Thank you for reading Football Across Minnesota (FAM), my weekly column that tours football topics in our state from preps to pros. You can find all the previous FAM columns right here. — Chip
. . .
The top-ranked big-school football team in Minnesota trailed at halftime 14-13 against a team that had made surprise changes on offense in both scheme and personnel.
The Lakeville South Cougars didn't flinch.
As coach Ben Burk navigated the visitors locker room during intermission, shaking hands and offering encouragement, his players steeled themselves with an unwavering confidence that permeates the program.
"We know we're a great team," standout running back Carson Hansen said later. "Dig in and finish the game."
Their 30-22 comeback victory over an inspired Shakopee team Thursday revealed why the undefeated Cougars wear a bull's-eye at the top of Class 6A. They are strong, athletic, tough, and they run a throwback offense that is difficult to defend.
They also are extremely confident.
That inner belief stems from exhaustive preparation, a process that Burk allowed the Star Tribune to witness leading up to the Shakopee game.
A snapshot of a typical week for the Cougars explains why they have become a powerhouse program in recent years.
FRIDAY, 8 p.m.
Scouting the opponent
Burk, defensive coordinator Mark Dean and about 10 players gather along the fence at Eden Prairie's stadium. The Cougars played the day before, allowing them a chance to scout their next opponent, Shakopee, against Eden Prairie.
Burk is wearing a baseball hat that has four words sewn across the front summarizing Lakeville South's identity: "Run The Damn Ball." The hat was gift from senior tight end Chase Androff, who is committed to play at Nebraska.
Burk is a 35-year-old Air Force veteran who wears his hat backwards, keeps his beard thick and admittedly tells way too many dad jokes when he's teaching English class.
He grew up in a small "cowboy town" in northern Arizona. His summer job in high school was working on a cattle ranch.
Burk played quarterback and ended up at St. Cloud State with the help of a coach's suggestion and family ties to the Midwest. He left school after two years and enlisted in the Air Force, working as a journalist stationed at Scott Air Force Base near St. Louis. He filed stories and B-roll video footage during a six-month deployment to Kuwait.
Burk, with wife Anna, moved back to Minnesota after his four-year service. He used a G.I. Bill to get his teaching degree from St. Thomas. He had football eligibility left and gave it a shot in spring practice, but his body wasn't having it. St. Thomas coach Glenn Caruso invited him to join his staff as a student assistant.
"That's where I really got my standard of what excellence is," Burk said.
A high school assistant coach for nearly a decade, he ascended to head coach during the 2019 season after Tyler Krebs resigned while being investigated for "suspected breach/unauthorized computer access."
Burk is quick to credit Krebs for creating the program's foundation, but the Cougars are 23-1 with Burk at the helm.
"One of our youth coaches said it well: Somebody threw me keys to a Ferrari and I'm driving it like a Formula One driver," Burk said.
He goes hard. Rather than enjoy a Friday night off, the Cougars contingent came to Eden Prairie to scout. Burk and his defensive coordinator took mental notes of Shakopee's schemes and personnel. They already have pretty good knowledge, having studied the Sabers extensively on video.
They stay until the end of Eden Prairie's 23-0 victory.
TUESDAY, 7 a.m.
School doesn't start for another hour, but players are settled into their chairs in a lecture hall at school to watch video of Shakopee, along with footage of their own practice from the previous day.
It is common these days for high school teams to dissect video of opponents. Not every team holds film study at 7 a.m. twice a week. Burk sees an added benefit for the early rise: His players are alert for the first hour of class.
The session starts with defense. Dean shows plays from different Shakopee games this season, stopping and rewinding over and over to emphasize specific points about technique or how he wants to attack a certain scheme. He also encourages the scout team to go harder in practice later today.
Practice video comes via a drone. Burk has a film coach on staff, plus a student assistant who operates the drone at practice. The drone provides bird's-eye images so clear that coaches can easily identify, and correct, even the slightest pre-snap misalignment.
Players have an app that allows them to access Hudl video of opponents. Classmates might still be asleep, but Burk's players are attentive because they consider video work a critical part of success.
"That was one of the things we told kids that we would need to do to catch everybody in the state," Burk said.
The defense's portion lasts 20 minutes, then Burk reviews the offense's practice video.
This is where things become tricky for someone unfamiliar with the Power T offense. Picture 11 players bunched together, with two tight ends, no wide receivers and three running backs lined up in the backfield side by side in a line.
In seven games, the Cougars have run the ball 319 times and passed it 37. They make no secret of their intentions — remember Burk's hat.
Lakeville South coaches felt their offense lacked an identity back in 2018, so they contacted Elk River coach Steve Hamilton to learn more about his vaunted Power T scheme.
Hamilton gave them an overview and welcomed the entire Lakeville South team to watch a summer practice. The coaches were sold.
They installed the offense and the Cougars promptly started 1-5 that first season, 2018. But then something clicked. They scored 48 points in a victory over Shakopee, and defenses have struggled to stop them ever since.
Burk became a full convert after Hamilton introduced him to a group of 40 or so Michigan high school coaches who belong to what Burk jokingly calls a "little cult of Power T coaches."
Burk and his staff traveled to Traverse City, Mich., in February 2019 to attend the cult's seminar on the Power T, held at an American Legion post.
The Michigan coaches all share the same playbook. They dissected every facet of the offense at the gathering. One coach gave a presentation on blocking techniques. Another went through option plays. And so on.
"We were furiously writing down notes," Burk said.
The coaches keep meetings secret for competitive reasons.
"They don't want [non-Power T coaches] to infiltrate and learn how to defend it," Burk said, estimating that fewer than 10 teams in Minnesota run a version of Power T.
The offense uses an array of fakes and sleight-of-hand deception. Often times, defenders tackle a player carrying out a fake because they don't know which running back has the ball.
Burk encourages his coaches to call 10 pass plays per game. They rarely hit that goal. The Cougars average 319 rushing yards per game, and 7.0 yards per carry.
"If we can be disciplined and know where we're going fast," Burk said, "you can't replicate it [when preparing for it]."
Film session adjourns at 7:40 a.m. Time for class.
WEDNESDAY, 2:50 p.m.
The lights are turned off in Lakeville South's weight room. Scott Sahli, the school's strength and conditioning coordinator, closes the blinds. A neon sign that says "Building Champions" glows in the background.
Burk's players file in. There is no music. No talking. No sound during the workout except for an industrial fan blowing and barbells slamming on the floor.
The Cougars refer to this as Silent Lift, a quiet but intense 40-minute workout the day before games. The only voice heard is that of Sahli, who was named the 2010 National Strength and Conditioning Association High School Coach of the Year.
Sahli spent 33 years at Northfield before joining Krebs at Burnsville and then Lakeville South. Players and coaches credit Sahli's innovative training methods for helping transform the program.
"What we do in there is unlike any other team in the state," said quarterback Camden Dean, son of the Cougars defensive coordinator.
Sahli specializes in Olympic weightlifting. He focuses on different types of lifts — clean and jerk, snatch — that emphasize power.
The payoff across all positions is most evident on the squat rack. More than 15 players can squat between 380 and 530 pounds, according to Sahli.
The Cougars lift five days a week during the season. Silent Lift is the most unique. Players push and strain in silence.
The session ends with a series of pushups and V-ups.
On pushups, the players yell "Win" in unison after each rep. On V-ups, they yell "victory" as they touch their hands to toes.
Sahli delivers different motivational messages in a measured tone as players rest between sets.
The workout ends with a team huddle. Then it's off to practice.
As they leave the weight room, each player reaches up and touches a sign above the door.
Today I Gave Everything
For My Team
THURSDAY, 7 p.m.
Gameday at Shakopee
The game starts with a bang. Hansen rips off a 55-yard touchdown run on the third play. He adds another touchdown run later in the first quarter for a 13-0 lead.
Shakopee shows fight. The Sabers adapt to the loss of quarterback Dominic Jackson to a knee injury by unveiling a new look, something they didn't show against Eden Prairie. Running back Jadon Hellerud took direct snaps out of the single wing.
The Cougars adjusted defensively and regrouped at halftime. They scored 17 points in the second half and made one final defensive stand to remain undefeated.
"We tell each other that we're not going to lose," said Dean, the senior quarterback who will play at Minnesota State in Mankato next season.
That mentality runs deep through the entire program. And that doesn't happen magically.
"What you have to do to be good is so much," Burk said.
Little things add up to something big. Players in the youth program receive birthday cards from Burk. Imagine how that makes an 11-year-old feel on his birthday, to get a card from the varsity head coach.
Kids learn the Power T offense starting in middle school. That's possible because of a strong network of parent coaches are invested in the program.
The varsity finished practice one night this season. Managers waited outside the storage garage where they keep equipment because the seventh-grade team was inside watching film.
"We're not going to rest," Burk said. "It takes time, and it takes effort. We have the right group of coaches and kids that are willing to do that. It's the flywheel effect. Once the flywheel is rolling, it's hard to stop it."
That means back to the film room and weight room and practice field after winning a hard-fought game at Shakopee. The Cougars usually lift weights at 8 a.m. on Saturday when they play on Friday night.
Since they played a day early, they'll have to wait until after the school day ends Friday. Even as they celebrate a win, they sound excited to get back to it.
"Oh yeah," Camden Dean said. "Right away."
. . .
Carolina in my mind
A little sleep-deprived after traveling south to cover the Vikings' 34-28 overtime victory at Carolina on Sunday, but a few things still rolling around the noggin after their latest thrill ride:
- I was talking with colleague Ben Goessling about Kirk Cousins' confidence in leading late comebacks this morning at the Charlotte airport. It wasn't so long ago that Cousins' failures in pressure moments felt like a weekly narrative. Now, it's just the opposite. Cousins has been clutch in those make-or-break situations. You expect something positive when he takes the field in those moments. Ben provides some interesting data on Cousins in two-minute situations in his day-after analysis.
- I didn't know what to expect from Everson Griffen when returned this season. I figured he'd be a situational pass rusher, mostly on third down. So much for that. Griffen started and played 63 snaps against the Panthers — 85 % of the snaps. He still has plenty of juice left in rushing the quarterback.
- Dalvin Cook looked and sounded tired in his postgame interview. He's not 100%, yet he carried the ball 29 times against one of the league's best defenses. The bye week comes at a perfect time for him.
- K.J. Osborn deserves a lot of praise for the improvement he made this past offseason. His hard work has earned the trust of Cousins and the coaching staff as the No. 3 receiver. He should benefit from defenses paying so much attention to Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen, and Osborn is proving that he can make big plays in critical situations.
- The impact of losing cornerback Patrick Peterson for three games on injured reserve cannot be overstated. The timing would never be ideal for that news but especially with the high-quality quarterbacks on the docket coming out of the bye. Mike Zimmer will have to spend his bye week chewing on that problem.
- Joe Rossi: Gophers defensive coordinator's game plan bottled up Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez, taking away his running threat. Martinez posted minus-17 yards rushing.
- Hope Adebayo: St. Thomas sophomore made his first college start and rushed for 182 yards and four touchdowns in a blowout of Stetson in Florida.
- Marcus Kimbrough: Augsburg sophomore tied a school record with three interceptions in a win over Macalester. He also had four tackles and a pass breakup.
A FAM FINAL WORD
I was reminded of how special Friday night football is after spending a week with Lakeville South. I attended two games — one at Eden Prairie and one at Shakopee — and the atmospheres at both were fantastic. But mostly, I loved seeing how much joy players on those teams felt in representing their schools and competing in the same uniform with their close friends, some of them probably friends since early childhood. Pretty cool.
. . .
Thank you for reading Football Across Minnesota. I'll publish this each Monday night on startribune.com, timed to kickoff of "Monday Night Football." And you can also join me on Twitter during the first quarter of MNF as I chat with readers about what I wrote each week.
Chip (@chipscoggins on Twitter)