Mayo football absolutely turned a corner in 2020. Even though they had to fight a pandemic, the Spartans were able to put it all together on the field. Mayo finished 4-2 in the regular season and lost 30-28 to powerhouse Owatonna in the Section 1AAAAA finals.
Here are eight takeaways from the Spartans' resurgent season.
1. When you have a quarterback, you have a chance
Mayo is blessed with some terrific playmakers up and down its roster. But the emergence of junior quarterback Bennett Ellsworth has to be the story of the season. The Spartans' playmakers would've been wasted with a below-average quarterback, but Ellsworth was absolutely spectacular. He's a ridiculous talent with the arm strength to make all the throws and the touch to drop it in a bucket down the sideline. He's not a plus-runner, but he's got the athleticism to get out of the pocket and keep plays alive. He constantly kept his eyes down the field. He feasted against man-to-man defenses because he could go down the sideline to Carter or Cayden Holcomb, and he had the patience against zone defenses to pick them apart, too. Ellsworth finished his junior season with 1,511 passing yards to go along with 13 touchdowns and two interceptions. He added three rushing touchdowns. Ellsworth is a straight-up stud, and a monster senior season is in the cards.
2. DeMonte Simmons is a next-level player
DeMonte Simmons has only really had one big season, but he showed plenty of promise and upside He's a next-level player and should absolutely garner some interest. Simmons finished his senior year with 726 rushing yards, 84 receiving yards and 10 total touchdowns. Simmons was a big play waiting to happen, and the senior running back really brought a physical, run-you-over demeanor to the Mayo offense. And no big deal, but he also led the Spartans with 43 tackles.
Simmons deserves to play college football.
3. Cayden Holcomb did it all
Cayden Holcomb has the ability to impact the game in literally all three facets. And boy, did he do it this year for the Spartans. He'd have my MVP vote. Shockingly, he only finished with two receiving touchdowns, but sometimes touchdowns can be fluky. But it was obvious that he was the No. 1 wide receiver in the area. What a natural talent. Holcomb leaned on his speed and crisp route-running to get open, and he had some of the best hands on the planet. He made some absolutely absurd catches. You can break down every good thing he did offensively, but he might have been the best defensive back, too. He had five interceptions, including a ridiculous one-handed pick against Owatonna in the Section 1AAAAA championship game. Oh, and he also averaged 32.3 yards per kick return and he housed one against Owatonna in the season-opener. Holcomb is a big-time player.
4. Mayo's defense needed more credit
Mayo allowed 24 points per game this year, which won't look as good compared to other squads. But if you take out their totals against Owatonna (Section 1AAAAA champion) and Mankato West (undefeated), the Spartans allowed just 15.5 points per game. Mayo's rushing defense was pretty stout all year. It didn't really let Owatonna's Tanner Hall or Byron's Austin Freerksen get cooking. They had to work for all the yards they got. That was in large part due to the play of defensive linemen Elliot Braaten and Dedric Burger. That duo plugged up the interior which allowed linebackers DeMonte Simmons, Luke Nienow and Noah Smith to fly downhill untouched for big TFLs. Oh, and Ethan Vanderwaerdt was second on the team in sacks and he was a massive disruptor off the edge. Defensive backs Mason Greseth, Ayden Mesmer, Cayden Holcomb and Marshall Peters were all sound tacklers. The Spartans' offense was tremendous, but the defense was more than serviceable all year too.
5. The culture is special
You could tell that the Spartans were a close-knit crew, and it really came to fruition after the brutal, last-second loss to Owatonna in the Section 1AAAAA final. They didn't point fingers. They bonded together.
“This was the best Mayo football game I’ve ever seen in the past 20 years,” Donny Holcomb told his team after the loss. “I love you guys so much. I’m so proud of you.”
There's some real unity and real leadership. It's not a wild, fun-loving PJ Fleck-like culture. It's a little different. It's based on hard work and respect and trust. That's a special combination that the great teams always have. It kind of similar to Tom Allen at Indiana.
6. Takeaways could become the identity of the Spartans 'D'
Cayden Holcomb was a ballhawk in the Mayo secondary (five interceptions) and the entire Spartans' defense really thrived when they took the ball away. The offense just puts so much pressure on opposing teams to be aggressive, and that plays right into Mayo's strategy. If they can build off that in 2021, then the Spartans could accomplish something really special.
7. A locked-in coaching staff
Every single time you talk to an opposing coach, they'd always rave about Donny Holcomb's ability to put his team in the best situations to succeed. The offensive playcalling was balanced and kept opposing defenses on their toes. Even when Ellsworth and Cayden Holcomb were rocking, they didn't get too pass happy. And when Simmons, Tore Pappenfus and Noah Smith were doing the work on the ground, they still weren't afraid to take deep shots down the field to alleviate pressure. It was just a superb coaching job all year long by Holcomb and the Mayo coaching staff. They were a few plays away from a 6-1 record and a Section 1AAAAA title.
8. Mayo might be even better next year
This isn't a hot take. Just take a peek at the roster and you'll see some special things are on the horizon for the Spartans. They've closed the gap with Owatonna, and they've got plenty of talented returners. Ellsworth should take another step forward in his second season at the helm. Both Cayden and Carter Holcomb will be back to wreak havoc. Michael Mankaka finished fourth on the team in receiving (11 catches for 134 yards) and he'll return. Simmons graduates, but Noah Smith and Tore Pappenfus both showed some great signs at running back. Mayo won't skip a beat next year.