Excitement is building for the 2017 U SPORTS football season, with each conference once again primed and ready to contend for the Vanier Cup. In the Canada West conference, preseason action between UBC and Alberta began last night, with the regular season kickoff just over a week away. Below is a preview of what all six Canada West teams will have to offer when their respective programs hit the field.
2016 REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 6-2 (2ND IN CANADA WEST)
2016 PLAYOFF RECORD: 3-1 (LOST TO LAVAL 31-26 IN VANIER CUP)
BREAKDOWN: With countless veterans returning — some with a clean bill of health — Calgary should be primed to contend for the Vanier Cup yet again, after falling just short in 2016 to the dynasty that is the Laval Rouge et Or.
Offensively, the Dino’s biggest strength will come at the receiver position, with three fifth-years likely to lead the way. Brendan Thera-Plamondon is fresh off a stint with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, while Richard Sindani — a former Regina Ram and Calgary Colts receiver — will make his Dinos debut after attending Calgary Stampeders training camp. Fellow veteran Michael Klukas is also back in the lineup after being sidelined for most of the 2016 campaign with an injury. Additionally, Dallas Boath enters his fourth season and is coming off an appearance at the 2017 Valero East-West Bowl, while rookies Jacob Izquierdo and Kevon John-Clarke are impact recruits with impressive speed.
The battle at pivot will be the most intriguing storyline for Calgary on offence, following the graduation of veteran Jimmy Underdahl. Third-year Adam Sinagra is the frontrunner, after stepping in for an injured Underdahl last season, and throwing for 1809 total yards. However, he’ll be pushed by second-year Josiah Joseph, who has a winning track record, most recently during his time with the Okanagan Sun, where he led the team to the CJFL Canadian Bowl.
Ten starters return on what should be a stout Calgary defence, led by fifth-years Adam Laurensse at defensive back and Matt Carson on the defensive line. Both players were in CFL camps with Calgary and Toronto respectively, and will anchor a strong unit that also includes 2016 Canada West All-Stars Boston Rowe (linebacker) and Jack McEwen (defensive line), as well as East-West Bowl participants Micah Teitz (linebacker) and Brett Wade (defensive line).
2016 REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 3-5 (4TH IN CANADA WEST)
2016 PLAYOFF RECORD: 1-1 (LOST TO CALGARY 46-43 IN HARDY CUP)
BREAKDOWN: The Thunderbirds return a whopping 11 starters on offence and 10 on defence and are sure to be in the hunt to claim a second Vanier Cup title in three years.
Offensively, UBC may very well have the best overall unit in the nation. Former Vanier Cup offensive MVP Michael O’Connor returns for his third year under centre, and will have excellent protection from All-Canadian centre Levi Hua, as well as East-West Bowl participant Dakoda Shepley. Additionally, running back, Ben Cummings is back in the fold, fresh off of a Canada West All-Star selection in 2016. At the receiver position, the T-Birds will contend with Calgary for the best starting five, as Will Watson and Trivel Pinto — who earned an all-star nod as a defensive back last year due to injuries — will both factor into the offence in a big way. On top of that, former All-Canadian Marcus Davis is back after suffering a season-ending injury midway through 2016, while Montreal Alouettes draft pick Alex Morrison’s presence will be felt immediately.
Defensively, a secondary that was second in the conference with 11 interceptions, will see some key faces return to the blue and white. Third-year Stavros Katsantonis — a 2016 All-Canadian — returns along with 2016 Canada West All Star selection A.J. Blackwell, who also participated in this year’s East-West Bowl. The defensive line will also be a strength, with all four starters back from last season, led by Connor Griffiths and Ryley Butler.
2016 REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 6-2 (1ST IN CANADA WEST)
2016 PLAYOFF RECORD: 0-1 (LOST 40-34 TO UBC IN CONFERENCE SEMI-FINAL)
BREAKDOWN: It was a monumental 2016 season for the Rams football program, as, under first-year head coach Steve Bryce, they finished first in the conference in the regular season — a feat never achieved before in program history. The squad will look to build off of this momentum in 2017, and hopefully for Rams fans, taking the next step as a top contender in Canada.
The Rams lost half of their starting unit offensively, however some of the biggest names return, none more note-worthy than the reigning national player of the year, quarterback Noah Picton. The fourth-year pivot has gradually improved every year behind centre, and set a national record for passing yards last season, with 3186. He’ll have some big-time weapons at his disposal, such as fourth-year running back Atlee Simon. He was one of just four players to step straight into Regina’s lineup out of high school in 2014, and is near the top of the program’s all-time list in a number of statistical categories. At the receiver position, Picton will have three impact playmakers at his disposal, none bigger than fifth-year Mitchell Picton, a former All-Canadian who’s back after a stint with the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Third-year Ryan Schienbein, a Canada West All-Star last year, also returns, while Mitch Thompson — the team’s leading receiver in 2015 — is back after missing the 2016 campaign due to injury.
Defensively, the Rams front-seven is one of the deepest and most well-rounded in the nation. Up front, 2016 Canada West Rookie of the Year Nicholas Dheilly is primed for another stellar campaign, and is complemented by numerous veterans, including fifth-years Bryce McKinnon and Thomas Lill, as well as fourth-years Ryan Warner and Grey McKen. Third-years Matt Moore and Eric Wicijowski — the latter of whom was a participant in this year’s East-West Bowl — will also provide tremendous depth. At the linebacker position, 2016 Canada West All-Star Danny Nesbitt and fifth-year Zack McEachern will lead the charge. Two former junior football standouts in Saskatoon’s Cole Benkic and Okanagan’s Lane Hull will also provide impressive depth at the weak side position.
016 REGULAR SEASON RECORD:5-3 (3RD IN CANADA WEST)
2016 PLAYOFF RECORD: 0-1 (LOST 41-17 TO CALGARY IN CONFERENCE SEMI-FINAL)
BREAKDOWN: For the first time in 33 years, a head coach not named Brian Towriss will man the controls for the Huskies. Taking over for him will be former CFL and U of S alumnus Scott Flory, who also installed new offensive (Marcus Crandell), defensive (Warren Muzika) and special teams (Jerry Friesen) coordinators, in what will be a brand new era of football for the program.
The Huskies will have eight returning starters on offence, and will be led by the ‘big three’ of quarterback Kyle Siemens, running back Tyler Chow and receiver Mitch Hillis. Siemens is coming off his best season as a Huskie, where he threw for 2091 yards and 13 touchdowns as the team’s feature pivot, and was also a participant in this year’s East-West Bowl. Chow was an All-Canadian last season, as was Hillis the year prior. The offensive line is sure to be a strength, thanks to Flory’s tutelage, and will be led by 6-foot-8, 312 pound left tackle Ryan Breadner.
Eight players will also be back on the defensive side of the ball for the Huskies, with their strength likely lying in the secondary, courtesy of defensive backs Ben Whiting Payton Hall and Brooks Falloon. Matt Kozun, a former two-time CJFL All-Canadian with the Saskatoon Hilltops, will be the man to watch up front. He recorded 20 total tackles, along with 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble in his rookie season and should pick up right where he left off.
2016 REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 3-5
2016 PLAYOFF RECORD: Missed the playoffs.
BREAKDOWN: The Bisons will be hungry to get back into the postseason hunt in 2017, after missing out on the playoffs last year for the first time since 2014. A healthy dose of returning players and impact recruits should help facilitate this goal.
The Herd bring back 11 starters offensively, led by fourth-year pivot Theo Deezar, who was fourth in the nation with 2,543 passing yards in 2016. Depth will be a huge factor for Manitoba as well, especially at receiver. Derek Yachison returns after spending some time with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, while Jesse Walker, Kyle Patchell, and Stephen Ugbah will also be prime targets. All four athletes went down with injuries at some point last season, and their returns will greatly affect the offence’s efficiency. Shai Ross, a Canada West All-Star as a returner, who also put up 500 yards receiving, is also back, along with second-year Riley Harrison, who stepped in for an injured Walker and finished with a team leading 535 yards receiving. On the ground, the Bisons will have a dangerous one-two punch with fifth-year veteran Alex Christie complementing a returning Jamel Lyles, the 2015 Canada West Rookie of the Year.
Defensively, Manitoba’s strength lies in their depth in the secondary. Fourth-year Jayden McKoy — who played both safety and halfback in 2016 — returns, alongside two-time captain Tyler Fong at safety. Eric Plett is also back after missing most of last year, as well as Marcel Arruda-Welch who went down with an ankle injury after Week 1. Akeeno Williams, Evinn Lyons-Keely and Arjay Shelley will also provide depth and height, as all three players stand at at least 6-foot-1. The front seven will be anchored by East-West Bowl participant Houston Rennie, as well as defensive end Derek Dufault — both starters in 2016.
ALBERTA GOLDEN BEARS
2016 REGULAR SEASON RECORD:1-7
2016 PLAYOFF RECORD: Missed the playoffs.
BREAKDOWN: Despite being near the bottom of the conference standings over the past few seasons, the Golden Bears have made steady improvements as a team, and with very little turnover from just one year ago, should be primed to take the next step in 2017.
Alberta’s offence will be anchored by their run game, led by fifth-year Ed Ilnicki, who returns after a stint with the Ottawa RED BLACKS. He was third in the conference in rushing yards last season with 750. Ilnicki will have a stellar offensive line to help provide holes up front, with best friends Justin Lawrence and Mark Korte being the catalysts. Lawrence is a two-time conference all-star, while both players were also impressive during this year’s East-West Bowl. Receiver Tylor Henry also returns, after being drafted by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
The quarterbacking battle will be one of extreme interest, with incumbent Ben Kopczynski looking to prove that he’s still the guy, despite less-than-stellar passing numbers in 2016. He’ll have Brad Baker — who missed all of 2016 due to injury — shadowing him very closely. Both athletes will have a major helping hand however, with the addition of quarterback guru JC Boice, who helped lead the Westshore Rebels to a CJFL Canadian Bowl appearance one year ago.
Defensively, Alberta returns a veteran group anchored by defensive lineman Lucky Daniels and Blake Adams. Tak Landry, a former conference all-star is also back for his fifth year, along with second-year defensive back Shaydon Phillip, who put up impressive stats as a starter in his rookie season.