Shipman (845 yards, 9 TDs) along with Hope Adebayo (490, 1 TD). Shipman was a Second Team PFL selection, and the duo should make for an exciting tandem in the backfield this fall.
University of St. Thomas running back Shawn Shipman slips a would-be tackler as he breaks off a big play during the Tommies 2023 campaign. Shipman was a Second Team PFL recipient and is the Tommies' returning rusher. Shipman has the potential to go over 1,000 yards this season after finishing with over 800 rushing yards and nine TDs in 2022. (PC: Dan Borgeson)
Powell can breathe a sigh of relief this fall with the return of First Team PFL junior offensive lineman Alec Rasmussen and the Tommies top three wide receivers, Andrew McElroy, Jacob Wildermuth and Wesley Juszczak. McElroy is an especially electric player.
Andrew McElroy returns to the University of St. Thomas as one of its most electric playmakers. The junior wide receiver spent time as a kick returner last year and finished with nearly 1,200 all-purpose yards, and was recently named to the 2023 Stats Perform FCS Preseason All-America Team. (PC: Dan Borgeson)
McElroy was the only unanimous selection for the All-PFL team in 2022 and played all 11 games for the Tommies at wide receiver and kick returner, finishing with 1162 all-purpose yards, including 717 receiving yards and seven receiving touchdowns. McElroy was the only member of the PFL to notch a 300 all-purpose yard game last season and the incoming junior was recently named to the 2023 Stats Perform FCS Preseason All-America Team.
The Tommies remain solid on defense, returning four of their top five tacklers, chief among them junior Jonthan Bunce, a First Team PFL linebacker who recorded 57 tackles, 5.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss. Second Team PFL defensive back junior Yusef Leak is another returning playmaker on defense.
Tommies linebacker Jonathan Bunce, center, sheds several tacklers enroute to a tackle for loss last year. Bunce was a First Team PFL selection in 2022 after tallying 57 tackles, a team high 5.5 sacks and 10.5 TFLs. Bunce will lead a defensive unit that finished in the top ten in the FCS in several categories. (PC: Dan Borgeson)
Sophomore kicker Stephen Shagan made all 22 PATs and handled kick-off duties, totaling 3,321 yards off 62 attempts with eight touchbacks. Shagan also converted five of seven field goals. With McElroy at kick returner the Tommies special teams unit will be among the finest in the PFL.
Navigating The Schedule
This fall features several intriguing matchups for St. Thomas. The Tommies open the year at O'Shaughnessy Stadium against Division Two Black Hills State (S.D.). The Tommies should win that one handily, but their next two opponents will pose a greater challenge.
St. Thomas hits the road to take on the South Dakota Coyotes in Vermillion. The Coyotes went 3-8 last year, but the Tommies will be in a hostile environment, and against a program that routinely plays FBS programs and battles the best teams in the FCS week in and week out.
Another intriguing match-up awaits the Tommies the following week, with a road game against Harvard. The Crimson finished last year 6-4, with two of those losses coming by a combined six points. Harvard also played well against a top ten Holy Cross squad before losing 30-21.
The Tommies begin their PFL defense against Moorhead State in the first meeting between the two programs, but St. Thomas should win handily over a team that finished 1-7 in 2022. The Tommies are favored in their clashes with Drake, Valparaiso, Stetson, Butler and Marist. Their toughest conference challenge will likely come in the form of a road game with Dayton in Week Five.
A potential trap game will be with a road game with San Diego on Nov. 11. The Toreros tested the Tommies in O'Shaughnessy Stadium last year, with the Tommies prevailing 49-42.
The University of San Diego also has a new head coach after long-time coach Dale Lindsey retired. Brandon Moore takes over in San Diego, and is a proven winner, having led the Colorado School of Mines to their first-ever appearance in the NCAA Division II Championship Game last year. Moore was named the AFCA DII National Coach of the Year.
While the media finally seems to be on the side of the Tommies this year, picking them to retain the PFL title, Caruso continues to tune out the noise. He has bigger priorities on his mind than wins and losses.
“I never put a marker on what success looks like relative to a score, or relative to a win or loss," said Caruso. "I know a lot of people are like ‘This is crazy.’ And I get it. You can look at the record. We got a lot of wins, and we don't have a lot of losses. I understand that. But it's the byproduct of the process. What keeps my heart warm is knowing we have 110 guys and 15 coaches that are ultimately focused on being the best that they can be for each other.”