The Minnesota Brawlers kick off their second season in the Northern Elite Football League on Saturday at Burnsville High School as the young team will begin their journey, hoping to surprise some teams and continue to climb up the ranks.
“We’re looking to do some pretty good things this year,” Brawlers owner Trever Coxworth told Developmental Football USA. “The St. Paul Pioneers are obviously the team we want to beat to get up to that national level. We have two teams on our schedule, that if we beat, we should get noticed nationally. That’s the goal this year, to not let the Pioneers win another championship, to knock them off their throne.”
Last season, the Brawlers finished 4-5 and didn’t have the depth and the firepower to topple the top teams, but a big off-season between then and now could produce different results for Minnesota in 2017.
“We have some DNA from the Pioneers on our squad,” Coxworth said. “Instead of 20 guys, this year we’re at 50. Last year, if we played a team like St. Paul or the Des Moines Blaze, eventually their numbers wore us down. They didn’t have the regular semipro ball players, they had some legit guys. We could hang with them until the numbers game kicked in, then they would beat us in the second half.”
Coxworth, whose roots at the developmental level go back to the last millennium, built his team strategically. Instead of throwing a logo on the internet, hosting tryouts and hoping for everything to perfectly, yet unrealistically, fall into place, like some teams do, he steadily went out with a plan.
“We don’t have a budget like the SoCal Coyotes, we don’t have a budget like the Oklahoma Thunder,” Coxworth said. “I built this team with no money, I went out from getting support from sponsors and player fees and got it going after three years.”
With the foundation in place, he identified the players he wanted to build a team around from local colleges and went out and built relationships with them himself.
“I have 20 guys that are one or two years removed from Minnesota State University,” Coxworth said. “We have a tremendously good quarterback, Ray Jon Bibbens, the kid is tremendously gifted. He’s not just a quarterback, his legs equal what Michael Vick’s moves were. He played high school football and won a state championship, then had a little bit of stupidity his first year of college and we snagged him up.”
Look for Bibbens to make the highlight reel and be featured on the jumbotron at Burnsville High School this year, because the Brawlers should put up plenty of points.
“This year, like every year, it all starts with our quarterback,” Coxworth said. “Bibbens is a phenomenal athlete with a great arm and great footwork. He’s never had an offensive line, we’ve always had a ragtag offensive line, but this year he’s going to have a good offensive line. We have nine solid offensive linemen.”
The upgrades along the offensive line could be the biggest addition of any over the off-season. Once a weak spot, the Brawlers could now have one of the best offensive lines in the country as every starter comes in with a collegiate background.
“One of our most crucial players is graduating this May from Minnesota State University, Herschel Prater” Coxworth said. “His last collegiate year was last year, he was part of the team that went to the final four and lost to Valdosta State. He was on the team that played Colorado-Pueblo in championship and lost. He was invited to Minnesota Vikings rookie camp, last spring. After that, he came to play with us last season and got us into the playoffs. We have some other tremendous offensive linemen, too.”
Two other offensive keys are running back Joe Bredice and wide receiver Levi Fossen.
“Levi brings a ton of experience,” Coxworth said. “He was actually part of the Mavericks football team for four years. His last year as a Maverick, I believe was in 2013. His last year was the same year we started the team, he was one of our first recruits along with Ray.
“He played both ways for us. Now that he’s getting a little bit older, he’s coming into his own at receiver. He’s a tremendously good receiver with very good footwork. He’s very fast, he brings a ton of knowledge, knows how to adjust on the fly, and catches everything. He’s a huge threat after the catch, and he can assume some yards on any team with his footwork.”
Bredice spent time at both Iowa Central Community College and Minnesota State before joining the Brawlers.
“He did give a crack at the Mavericks football team,” Coxworth said. “He’s a great back, the years he came in, they probably had 20 really good backs. They had five seniors at running back, the running back situation at Minnesota State, they really recruited heavy. If you could get on as a running back, you were a legit running back. Joe decided to hunker down on his major, then I found him and told him he didn’t have to give football up.”
Don’t expect these three skill players to carry the team alone, though, because Minnesota is very talented across the board.
“We do not have a weak link,” Coxworth said. “We set our 11 starters out there and they’re legit. They all have either an all-state high school credential or All-American college credential. With Herschel getting invited to the Vikings camp, that’s a big credential.”
Defensively, with several key veterans returning, in addition to newly-signed rookies, the Brawlers are loaded.
“We’ve got some nasty, nasty guys back there,” Coxworth said. “We’ve got a ton of guys that came to us from various other semipro teams in the cities and we got several rookies we’re excited about.”
Look no further than middle linebacker Ryan Saumur, who is from Long Beach, Calif.,
“He’s played with us for two years now,” Coxworth said. “If you name a position, he has played it for us. He’s played center, guard, tackle, quarterback, running back, tight end, receiver. He’s played every position on the defensive line, linebacker and safety, and this kid can kick.
“Last year, when the other team kicked off to us, we had a spy that would go and smack their kicker and we hoped they would try retaliate and take on our kicker. This kid is phenomenal. When he steps on the field, he’s the strongest kid on the field. We could put him up at an H-back and take on their strongest defensive tackle. This year he’s going to play tight end as well, and he’ll be a key factor on that offense in key situations.”
The addition of several other key players to bolster the defense will allow Saumur to be a mainstay at middle linebacker instead of moving to different positions based on match-ups.
“What we’re really excited about is that we’ve got guys around Ryan that are just going to let Ryan be Ryan and set up stuff for him to be Ryan,” Coxworth said. “We honestly believe Ryan is the best linebacker in the league and outside the league. He’s mean. Ryan is like the prototype of what you want on a football team. He eats dirt, eats glass, breathes out fire and he’s just mean, but off the field, he’s the nicest kid you’ve ever met in your life.”
Up front, the Brawlers have former Minnesota State Maverick defensive end Shonquille Dorsey holding it down.
“He’s a defensive end at the D-II level, but last year we were short some guys and he played tight end and linebacker at times,” Coxworth said. “We’ve got some other players coming in, so he can focus on his true position at defensive end. He’s a beast and very strong. Shaq is a tremendous team player, there is no mistake on his side. He shuts down his end and destroys any offensive tackle you put in front of him.
As offenses account for Saumur and Dorsey, it’ll open up the rest of the defense to make plays, if they can even fend of those two.
“Him and Ryan are monsters,” Coxworth said. “It’s almost unfair having them two together in the front seven. Other teams in the country might say they have two guys like this, but they don’t. These guys are legit ball players. In our league, there are no guys this close out of college playing these positions for them.
“Our strength is up front. You’re not going to send a linemen, fullback or running back. Your guy is going to hit these guys and he’s not going to like it.”
In the secondary, look for Denerio Hill to have a big season for the Brawlers, who kicks off their season Saturday at home against the Fargo Invaders.
“He’s a native of Atlanta, Ga., and I’m not sure when he moved up to Minnesota,” Coxworth said. “He played his high school career at Mankato West and tore it up there. He’s never gone to college, I’ve been doing this since 1997 and I’ve never seen a kid this good that didn’t play in college.”