The University of Saskatchewan Huskies kick off the 2012 season looking for their twelfth straight trip to the playoffs and their first trip past the Hardy Trophy game since 2006. Following an offseason that saw the players dedicating themselves to strength training, conditioning and film study, training camp will be where they put all the pieces together, answer the offseason questions, and plot the next steps towards a championship in 2012.
The offence will be looking to rebound from a rebuilding year in 2011, one which saw a number of new players come in to replace the first-team all-Canadian laden offence of the 2010 squad. In spite of a carousel at quarterback, injuries and defections at running back, and a patchwork offensive line that had a raw rookie and two veterans playing out of their natural positions, the Huskies still ended up with the third highest scoring offence in the conference with 238 points for. They managed to put up 372.6 yards per game, good for fourth overall, had the third best rushing offence at 157.1 yards per game and had the fourth best passing offence, putting up an average of 215.5 yards per game.
Even with a number of newcomers on offence again, the overall level of experience and skill has improved over the 2011 team. The depth at areas that were thin in 2011, specifically running back and offensive line, has been improved. The Huskies are going in with Drew Burko, who shone late last season on the show-team offence after leading Saskatchewan to a Football Canada Cup victory and the Aden Bowman Bears to a provincial championship, as the first string quarterback and have shifted Jahlani Gilbert-Knorren to receiver, where he can better use his talent as the best athlete on the field.
Here is how each offensive position stacks up heading into camp:
Returning players: Drew Burko, Parker Siemens
Departed players: Trent Peterson
New players: Matt Bonaca (Team Alberta), Chase Bradshaw (Saskatoon Hilltops)
Outlook: This is the area with the most question marks around it, as the starters from last season, Trent Peterson (transferred to a new school) and Jahlani Gilbert-Knorren (shifted to slotback) are no longer in the mix and a red-shirt rookie will be leading the offence.
When the time comes when you you have turnover at the quarterback position and you need to work in a new starter, you want it to be a player the caliber of Drew Burko. Not only does he come in with a resume that includes leading two teams to championships, but he has also been immersed in the Huskies from a young age, as his dad, Darrell Burko, is a long-serving defensive backs coach with the team. His time on the show team, where he routinely put up scores and big plays on the first-team defence, allowed him to learn the offence and get used to the speed of the CIS game. While he won’t be expected to move mountains and will surely make mistakes, he has shown in winter workouts and during spring camp that he has the talent and composure to lead the offence.
Burko will be pushed by rookie Matt Bonaca, who joins the Huskies after leading team Alberta to the 2011 Football Canada Cup final, and Chase Bradshaw, the Saskatoon Hilltops veteran with back-to-back national championships on his resume. Bonaca looked ready to land a roster spot at spring camp and if he continues to progress, he will be pushing for a starting spot. Bradshaw looked solid in spring camp and will be a good insurance policy for the Huskies. He comes in after throwing for 1711 yards and 11 touchdowns for the Hilltops in 2011. Parker Siemens is also back in the mix, giving the Huskies some veteran relief, should they need it, and mentor to the younger players coming in.
Returning Players: Dexter Janke, Jeremy Andrew, Kent Rempel, Shane Buchanan
Departed Players: Ben Coakwell, Alex Balogun, Connor Lutz, Mark Klause, Devin Sapara
New Players: Devin Logan (Abbotsford), Jarvis James (Calgary), Brandon Stewart (Sherwood Park), Drew Bexson (Lloydminster), Travoy Martinez (Dallas, Texas), Brad Grywul (Regina Rams), Philippe Thibodeau (St. Albert, AB)
Outlook: This area will also have a clear first stringer in Dexter Janke, who had 307 yards and four touchdowns on 60 carries last season. Janke has put on weight and has clearly spent a lot of time in the gym this offseason and is looking like he poised to join the elite ranks of CIS running backs. His speed and ability to cut on a dime are only enhanced by his tremendous pass-catching abilities, which many will remember from his 101 yard romp for a touchdown against the Rams in the second week last season.
Jeremy Andrew looked like he was ready for a full-time roster spot at spring camp. In his third year with the team, a greater role is not out of the question for this member of team Saskatchwan from the 2010 Football Canada Cup. Kent Rempel has shown flashes of speed and will surely be in the mix, as will veterans Shane Buchanan and Devin Sapara, who have both been with the team for some time and are as familiar with anybody with the offence.
It will be interesting to see who emerges from the group of new recruits. Devin Logan comes to the Huskies after being recruited by multiple college teams, and his talent and physical maturity may give him an edge. The speedy Jarvis James looked good at spring camp after a stellar career with Calgary’s Bishop O’Byrne Collegiate and is expected to push for both a spot as a running back and kick returner. Matt Bonaca’s teammate Brandon Stewart made some very tough runs in training camp and was difficult to bring down, as was Drew Bexson, who represented the north team in the Alberta Senior Bowl. Then there is Travoy Martinez, who comes to the Huskies from Dallas, Texas. Martinez was a star player at cornerback, receiver and running back for Woodrow Wilson High School where he graduated in 2010. He could be a real threat as both a tailback and kick returner, or perhaps as a receiver if the coaches decide he is more suited to that position.
Returning Players: Jeff Moore, Mitch Stevens, Garrett Burgess, Jahlani Gilbert-Knorren, Braeden George, Kit Hillis, Charlie Power, Christian Gottenbos, Emmett Timms, Thomas Chan, Sean Stenger, Josh Huschi
Departed Players: Jerit Lambert (sitting out the season due to injury), Garrett Bolen, Shayne Dueck
New Players: Brydon Ozmun (Nipawin), Dan Laventure (Vancouver), Julian Lynch (Regina), Steve Boryski (Hilltops), Cody Buziak (North Battleford), Peter Flahive (London, England)
Outlook: The Huskies return a veteran set of receivers that should make the transition to a new quarterback easier on the offence. Although last year’s leading receiver Rory Kohlert has graduated, the Huskies have veterans at each position and have two new additions, former quarterback Jahlani Gilbert-Knorren and former linebacker Charlie Power, who should add speed and size, respectively, to the position.
Jeff Moore, who had 338 yards and two touchdowns, returns for his fourth year, as does Garrett Burgess, who broke out with 235 yards on 24 catches and one touchdown. Fifth-year slotback Braeden George is back, looking to rebound from his seven catch, 115 yard one-touchdown campaign of a year ago, while Mitch Stevens and Kit Hillis comes into their third-years after injury plagued 2011 campaigns for both. Gilbert-Knorren will add speed from the slot, a position he is used to playing from his time on the last two Team World rosters. Power’s addition will add size and strength to slotback position, while he will also be used as a tight-end and lead blocker on a few running plays.
Although it appears the Huskies will have all the positions covered with returning veterans, don’t be surprised to see a new face or two on the roster. Brydon Ozmun, the 6’3″ wide receiver from Nipawin who was a member of Team Saskatchewan at the 2011 Canada Cup, is expected to make a case for playing time. Vancouver College graduate Dan Laventure had a strong spring camp and could be in the mix when the August 31 season opener rolls around. Second-year Huskies like Christian Gottenbos, Emmett Timms and Sean Stenger will also be strong contenders for a roster spot.
Returning Players: Brad Nehring, Jordan Arkko, Mike Fuller, Evan Greff, Craig Woloshyn, Clinton Reeder, Brennan Stephen, Matt Czerniak, Josh Butcher
Departed Players: Ben Heenan, Darren Hinds, Darcy Hinds, Logan Wilk, Brandon Myre, Burton Haig
New Players: Lane Bryksa (Saskatoon Hilltops), Drew Digout (Okanagan Sun), Evan Johnson (Regina), Kurtis Wegren (Swift Current), Evan Rutherford (Edmonton), Ryan Breadner (Cherokee, Texas), Tyler Sandif
Outlook: In spite of losing one of the best offensive lineman to ever don a Huskie uniform in Ben Heenan, the Huskies’ offensive line is looking far stronger than the unit they put on the field last season. Last year’s Canada West rookie of the year, Jordan Arkko, returns for his second year while Brad Nehring is back at centre for his third season.
The right side of the line will see the biggest battles, with 2011 PFC all-star guard Lane Bryksa of the Sasktoon Hilltops expected to put up a good fight for the right guard spot along with second-year Huskie Clinton Reeder and fifth-year veteran Craig Woloshyn. At left tackle, 2010 CJFL all-Canadian and 2011 BCFC all-star Drew Digout will be the front runner while fourth-year veteran Mike Fuller will battle it out with third-year veteran Evan Greff and second-year veteran Brennan Stephen at right tackle.
What is clear is that the Huskies have much better talent overall and will not have to put their best players out of position this year. They have many game-ready players at their disposal, and this should make for some tough decisions for the Huskie coaching staff. It will be interesting to see how the numerous new faces, including Evan Johnson (2011 Team Saskatchewan), Kurtis Wegren (2011 Team Saskatchewan), Evan Rutherford (2011 Team Alberta), and Ryan Breadner (2011 Texas all-state) progress, as all four have the talent to be future starters on the team.