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2012 Canada West Preview: Manitoba Bisons

Leading up to Huskies training camp, we will preview the other five teams in the Canada West Universities Athletic Association. Moving from east to west, we will start with the University of Manitoba Bisons.

2011 Record: 4-4, fourth in Canada West (3-5, fifth in Canada West before UBC’s wins were stripped). 192 points for (third in Canada West), 189 points against (fourth in Canada West).

Head Coach: Brian Dobie, 17th year as head coach (66-59-2 record)

Key Losses: SB Jared Ralko, SB Stu Schollaardt, WR Tyson Takasaki, QB Khaleal Williams, HB Pete Adams, LB Marlon Azurdia, LB John Tietzmann, CB Grayson Wells, DT Clifton Lewis

Key Additions: The Winnipeg Rifles’ offence, SB Dan Turek, DE Ranji Atwall

Key Offensive Starters: RB Anthony Coombs, QB Ryan Marsch, SB Alex Vitt, OL Scott Johnson, OL Alex McKay

Key Defensive Starters: S Teague Sherman, LB Thomas Hall, LB Thomas Miles, DE Lauren Kroeker, CB David Ferrier

Outlook: The Manitoba Bisons may be on the verge of doing something they haven’t done since they won the Vanier Cup in 2007 – they might make the playoffs!

I say they might, as they have had a lot of turnover and they have four pretty good teams that are a step or two ahead of them. But if their strong showing last year is any indication, they should only be a year removed from another trip to the post-season if they don’t make it this year.

Jahlani Gilbert-Knorren looks for a way past Bisons’ defensive back David Ferrier (photo by Liam Richards)

On offence, the Rifles return most of their prolific 2011 unit that was the top offence in the Prairie Football Confernece. Only this year, most of the Winnipeg Rifles offence will be playing for the Bisons. All but four or five starters from the Rifles offence joined the Bisons in the offseason, including CJFL player of the year Ryan Marsch.

Marsch will be taking over from 2011 starter Khaleal Williams (who, the Bisons found out in the offseason, was ineligible to return).

Last season with the Rifles, Marsch threw for 3,030 yards and 31 touchdowns. Luckily for him, three of his top four receivers, all of whom finished in the top four in the PFC in receiving yardage and touchdowns, will be joining him with the Bisons. Derek Dean, a 6’7” 2011 PFC all-star, Alex Vitt, a 2011 CJFL all-Canadian, and Matthew Lariviere, a 6’4” 2011 PFC all-star, had 1968 yards and 20 touchdowns between them. The Bisons will need immediate results from these players and BCFC all-star Dan Turek of the Okanagan Sun, as they lose their three top receivers from last season.

A couple of returning Bisons will play a big part in Manitoba’s offensive success, namely Anthony Coombs, a first-team all-Canadian who finished third in Canada West with 640 yards rushing and first with eight rushing touchdowns in 2011, and Nic Demski, a second-team all-Canadian returner who finished third on the team with 248 yards rushing. Manitoba is among the teams the Canada West, along with Calgary, Saskatchewan and Alberta, who have concentrated on improving their talent and game-ready depth at running back over the past two offseasons. The addition of two more former Rifles, 2011 CJFL all-Canadian Alex McKay and 2011 PFC all-star Nevin Gamblin, to the offensive line will certainly help in improving an already solid running game

Bisons' receiver Quincy Hurst fights with two Huskie defenders for position (photo by Liam Richards)

Defensively, the Bisons will not be as strong as their offence, although they return a few key veterans that should keep them in the mix. First-team all-Canadian safety Teague Sherman and Canada West all-star linebacker Thomas Hall, who are both entering their fifth years, will lead the defence. Tackles leader Lauren Kroeker, who had 42.5 sacks and three tackles, and linebacker Eric Vincent, who had 40.5 tackles and one interception, will be counted on to be key contributors for the Bisons in 2012.

The Bisons’ front seven will be counted on to improve their conference low 13 sacks from last season. A consistent pass rush will be needed this year, as they lost key defensive backs in Pete Adams, who had 37 tackles and tied for the team lead with two interceptions, and Grayson Wells, who had nine tackles and an interception.

What may have held the Bisons from the playoffs last season, more than anything, was their lack of discipline. They finished with a league high 103 penalties which cost them an average of 117.6 yard per game. They also turned the ball over 26 times, which was just ahead of the winless Alberta Golden Bears. The penalties may be due to the coaches trying to reclaim the Bisons bad-boy reputation that they employed from 2000 to 2007 to intimidate teams. The only problem with this strategy is that Manitoba doesn’t have the talent they did in those days. If they want to push for a playoff spot this year, it would be in their best interest to cut down on the penalties and try to get the turnovers under control, especially considering the relative lack of CIS experience in their lineup.