(Cover photo from mnhshp.com)
St. Cloud Apollo struggled to a 1-8 record in 2016. Last season, the Eagles increased their win total to five games – including a first-round playoff win.
Junior quarterback Neal Benson was a big part of the improvement. His and the team’s play, combined with a new focus in the locker room turned the program around and has paved the way towards even bigger things for the team and its quarterback in 2018.
“The culture has changed,” Benson said about the new outlook around the program. “Guys are learning how to win and have seen what it takes to get those victories. It was fun to a part of it. It was a great season.”
Offensively, Benson – who first got on NFN’s radar two years ago when he was the top sophomore at the 2016 winter combine – felt the team’s read-option attack was at its best when more than one aspect was working.
“We had a nice balance of me putting the ball on a guy and the line getting a good push in the ground game. When we were fifty, fifty, on the ground and in the air that is when we were at our best.”
The most significant reason for the program’s success was on the other side of the ball. The Eagles’ defense only held two opponents under 28 points in 2016. Last fall only two teams got over the 28-point threshold.
“We were good against the run,” Benson explained. “The defense was disciplined. They worked hard, and it paid off.”
Benson gave his season an incomplete grade.
“My season wasn’t exactly where I wanted it to be at, but it motivated me a lot for this coming season; it was something to learn from and a lot of fun.”
A quarterback for most of his football career, as a sophomore he was the starting JV quarterback, and on varsity, he saw time on special teams. At the tail end of the season, Benson saw some varsity time at receiver to get him on the field. This past season was Benson’s first starting at quarterback on the varsity.
“It was a jump from JV to varsity as quick as guys are and how they disguise reads,” Benson admitted. “It was a fun process. I loved it – learning everything. It was a big jump, but it was a lot of fun. The game is a lot quicker but what it came down to was studying the film. It took me until this past year to learn that, but it comes down to knowing your reads and outworking the other guy.”
The Eagles’ offense runs almost exclusively out of the shotgun.
“I think my strength is that I am mobile; I can get out of the pocket and make plays.”
This offseason Benson – who enjoys fishing – has focused on his footwork.
“If you watch my film if my footwork is shaky the throw was shaky. If my footwork was good, the ball was good.”
During the winter and spring Benson worked and has been working on his footwork and has been a regular in the weight room – a place where Apollo’s culture is continuing to change.
“It is a lot of fun to be in there with those guys. We work hard. We get in; we get it done. We don’t waste a lot of time.”
This summer, weights, film, and footwork will be his focus, but he plans to go to Moorhead’s camp and possibly a few others.
“Moorhead, St. Olaf, Augsburg, Bethel, Minot State and Valley City have been in contact with me.”
If Benson and the Eagles continue to improve like last season, more significant things, like an extended post-season run for the team and more college interest for Benson are likely on the way.