Today we look at the other sides of the football, focusing on the strength of the Huskies, their defence, and taking a look at the special teams, an area they hope will be a strength in 2012.
With the offence sputtering and failing to find its footing until late in the season, it was up to the Huskie defence to keep the team in games last season, and they did just that. In spite of being on the field for 484 total plays and averaging over 30 minutes on the field per game, the Huskies were third best in terms of total yardage surrendered, giving up an average of 348.6 yards per game. Of course, the Huskies were toughest where it mattered most, giving up only 152 points as the top scoring defence in the conference, surrendering four less touchdowns than the second best defence and held teams scoreless in the red zone six times, allowing only 14 scores from inside their own 20.
This year, in spite of losing all three starting linebackers, the expectations are similarly high for the Huskies defence. They return a veteran secondary and will put veterans in place of departed players. Where they can’t do that, former junior all-Canadians and all-stars are ready to step in.
On special teams, the Huskies struggled as they tried to find a consistent kicker last year. Gone is Stephen McDonald, while Denton Kolodzinski returns for his third year and Cole Samson his fourth. They will be looking to improve on the worst punting in the Canada West, which averaged only 27.8 net yards last season. They will also undoubtedly like to see their placekicking more consistent, although last season they did finished tied for second with a .684 success rate.
The Huskies return game looks strong again this season, with all but one regular, Jerit Lambert, returning kicks again. The Huskies will also have the likes of Keegan Arnyek, Jarvis James and Travoy Martinez at their disposal, and all three have the speed to be big return threats. The Huskies had the top kickoff coverage in the conference last season and had the best punt return unit in the Canada West, averaging 14.2 yards per return and scoring the only punt return touchdown in the conference last year.
Returning players: David Rybinski, Zach Hart, Joel Seutter, Levi Steinhauer, Ben Rush, Glen Joorisity, Dylan Wright, Alex Burko
Departed players: Steve Kovach, Jon De Witt
New players: Brayden Twarynski (Team Alberta, Calgary), Caleb Eidsvik (Team Alberta, Lloydminster), Lucas McPhee (Regina), Luke Marshall (Sylvan Lake), Graham Peterson
Outlook: This may be one of the strongest defensive lines the Huskies have ever had, and arguably the best starting front four in the Canada West. Led by fifth-year nose tackle David Rybinski and fourth-year tackle/end Zach Hart, this should be a tough group to run on. If last year was any indication, they will give the opposition little, giving up the third fewest rushing yards at 127.6 yards per game and the fewest rushing touchdowns, with five surrendered.
The Huskies would like to improve on their solid showing in getting to the quarterback last season, finishing third in the conference with 19 sacks. Fourth-year defensive end Joel Seutter and third-year bookend Levi Steinhauer will be counted on to provide speed off the edge and to contain the quarterback. We should see more of Ben Rush this season spelling off Steinhauer and Seutter, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see one or both of Dylan Wright or Glen Joorisity (who started for team Canada at the IFAF Under 19 World Championship), see time at defensive tackle, as they each had a strong spring camp.
Team Alberta teammates Brayden Twarynski and Caleb Eidsvik, who played on the 2011 team, have the potential to make an immediate impact at defensive tackle, although Twarynski has the speed to be shifted to the edge. Given how deep the line is, it may be unlikely to see much of either of these players, but should they get an opportunity, they are physically ready to make an impact immediately.
Returning Players: Seamus Neary, Dane Bishop, Thomas Hilderman, John Malcolm, Jaques Geyer, Jordon Hilgers, David Craig Penner, Jason Briggs
Departed Players: Peter Thiel, Tony Michalchuk, Nico Higgs, Tom Lynch, Brodie Rothe, Rylund Hunter
New Players: Corbin Eskelson (Hilltops), Richard Zacharias (Hilltops), Ron Mwamba (Edmonton Wildcats), Kris Charuk (Regina), Mike Dejarlais (Regina), Cody Swanson
Outlook: As many have pointed out, the Huskies look like they will be easier to play against this season as veteran linebackers Tony Michalchuk, Peter Thiel, Nico Higgs and Tom Lynch have all graduated. They would be right, if this was just another team that wasn’t able to recruit and develop players like the Huskies do. But on the Huskies, the next player steps in, especially at linebacker, and continues the same hard-nosed, smart play that has defined the defence for the past 20 years.
Most CIS observers underrate the Huskies ability to recruit, blinded by questionable (at best) ranking websites and the media’s obsession with a few media darling coaches. The Huskies ability to evaluate, attract and develop top talent will be on full display this year at linebacker, as 2010 recruits Dane Bishop and Ron Mwamba will be showcasing their skills. Neither played a down for the Huskies last season, with Bishop sitting out with an illness and Mwamba playing junior football for the Edmonton Wildcats. But both are back and healthy and will show the Canada West what real top recruits are all about.
The Huskies have a couple other top recruits in the mix that chose to come to the perennial powerhouse instead of other programs. Corbin Eskelson, the 2010 PFC defensive player of the year and linebacker of the year, is the likely frontrunner to replace Thiel at middle linebacker, although he will be challenged by another former Saskatoon Hilltop, 2011 PFC all-star Richard Zacharias. They will join a fourth-year Huskie, Seamus Neary, who will move back down to his natural linebacker/rover position after the graduation of Higgs.
Don’t be surprised to see more of Thomas Hilderman, Jordan Hilgers or Jaques Geyer this season, as well. If they don’t make the defensive depth chart, there are still plenty of opportunities for them on special teams, and we have seen many Huskie linebackers, including Tony Michalchuk, move their way into the starting lineup after starring on punt coverage.
Returning Players: Bryce McCall, Mitch Friesen, Luke Thiel, Cory Edington, Andrew Abbs, Tyler Robson, Geoff Hughes, Spencer Krieger, Braden Richards, Derek Sadownick
Departed Players: Kurtis Gryba (sitting out the season due to injury), Mike King
New Players: Braxton Lawrence (Hilltops), Joey Todd (Regina Thunder), Keegan Arnyek (Team Saskatchewan, Moose Jaw), Brendan Ernst (Saskatoon), Laate Ago (Regina), Mark Smith, Justin Anderson
Outlook: The Huskies’ secondary will rival the defensive line as the strongest unit on the team. With veterans like Bryce McCall, the best safety in the CIS, Mitch Friesen, Luke Thiel and 2011 CJFL all-Canadian Braxton Lawrence at their disposal, this will be a very tough secondary to score on.
A few observers may point to the Huskies’ rather modest fourth place ranking last year in terms of passing yards against and suggest that returning most of the same personnel to a middle ranked pass defence is nothing to be happy about. However, those observers miss the more important statistics: the 13 interceptions, five touchdowns surrendered, 110.5 pass defence efficiency and 25 total turnovers, all of which led the conference. Although some find it frustrating to watch the cover-three zone coverage the Huskies