Minnesota is a state that's known for its 10,000 lakes and many other establishments, but outside of that it's home to a small school that's right in the heart of it all. Saint John's University is a small Division III school, whose enrollment numbers hover around 2,000 undergraduate students. The state has plenty of icons, but the late John Gagliardi may be the biggest of them all.
The winningest coach in college football history, his 489 career wins still remain untouched and sit atop the throne of college football. Coaching the Johnnies from the staggering time period of 1953-2012, he went on to win four national championships along the way. Just for context, the next closest head coach to his record is Bobby Bowden with 409 career wins.
While Gagliardi will always be a legend in his own right, there is now another standout performer from the program who has now carved out his own legacy in school history. Offensive tackle Ben Bartch has evaluators in draft circles buzzing. The journey though is what makes his story and path to stardom so unique. Prior to all of the preseason accolades and in-season notoriety, there was an unconventional path that started with him being a struggling backup tight end that contemplated if football was even for him.
As a tight end, he was buried on the depth chart behind a pair of seniors in Tommy Auger (All-MIAC first team) and Jared Streit (All-MIAC second team). There really seemed to be no path for him to earn playing time. Recording only four catches for 43 yards through his first two seasons, Bartch knew that something needed to change.
After a long talk and some express of frustration with head coach Gary Fasching, the two agreed in order to salvage his career that a move to offensive tackle would be the best option for him, but it would take near insane levels of commitment in order to make it work.
At the time, Bartch was a 6-foot-6, 250 pound player and making the transition in a single offseason seemed to be a steep hill to climb considering that he had always played tight end dating back to his high school career at Oregon Prep. He knew that it would take something out of the ordinary from his regular regimen in order for the transition to a brand new position to become a success.
Experimenting with lots of things, he accredits earning a summer job prior to the 2018 season for saving his football career. The job forced him to wake up every morning at 5:15 am. Prior to getting ready, he would eat seven eggs and drink his own smoothie that he coins as his invention. The ingredients of the drink consisted of cottage cheese, peanut butter, eggs, milk, and bananas. Even though the taste of it was less than delightful, he managed to somehow guzzle all of it down daily prior to clocking in.
Drinking his distasteful mixer and spending extra time in the weight room after leaving his job helped him quickly bulk up to 275 pounds and before he knew it, he was at the requisite weight that the coaching staff wanted him to reach.
In the blink of an eye and following a trying offseason, Bartch opened his junior season as the teams starting left tackle. A challenging, yet seamless transition to the spot, he anchored an offense that averaged 491.8 yards per game during the 2018 season, which ended as the second-highest total in school history. His success was still on the ground level of what would become a quick ascension throughout the country. With the recent success of the program combined with his continued commitment, he progressed to pack on weight. Like a bright spring flower, he began to bloom right in front of the eyes of the coaching staff that instilled trust within him even during his dark days as a 250 pound backup tight end.
Now a 6-foot-7, 305 pound rock manning the left side of the Johnnie's offensive front, he leads one of the best groups in the Division III ranks. Already winning a share of the MIAC title, a record 34th conference championship, and the first time earning the mark in consecutive years since the 2008 and 2009 seasons.
His accomplishments on the field are to not be far exceed by what he has done off of the field either. The evaluation of an NFL Draft prospect is always a multi-part equation that have little pieces in between that help put the entire puzzle together. Right in the middle of his weight gain journey and historic career, he was a part of 32 Saint John's and College of Saint Benedict students who traveled to South Africa to spend four months studying abroad.
In the foreign territory, he made it feel like home where he helped kindergarten-seventh grade students as a computer lab tutor. His community service efforts didn't stop there though as he's a regular in the nearby St. Joseph's, Minnesota community where he also helped sixth-grade students at All Saints Academy as a tutor after school for multiple subjects and other Catholic based "Meals on Wheels" where he delivers food to the elderly and homeless shelters.
With his countless number of hours and involvement in the community, it helped land him on the 2019 AllState Good Works Team. An award given to only 22 football student-athletes from across the country for their outstanding community service efforts throughout their collegiate career.
Bartch possesses very heavy hands that leave a dent in rushers when able to land in desired areas. He's consistent with matching his feet with his hands and completing the process of blocks once he's able to get hands onto defenders. The Division IIII standouts pop in his hands are effective and have a lasting effect on defensive lineman throughout reps over the duration of games.
His eye discipline and play awareness are by far his greatest attribute. Bartch is able to keep his eyes on a swivel and is hardly ever fooled by away moving defenders involvement in twists or stunts. As pass protector, he’s excellent with setting vertical and sitting back to let confusing looks unravel themselves before taking action. He shows to be reluctant to not “take the cheese” with certain blitzes and his eye discipline plus a high football I.Q. help him decipher funky defensive fronts and potential pressures.
Bartch doesn't let the mentality of him being the “bigger player” be a crutch to his demeanor by taking plays off. After making hand contact, he’s good with following up and finishing once he smells blood in the water. Not a stone-cold bone crusher that will try to devastatingly finish matchups, but there are some promising reps of him grounding others into the turf.
Facing speed is an area that he's prone to struggle with at times, which makes many to believe that he may be best suited with sliding inside to guard. His pass sets and speed associated with them need lots of work. Short and non-efficient steps are frequent throughout his sets, but it’s good enough because of the weekly competition he faces. The pace out of his stance varies based on the opposition and there’s little sense of quick twitch abilities when attempting to explode out.
Already accepting his invitation to the 2020 Reese's Senior Bowl, evaluators will be able to get a better feel for Bartch and how he adjust to the speed of the game, which is always the biggest worry with small school prospects.
Regardless, the St. John's offensive tackle has created lots of intrigue surrounding his draft status and what he could turn into down the road. His commitment, dedication, and work ethic are traits that are already in his corner, but now it's a matter of him acing the pre-draft process and that starts in Mobile.
Already garnering lots of comparisons to another former Division III offensive lineman in Ali Marpet, it wouldn't be surprising to see Bartch create a similar type of buzz heading into next April.