Times are changing quickly in CIS football.
Not only is there a new proposal from David Dube and Jim Mullin for a national interlock schedule that would pit the top teams in the country against each other during the regular season, but there have been major moves by CIS teams to elevate themselves to the elite ranks through coaching changes, improving their facilities and getting a recruiting jump on their competition.
Hot on the heels of the Manitoba Bisons ending the Calgary Dinos’ Hardy Trophy streak at six and the Montreal Carabins ending Laval’s consecutive Vanier Cup appearance streak at four, winning their first Vanier in the process, the UBC Thunderbirds made the biggest coaching move in Canada, firing Shawn Olson and luring Blake Nill away from the Dinos. The Dinos, who still have an excellent roster (unless several of their top players follow Nill to UBC as many St. Mary’s Huskies players did when he left for Calgary in 2006), are looking for the right leader to keep them on top of the standings, while the Regina Rams have hired long-time CFL assistant Mike Gibson to try to elevate them from their decade-plus of near mediocrity.
The teams that aren’t looking for coaches are busy restocking their rosters. The Hardy champion Manitoba Bisons have lost several veterans, including Jordan Yantz, but have been busy raiding BC of their best talent while developing the best Winnipeg has to offer. Meanwhile in Alberta, the Golden Bears have already secured 17 recruits, including some of the top rated high school and junior recruits from across Western Canada. The improving Bears just missed the playoffs last year and will be looking to make a big statement this year.
With all the teams in Canada West making moves to improve and be considered part of the national elite, the pressure is on the Huskies to keep pace with, or ideally surpass, the other programs in the west. Frankly, Huskie fans expect this team to win the Hardy and return to national prominence and have expected that for the last few seasons. There was a lot of criticism leveled at the program after the playoff loss, criticism that is hard to argue with.
This program has another opportunity to answer those critics and make up for the last few years of early playoff exits. With the changes occurring across the conference, notably to the Hardy finalists, the Dinos and Bisons, the next two seasons offer the Huskies their best opportunity in recent memory to return to the top. With a talented roster returning, it is now up to the coaching staff to make the additions to the roster and adjustments to the playbook that take them back to the Vanier.
The Huskies made some major changes to the offence last season, with long-time offensive coordinator Brent Schneider and receivers coach Jason Sulz leaving the program while former CFL all-star Scott Flory and former Hec Crighton nominee Laurence Nixon joined the coaching staff. The 2014 season was the first for both Flory and Nixon as coaches at the CIS level and with that year of experience under their belts, more will be expected of the offence. Head Coach Brian Towriss has already indicated that Flory will be taking over as the offensive coordinator in 2015.
With quarterback Drew Burko entering his fourth year of eligibility, the pressure will be on him to improve and be the leader this program has needed. He has the opportunity to now move into the ranks of the elite quarterbacks in the nation, but must find a way to eliminate the turnovers and mistakes that have plagued him over the past two years.
With Burko heading into the last two years of his career, it is an ideal time for the Huskies to recruit for the position. Kyle Siemens and Jeremy Long are both eligible to return and Siemens may be the competition that could push Burko to elevate his game.
The Huskies will have one of the best running games in the country and perhaps the top running game in the conference with Tyler Chow ready to be a star in the country. Chow had 274 yards and one touchdown during the regular season, but shone in the playoff game, putting up 178 yards rushing, 75 yards receiving and two touchdowns. He will be complemented by the talented Jarvis James, who is entering his fourth year on the team and will see plenty of action. It is also likely the Huskies will use Kayden Johnson more this season, either as a running back or an inside receiver, as he has too much talent to keep off the field.
At receiver, the loss of Kit Hillis will hurt, as he was a tremendous possession receiver and clutch weapon when the Huskies needed him most. Luckily, the team returns a strong set of receivers, including John Trumpy, Mitch Hillis, Brydon Ozmun, Julan Lynch and Kieran Johnston. The addition of Tevin Godfrey, who practiced as a red shirt after transferring from NCAA Devision II school Texas A & M University Commerce last season, will be eligible to play in 2015, while Yol Piok, one of the top receiver recruits in Canada last season, will also be part of the receiving mix.
The most critical area on offence is the offensive line, which loses centre Brad Nehring, a five-year starter on the line. Guard Mat Leung is eligible to return after going down with a season ending injury early last year. Matt Czerniak is entering his fifth year on the team and is an option at centre or guard, while Drew Digout, who played most of the season at guard, will push for a starting position once again. At tackle, 6-8, 320 lb. left tackle Ryan Breadner is on his way to becoming a CIS all-Canadian, as is the bookend on the right side of the line, Evan Johnson, who is entering his third year in the CIS.
Another important contributor from last season, Josh Butcher, who came off the bench to fill in ably for the injured Nehring, is eligible to return and gives the Huskies game-tested experinece on the interior. They need to improve their depth and provide competition for the returning veterans, ideally with a couple game-tested junior veterans. 2014 recruits such as David Singer, Cole Klughart and Connor Bergloff will make an impact, but may require more seasoning before they are ready for a game-day roster spot. This is a key area for the Huskies to improve through recruiting, as a dominant running game will surely be a key component of coach Flory’s offence, as he blocked for the likes of Doug Rozon and Mike Pringle and knows how far the rushing game can take a team.
Coach Towriss said that all three areas of the defence will be recruiting priorities this year. The defensive line lost tackle Clayton Sarich, linebacker Richard Zacharias exhausted his eligibility and all-Canadian safety Mark Ingram played his final game as a Huskie, leaving some big holes to fill.
The defensive line is arguably in the best shape coming into 2015, with all but Sarich eligible to return. At the tackle positions, Timi Agbaje has another year of eligibility while defensive leader Brayden Twarynski is entering his fourth year. Evan Machibroda, who received playing time last season after beating out more experienced veterans during training camp, is poised for a greater role while Caleb Eidsvik, who spent time with the offensive line last year after when they were decimated by injuries, can be a difference maker in the interior of the line.
On the edge, players who are eligible to return include Adam Morrison, Tristian Koronkiewicz, Brennen Thorpe and Preston McIntyre. This is a young group, with the 6-7 Morrison the senior member, heading into his fourth year, and will only improve from last season.
At linebacker, both Dane Bishop and Geoff Hughes are heading into their fifth years and provide a solid starting pair. It is the depth at linebacker that needs to be restocked, and considering the injuries both Bishop and Hughes have suffered during their time with the Huskies, it will be important to have two or three game-ready linebackers who are ready to be added to the rotation.
Rover Dylan Kemp is also heading into his fifth year of eligibility. Players like Brad Kotania and Eric Verity, who both spent time at halfback last year, both fit the mold for this position and may make the move back up to this linebacker/defensive back hybrid position.
The defensive secondary needs the most help of any of the units on the team. In spite of the presence of all-Canadian Mark Ingram and the addition of junior stars like Chris Friesen, the Huskies still gave up an average of over 320 passing yards per game, ahead of only Alberta.
Friesen is eligible to return for his fifth year, as is Taylor Rehn, who started the year at cornerback before suffering a season-ending injury in the second game. The team has several untested but talented 2013 and 2014 recruits on the roster, including the highly sought after Gabe Simons, who may take over the safety position, Marco Scaffidi, who found his way onto the roster as a rookie last season, and second-year player Brandon Dazzan.
Like linebacker, the defensive secondary needs an infusion of talent to both start and fill out the depth for the position. Expect a few junior veterans to be added to the defensive back position as the Huskies look to improve what is arguably the weakest area of the team.
The obvious need on special teams is a replacement for kicker Denton Kolodzinski. Sean Stenger is the heir apparent on the roster, but expect another kicker or two to be recruited, as this has been a sore spot for the Huskies for a few years.
Overall, the Huskies return a talented roster but need to add depth at most positions. Coaches, players and fans should be excited for the upcoming season, as they appear poised to bust out of the recent playoff funk. Thanks to a maturing roster at key positions like quarterback and linebacker and due to the emergence of players like Tyler Chow, Julan Lynch and Evan Machibroda, the time is now for the Huskies. Recruits should keep this in mind, especially those with limited eligibility, as the upheaval throughout the rest of the Canada West should open a few doors for the Huskies to return to the top and make an impact in the playoffs.