Sizing up the competition

A preview of the 2015 Canada West football conference

Photo by Jeff Miller.

The University of Manitoba Bisons football squad enter the 2015 season as defending Canada West Conference champs, and look to be in fine form.

The herd are coming off a 33-33 tie last weekend against 2014 Yates Cup finalist Guelph, however Manitoba’s first team simply demolished their OUA opponent, outscoring the Gryphons’ starters 18-0 at the half, before the second- and third-teamers entered the game in the third and fourth quarter.

While Manitoba appears primed and ready to make another Vanier Cup run, the rest of the conference is nipping at their heels, looking to seize the Hardy Cup. Below is a preview of the other five Canada West teams, and how they stack up compared to the Bisons for the upcoming year.


UBC Thunderbirds (2-6 record in 2014, missed playoffs)

If you were to look at UBC’s record in 2014, you wouldn’t assume they would be a contender for the coming season. Things can change very quickly in Canada West however, and in the Thunderbirds’ case, it should be for the better.

One of the biggest shifts in the off-season for UBC didn’t involve a player. Instead it was a coaching change, which should make the T-Birds an immediate contender in 2015.

Blake Nill will begin his first year at the helm for UBC this season, and if you’re not familiar with his name, then you clearly haven’t been watching enough CIS football. Nill has engineered the turnaround of two separate programs in the past, helping Saint Mary’s win their first Vanier Cup in 28 years in 2001, and guiding Calgary to their first Hardy Cup title in 13 years in 2008. Overall, Nill has appeared in seven Vanier Cup games as a head coach, winning two.

Nill’s arrival was critical from not only a coaching standpoint, but also from a recruiting standpoint. He was able to secure some of the best talent within Canada and pluck a few locals back from south of the border.

That number included six-foot-five quarterback Michael O’Connor (Penn State), six-foot-two linebacker Troy Hansen (North Dakota), and six-foot-three defensive back Taylor Loffler (Boise State). Over 30 impact recruits from different locations across Canada and the United States chose to come to UBC this season, and for most of them it was Nill that was the deciding factor.

The newest Thunderbirds got their first chance to shine this past Saturday, taking on perennial powerhouse Laval. While this was still a pre-season game, UBC proved that they’re going to be in the hunt this season, with an impressive 41-16 win over the Rouge et Or, who have won seven of the last 12 Vanier Cups.

O’Connor, Hansen, and Loffler all stood out in this one. O’Connor finished with 292 yards passing and two touchdowns, while Hansen had eight tackles and a sack, and Loffler recorded six tackles and an interception.

Overall, the UBC defence picked off Laval’s Hugo Richard four times. While it’s not the regular season yet, that’s still saying something, as Richard threw just four interceptions in the entirety of the 2014 season, and was also the leading passer in the entire CIS.

Long story short, with Blake Nill leading the troops, the Thunderbirds are going to be very dangerous in 2015.


Calgary Dinos (6-2 record in 2014, lost to Manitoba in Canada West final)

As mentioned above, UBC’s gain was Calgary’s loss, as the Dinos will start the 2015 season without Nill for the first time since 2005. While his loss is unfortunate, it shouldn’t faze Calgary too much, as they return a number of key starters for 2015, and will look for redemption after their Hardy Cup streak was halted at six last season.

The two most notable returns offensively have to be quarterback Andrew Buckley and centre Sean McEwen, who were both 2015 CFL draft picks that opted to return to Calgary.

Buckley has done everything possible for the Dinos except win the Vanier Cup, and will look to complete one of the most impressive CIS careers in recent memory in 2015. Having McEwen – who was drafted third overall by Toronto and is a two-time All-Canadian – will surely help.

The offence will also have 2013 Canada West MVP Mercer Timmis in the backfield, along with 2014 All-Canadian Brett Blaszko and 2013 Canada West Rookie of the Year Rashaun Simonise at the receiver positions. Without a question, aside from Manitoba, Calgary boasts the most dangerous combination of weapons on the offensive side.

Defensively, the Dinos return all five starters in the secondary, as well as frequent playmakers Doctor Cassama and Tanner Doll – a fourth-round draft pick by the Ottawa Redblacks in 2015 – at the linebacker position.

If there’s anyone that’s going to knock Manitoba off the top of the conference this year, it’s going to be Calgary.


Saskatchewan Huskies (6-2 record in 2014, lost to Manitoba in Canada West semi-final)

Despite consistently being near the top of the standings, the Huskies have fallen to Manitoba in the conference semi-finals in each of the past two seasons. With UBC now nipping at their heels, 2015 is going to be a much bigger challenge for Saskatchewan.

The team returns Drew Burko, who finished fifth in the CIS in 2014 in passing yards with 2,256, at quarterback. He’ll have Mitch Hillis – who had an impressive pre-season performance against Wilfrid Laurier, as well as 2014 leading receiver John Trumpy back as targets.

In the backfield, Shane Buchanan, Jarvis James, and Tyler Chow provide the Huskies with valuable experience, and depth. All three players had at least 50 carries and 250 yards rushing last season.

Defensively, Saskatchewan loses conference interception leader Mark Ingram, but maintains linebacker Geoffrey Hughes, who had 38 total tackles in 2014. The biggest acquisition for the Huskies on the defensive side has to be Donovan Dale, who transfers over from UBC. He was a first-team All-Canadian in 2013, and a second-team All-Canadian last year, and immediately makes the defensive line a strength.

Saskatchewan will still compete for a playoff spot this year, but will likely not find themselves in the top two in the conference.


Alberta Golden Bears (3-5 record in 2014, missed playoffs)

The Golden Bears haven’t reached the post-season since 2010, and while they should improve again in 2015, it’s not likely that trend will change.

Alberta graduates starting quarterback Curtis Dell, which is a huge loss. The team will hopefully make up for a potential decline through the air by having a strong run game – which was second in total yards in the conference in 2014, with 1,323. Ed Ilnicki, who had 655 rushing yards last season, will be the leader in that capacity. Jimmy Ralph and Tylor Henry will be leaned on as veterans in the receiving corps.

Defensively, Alberta will rely on a pair of linebackers to set the tempo. Connor Ralph, who led the Canada West in 2014 with 61.5 tackles, along with Tommy Tsoumpas, who had 47.5 tackles, should both pick up where they left off.


Regina Rams (3-5 record in 2014, lost to Calgary in Canada West semi-final)

With new coach Mike Gibson at the helm, 2015 will be a transition period for the Rams. While they made the playoffs on the strength of their passing game last season, Regina will likely be watching from home this year.

Noah Picton will have full control of the offence this year, after taking over as a rookie midway through the 2014 campaign, where he finished with over 2,000 yards passing. Unfortunately, he loses both Addison Richards and Jared Janotta, who were both in the top 10 in the CIS in receiving yards last year.

While Regina still has a few playmakers at the receiver position, they will lean more heavily on the run game in 2015, with young stud Atlee Simon carrying the mail. He had 524 yards rushing in 2014, and coupled with a veteran offensive line, Simon will help keep the pressure off of Picton entirely.

The defence is incredibly young and thin in experience, and will rely on third-year linebacker and former Canada West All-Star Michael Stefanovic to pick up the slack in what will largely be a development year.