Quick turnaround for Northland football
It only took a couple of dominoes to fall in order to take the Northland Community & Technical College football program in Thief River Falls from being eliminated in 2014 to becoming the best passing offense in the country in 2017.
Second-year Northland coach Jim Cox recruited quarterback Shannon Patrick. Patrick, in turn, recruited wide receiver Malik Williams.
The results are that the Pioneers are in the Minnesota College Athletic Conference championship game; the program has won at least eight games for the first time in 15 years and the offense is averaging more than 350 yards per game through the air.
Northland (8-2) plays Mesabi Range (7-3) in the MCAC title game on Sunday at 1:30 p.m. in St. Cloud, Minn.
The football program at Northland has had a rocky history. It was suspended in 2014 as the college said it needed to examine housing availability, program costs and community support.
The program returned in 2015 after a committee of college employees and community members recommended the school reinstate football as soon as possible.
In the span of three years, the program has been rebuilt and even sits at a level it hadn't experienced before the cut.
Patrick and Williams, both from near West Palm Beach, Fla., are big reasons for the turnaround. They have re-written the Northland record book this year.
Patrick leads the nation in touchdown passes (33), completions (294) and attempts (488). His 354.7 yards per game is second in the country. He threw for 551 yards in a game earlier this year.
Patrick has thrown for nearly 3,550 yards and has 336 yards more than any quarterback in the National Junior College Athletic Association.
Williams leads the NJCAA in receptions with 80 and is third in the country in receiving yards with 1,016.
"This season is the most fun I've ever had playing football," Williams said.
Cox, a 62-year-old football journeyman, came to Thief River Falls in July 2016 and led the Pioneers to a 5-4 mark, a three-win improvement from 2015 under coach Travis Martin.
Cox said one of his first discoveries was that a good quarterback would separate the Pioneers from the pack.
That discovery led Cox to Patrick, who's 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, and was then at the University of Pikeville (Kent.), an NAIA program, where he spent his true freshman and redshirt freshman seasons.
"I felt like I had the ability to play Division I football, so I wanted to go juco and be recruited by a Division I school," Patrick said. "I didn't want to sell myself short when I thought I had the possibility to play D1."
In recruiting, Cox said he talked to Patrick every day for nine months. Patrick liked what he was hearing about throwing the ball a lot.
"I just loved what I saw on tape and he was in a situation where he wasn't playing," Cox said. "It was a hard sell because he was getting a full ride there, and he's paying his own way here. Once we got him, he led us to Malik."
Williams and Patrick have played youth football together since they were 5, but Williams (5-foot-8, 220 pounds) says it took some convincing to head to Thief River Falls over other opportunities to walk-on closer to home.
"I knew he was a D1 talent," Patrick said. "He's a big-time baller, and I knew that he would be an asset."
Cox employs the pass-heavy Run and Shoot offense. The reason why is the Northland offensive staff has a few ties to the University of Hawaii, where former college and NFL coach June Jones popularized a version of the Run and Shoot.
In Northwest Minnesota, most prep and college programs employ run-oriented offenses, in part because the wintery weather late in the season can make it difficult to throw.
"To be honest, I haven't had too many problems with the weather," Patrick said. "We've been practicing in cold conditions and gotten use to throwing in the snow and rain and cold ... which is new to us being from West Palm Beach."
Cox said Northland has only been to the MCAC title game twice, losing in both 2002 and 2011.
This time, the Pioneers are the favorite and if they advance will then play in the Red Grange Bowl or the Graphic Edge Bowl.
Cox said he's excited for the chance for his kids to have more recruiting opportunities because of the increased exposure.
"Every game you win, it helps your kids go up divisions," Cox said. "If you're 4-6, they'll go D3. If you're 9-2, they'll go D2. Same kid."
Patrick and Williams don't have a Division I offer yet. They both have at least three Division II offers and have received interest from the FCS level.