In the Canada West conference, and in the entire CIS, for that matter, you will be as successful as your offensive line is strong.
It’s no coincidence that the Huskies were a dominant team that went to four Vanier Cups between 2002 and 2006 with players like Rhett McLane, Chris Sutherland, Jordan Rempel, and Tim West manning the offensive line. It’s also no surprise that the Calgary Dinos have been so successful lately, with the likes of Paul Swiston, Kirby Fabien, Alex Krausnick and Carson Rockhill opening holes and protecting their quarterbacks.
Of course, these teams also have great defensive players and excellent receivers, quarterbacks and running backs, but the foundation of these teams are the solid offensive lines. Last season, many observers thought the Huskies offensive line had turned the corner and was once again on the verge of being a dominant unit, but they struggled at times and would suffer several key injuries in the second half of the season.
This year, they once again look to be a solid unit that has the potential to be the strongest in the Canada West. The interior is experienced, featuring fifth-years Brad Nehring at centre and Mat Leung at right guard and, if he is fully recovered from knee surgery, fourth-year Jordan Arkko at left guard.
The edges are less experienced but big and athletic. At right guard is the 6-4, 280 lb. second-year player Evan Johnson, who played in several games last year, starting the final two. At left tackle, the 6-8, 310 lb. Ryan Breadner is ready to take over a starting position after impressing coaches in spring camp and during winter practices. Third-year player Drew Digout and fourth-year player Matt Czerniak will also challenge for starting positions, giving the Huskies good depth.
Offensive line coach Travis Serke, who will be coaching the line on his own this year as Bart Arnold is taking the year off, feels the line is in good shape as we head towards the season.
“They all had good offseasons,” he said at May’s spring camp. “Some of the veterans who are really stepping forward are Mat Leung, Brad Nehring and Drew Digout. As a group, I think we’re really coming together.
“The mix at offensive tackle will be Johnson, Breadner and Digout. The young guys were getting more starting reps (at spring camp) as Drew is pretty good with the system, and the more you can rep stuff, the better line you will have. Inside, we have pretty strong inside players. We’re a veteran line.”
One of those veterans, Ryan “Big Tex” Breadner, hasn’t played much in his first two years with the program, but he has shown he is ready, both physically and mentally, to make the jump to the roster.
“I’m coming along here,” said the Cherokee, Texas native following the spring scrimmage. “I’m doing real well and I’m taking every rep like I mean it. I’m just here to do my job on the o-line.”
Breadner is confident the offensive line will make a difference this year. “The only way to put it is we’re the stone wall of Saskatchewan. Nothing’s getting past us. We eat together, play together. We’re a really close group. The second team is ready to fill if they need to, they’re just as strong as we are. We’ve got great depth.”
The Huskies attracted a few promising recruits this offseason, notably team Saskatchewan and team Canada player David Singer. For the recruits coming in, it will be difficult to crack the veteran roster, but Serke saw many positive things to build on.
“For the young guys, it will be catching on to the system,” he explained. “You can tell who has been looking in the playbook. We have a lot of verbage and words mean certain things here, and they have to figure that all out. The guys that are playing well, the confident ones, they’re confident because they’ve spent the time with the playbook.”
When it comes to preparing the players, few coaches in the CIS do as good a job as Serke and Arnold. Even though Arnold was not at spring camp, Serke was not on his own, with alumni like Ben Heenan of the Roughriders, Paddy Neufeld of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and recent graduate Lane Bryksa coaching the troops.
“It’s a tradition,” said Serke. “The guys always come back, of their own free will. They want to help and give back to the program, and it means a lot to them. It certainly makes our jobs a lot easier and we just turn them loose and let them go and take notes.
“They bring what they do from their professional teams, and it’s all good, solid stuff. Every year, they bring something new.”