With the Canada West season in the rear view mirror for all but the Calgary Dinos, it’s time to for teams to reflect on what went right, what went wrong and what they have to do to challenge the dominant Dinos in 2014 and beyond.
For the University of Saskatchewan Huskies, this offseason is shaping up to be the most crucial in the history of the program. Although they made the playoffs for the thirteenth straight year, they once again made a first-round playoff exit, their sixth such ending in the past seven seasons.
There was a lot of promise and some lofty expectations surrounding the Huskies heading into the 2013 season. With a talented, veteran roster and an experienced coaching staff at the helm, not to mention the turnover on the rosters of the the Rams and Dinos, things were looking good for a return to the top for the Dogs.
But what looked good on paper failed to meet expectations on the field. The offence sputtered and could not finish off drives while the defence was inconsistent and had their share of key injuries. While they were in every game, they failed to take the next step and it cost them late in the season, losing two key games at home against the eventual Hardy Cup finalists Manitoba and Calgary.
It’s hard not to admire what Blake Nill has done in Calgary with the Dinos. After losing 19 of 24 starters from a year ago, including 11 of 12 starters on defence and three of five starting offensive linemen, it was reasonable to expect them to take a step or two back. However, the Dinos defied all logic and improved, going undefeated for the first time in team history and dominating the top-ranked team in the country, the Western Mustangs, winning the Mitchell Bowl 44-3.
Clearly, when you have as young of a roster as Calgary has and you are as dominant as they have been this season, the coaching is excellent. Nill has not been afraid to make changes to his staff, bringing in former CFL head coach Steve Buratto this year as offensive line coach. These changes have paid off, but what has paid off bigger is Nill’s ability to recruit nationally, bringing in top-end talent like Mercer Timmis and Brett Blaszko that separate the Dinos from other programs.
Now on the recruiting trail, the Huskies must compete for players with the potential Vanier Cup champion Dinos but also with the recharged Manitoba Bisons, the improving Alberta Golden Bears, who are recruiting aggressively, and several other teams. While the Huskies have improved their facilities and have an unmatched gameday experience and fan support, teams like Manitoba and UBC have new and improved facilities as well.
For many recruits, when it comes down to making a decision on who they will commit to, it is often the team they feel will give them the best opportunity to win that has the edge. This is the challenge facing the Huskies now, as they have to convince key recruits that they have the best opportunity to knock off the Dinos and will shortly move into national contention.
While this will surely be a crucial recruiting year for the team as they look to take that next step, a total roster overhaul is not required. Indeed, it is the tremendous young talent already on the roster that should convince many potential recruits that this team is poised to return to championship contention.
On offence, there will be plenty of opportunity for new players to come in and contribute. Two starting offensive linemen and four receivers are moving on, while the ground game needs help. Quarterback Drew Burko is moving into his third year of eligibility, and as we saw in the Canada West semi-final, he can sling it. Receiving threats such as the Hillis brothers, Jerit Lambert and Brydon Ozmun will keep the Huskie passing attack strong, while Jordan Arkko, Evan Johnson, Mason Dick and Drew Digout will anchor this offensive line for the next few years.
There is more opportunity on defence, but players like defensive linemen Brayden Twarynski, Mike Dejarlais and Garrett Meek, linebackers Dane Bishop, Dylan Kemp and Geoff Hughes, and defensive backs Travoy Martinez, Keegan Arnyek and Kenrick Hanna form a talented core to build on over the next two or three years. On special teams, Denton Kolodzinski is entering his fifth year and it would be a good time to bring in and develop a new kicker or two.
Unquestionably, this team is talented and will be in the playoffs for years to come. However, questions remain about whether they can attract those one or two difference makers, like an Anthony Coombs or Mercer Timmis, that will take them over the top. They had a player of that calibre, Jeff Hassler, but his heart belonged to rugby. Hopefully they will be able to attract a Hassler-type player or two this offseason, and there are many local players who could make an impact immediately, including graduating Hilltops like Andre Lalonde, Tristain Hoath, Chris Friesen and Brett Pisio.
How the coaches use the talent has been questioned several times this season. All three units were inconsistent this year and it was pointed out by many commenters on this site and fan forums like CISFootball.org that the Huskies are predictable and stuck in old ways. Perhaps they are in need of a coaching shakeup and some new ideas, or perhaps they need to shake up their offseason workouts. At this point, all possibilities are likely on the table, as they should be when you have a 1-7 playoff record since 2006.
Whatever happens this offseason, Huskie fans need have no doubt that this team is committed to winning. Brian Towriss and his staff work hard, tirelessly pouring over film and studying techniques and ways to make this team better. BT is still a recruiting force out there and he knows who he needs to bring in to make this team better.
I have faith that the playoff drought will end and we will see this team on the national stage soon. I know many fans are frustrated and a few have indicated they won’t support the team in the future. Hopefully, they change their minds and don’t become fairweather, “only if they’re winning championships” fans. By buying season tickets, Huskie Football merchandise and Dogs’ Breakfast tickets, you enable this team to get stronger.
Thanks to our readers for coming back here and contributing with your comments. Thanks to all the players, their families, and especially the coaches and the team support staff for tolerating us and allowing us the access to make this blog unique and special within CIS athletics. Hopefully we entertained and informed, and, in some small way, contributed to the success of the team.
Stay tuned for more this offseason and look forward to improved coverage next year.