COLLEGEVILLE, MINN. – Jordan Roberts was little more than a rumor as a running back when St. Thomas came here last Sept. 26 to play its MIAC opener. St. John's was the defending conference champion and ranked No. 8 in Division III football, and the Tommies were No. 12.
Roberts was a 5-10, 224-pound transfer from South Dakota. He had chosen St. Thomas in order to enter the seminary with the intention to become a priest.
Gary Fasching, the St. John's coach, had warned that Roberts was "really good" after watching him on tape in the Tommies' pair of nonconference victories.
That scouting report was accurate and then some, as Roberts carried 31 times for 230 yards and four touchdowns in the Tommies' 35-14 whipping of St. John's. When the season ended for St. Thomas in the national title game, Roberts had totaled 355 carries, 2,092 yards, 34 touchdowns and was named the national offensive player of the year by D3football.com.
Roberts was back to the lead the Tommies as a senior. He had decent production in two nonconference victories, and then missed last week's 62-10 thumping of Carleton. It is a knee injury that could require surgery this week.
The absence of Roberts did not cause a change in the strategy the Tommies used to defeat St. John's twice in 2015. It still was "pound 'em," as left tackle Will Hilbert said, but this time with sophomore Tucker Trettel between the tackles and freshman Josh Parks around the edge.
The rushing numbers weren't as gaudy — 190 yards for St. Thomas compared with 83 for St. John's — but the result was the same: Tommies 33, Johnnies 21.
St. John's had reason to kick itself afterward with its three lost fumbles and two interceptions thrown by new quarterback Jackson Erdmann. That didn't change the fact that for the third time in one calendar year, the Tommies delivered harder blows and were a deeper, stronger collection of athletes on both sides of the line.
The Tommies now have won 13 straight games in the MIAC (not including the 38-19 playoff victory over St. John's last Nov. 28). St. Thomas is currently rated No. 4 in Division III, and that didn't seem high enough as it was handling the No. 6 Johnnies.
No Roberts? Trettel banged away for 79 yards on 21 carries, and Parks exploded for 109 yards on 15 carries. Trettel scored once and Parks twice, including a 46-yard burst with 2:05 remaining that assured no comeback for the outplayed Johnnies.
The tandem of running backs taking the workload from Roberts was not the only new part of the rushing game. Four of the five starters on the offensive line are also new from 2015.
This is the fourth season for Hilbert at left tackle. His cohorts now are Chandler Lamke, Sean Scharlau, Gavin Dauwalter and Damon Longstreet. There are three juniors and one senior among those four, and they had a chance to play frequently during past Tommies blowouts.
These weren't the guys who pounded on St. John's twice last season, though.
"It took time to straighten out some things with the new line, but we're together now," Hilbert said. "And we have backs here that make our jobs easier — whether it's Jordan Roberts, or Tucker, or our new guy, Josh Parks."
Parks has had an odyssey since graduating from Chisago Lakes High School in 2014. He was a recruited walk-on with the Gophers that fall. He was a roommate with Jacques Perra, the walk-on quarterback from Roseville.
In August 2015, Parks decided to come to St. John's. He practiced with the Johnnies for a couple of weeks and then went back to Minneapolis.
"I had a lease on a place at the university and couldn't get anyone to take it," Parks said. "I couldn't afford to stay here and pay the rent."
Perra left the university for St. Thomas last winter. Parks joined him this August. He didn't play football last season, so that still makes Parks a freshman for D-III football.
The contrast in styles — Trettel's hard-nosed, Parks' swift and elusive — made up for Roberts' absence. They figure to be doing that for the next several weeks as Roberts deals with the bad knee.
The Johnnies were even with St. Thomas only once Saturday, at 7-7 when Evan Clark went 68 yards with a deflected pass late in the first quarter. The tie was broken when Tommies lineman Anthony King-Foreman picked up Erdmann's fumble on a hop and went 57 yards for a touchdown.
"The pressure finally got home, and that scoop-and-score was as big a play as there was," St. Thomas coach Glenn Caruso said.
It was, although not as big as having the depth to replace the best D-III running back in the country.