CANADA WEST CHAMPS KICK OFF FALL CAMP FRIDAY
CALGARY – No longer seeking to end a playoff drought of more than a decade, the University of Calgary Dinos football team finds itself in unfamiliar territory.
After a breakout 5-3 campaign in 2008 that led to the school’s 10th Canada West title and a trip to the Uteck Bowl, the Dinos open fall camp Friday morning on the University of Calgary campus as defending conference champions for the first time since 1996. The two-week camp, which will include an exhibition contest against the NAIA’s Montana State-Northern on Aug. 29 in Medicine Hat, Alta., sets the team up for the season opener at Saskatchewan on Sept. 4 (7 p.m., The FAN 960, fan960.com, SHAW TV).
“I wouldn’t necessarily say we’re a favourite, but I do think we have the reputation that we can compete,” said Calgary head coach Blake Nill, who enters his fourth year at the helm. “I still think we need to learn how to win on a consistent basis and to do the things that it takes to win, so we’re still in a learning phase.
“There’s no doubt we improved over 2007 last season, but we’re not finished working to that level. We still have a lot of youth, and we have to learn how to win.”
Though the team played well down the stretch and in the conference playoffs a year ago, the 2008 season was bookended by a pair of big losses – a 25-0 season-opening defeat on the road in Saskatoon, and a 59-10 drubbing by eventual Vanier Cup champion Laval in the Uteck Bowl. Nill is quick to point out that his team still has plenty to learn.
“My main thing is to have these kids understand that we’re still a work in progress, that nothing has been completed,” he said. “We have to keep improving. I’ve coached in five national championships and we’re still a ways away from being able to seriously compete in one.
“But, we’ve taken a good first step, we have the right athletes in place, and if things work out we should be in a position where we can compete for a conference championship here.”
The team returns 18 starters from 2008, including 10 on the offence and eight on the defence. Offensive linemen Lindsey Stevens and Dylan Steenbergen are the only offensive starters who do not return, while defensive lineman Pat Callan along with defensive backs Jon Waldie, James Green, and Brett Ferguson have moved on from the defence.
Here is a position-by-position look at the team as fall camp opens.
Just two starters on the entire Calgary offence do not return to the fold in 2009, and both leave holes to fill in the offensive line. Right tackle Dylan Steenbergen was the first-round pick of the Montreal Alouettes in the CFL draft and is currently on the injured reserve list, while left guard Lindsey Stevens completed his academic program.
Reed Alexander (2nd, Medicine Hat, Alta.) returns to active duty after missing most of last season with a back injury sustained in the opening game against Saskatchewan. He will join centre Alex Krausnick-Groh (2nd, Cochrane, Alta.) along with Quinn McCaughan (2nd, St. Francis Xavier, Man.) and Paul Swiston (2nd, Calgary) as returnees up front.
A number of young, talented players will battle for playing time on the line, led by redshirt freshmen Kirby Fabien (Calgary) and Carson Rockhill (Parksville, B.C.). Rockhill, a converted defensive lineman, joined Fabien on the Canadian team at the junior world championships in Canton, Ohio over the summer, winning the silver medal. Fabien was named to the first all-tournament team at that event with Rockhill landing on the second team.
Sean Gott (2nd, Lethbridge, Alta.) and Mark Loewen (3rd, Winnipeg) each saw playing time along the line last season and will be in the mix as well.
“I feel that our O-line is in good shape, mostly because it’s almost all returning,” said Nill. “I think that Kirby is ready to play at this level, and I also think that Carson, if thrown in there, could do the job as well.”
The new face that has received the most off-season attention is undoubtedly Erik Glavic (3rd, Pickering, Ont.), the 2007 Hec Crighton trophy winner as the most outstanding player in CIS football. Glavic transferred to Calgary from Saint Mary’s in January 2009 and has been hard at work rehabilitating his left knee after a torn ACL required surgery in late 2007. He appeared in just one game of SMU’s 2008 season before re-injuring the same knee in the first quarter. Because he was not charged CIS eligibility for the 2008 season, Glavic will be eligible to suit up for the Dinos when the season opens in Saskatoon Sept. 4.
The starting job is still up for grabs, however, with returning starter Deke Junior (5th, Regina, Sask.) also in the mix. The fifth-year pivot made the transition from the CJFL in 2008, leading the Dinos to a pair of playoff victories. His completion percentage on the season was 60.5, the second-best in school history, and he set a team record by completing 22 of 26 pass attempts (78.6%) in the Hardy Cup victory over Simon Fraser.
Import Casey Brown (3rd, Missoula, Mont.) returns for a third campaign with the Dinos after two injury-plagued seasons, while Connor Little (1st, Lethbridge, Alta.), the younger brother of returning receiver Matt, joins the team as a pure freshman. Dalin Tollestrup, the 2006 starter, informed Nill he will not return after his Mormon mission and will instead attend Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.
“Quarterback will be a strong point for us this year, especially with the addition of Erik Glavic,” said Nill. “Deke Junior showed up in great shape and he’s ready to challenge, and I’ve really been impressed with his attitude so far.”
Returning Canada West MVP Matt Walter (3rd, Calgary) anchors a running game that will again be the foundation of the Calgary offence with the ability to throw a variety of looks at opposing defences. Walter, whose 904 yards earned him the conference rushing title last season, was the second Dino in as many years to earn a spot on the second All-Canadian team at the tailback position after Anthony Woodson (4th, Calgary) accomplished the feat in 2007. Woodson missed most of last season with a rib injury but did return to make a difference in the playoffs, and he could play more of a tailback-receiver role in the Dinos offence going forward. The fourth-year back is recovering from shoulder and foot injuries and will not be ready to open the season.
Storm Bartsoff (1st, Raymond, Alta) and Steven Lumbala (1st, Calgary) are both the real deal at tailback, earning award after award in high school. Lumbala landed on the first all-tournament team at the Junior Worlds in Ohio in July, while Bartsoff led the Raymond Comets to the Tier I provincial title in 2008. They will be joined by Bowness High School product D.J. Whetton, who has the athletic tools to challenge for coveted touches.
“We have two All-Canadians in Woodson and Walter coming back, but we also have three very talented recruits that can run the ball,” said Nill. “With our depth in the backfield, we’re looking to run more of a hybrid offence there where the guys that can carry the ball can also receive. Woodson and Lumbala are the kind of athletes who could excel in that role, and I think you’re going to see a lot of that from us in the next few years.”
Second team All-Canadian Nathan Coehoorn (3rd, Redcliff, Alta.) headlines a veteran group of returning receivers that includes the steady Taylor Altilio (4th, Calgary) and the dynamic Anthony Parker (3rd, Okotoks, Alta.). Matt Little (2nd, Lethbridge, Alta.) returns for his sophomore season after starting five games last year. K.C. Prince (3rd, Raymond, Alta.) had a solid sophomore season in 2008 but sustained an injury in the off-season, forcing him to sit out the entire 2009 campaign as a medical red-shirt. Taylor Nill showed significant progress in the off-season and will challenge for playing time, while several recruits will battle for roster spots during camp.
“It’s always just a matter of matching up with receivers,” said Nill. “Coehoorn, Parker, and Altilio are all veterans who will come back with experience and they’ll be our go-to guys. We have a couple of recruits in those positions as well, and Taylor has also vastly improved over last year and could challenge there too.”
Aaron Ifield (4th, Saskatoon, Sask.) needs just 10 field goals to tie the school’s all-time career record as he suits up for a fourth season with the Dinos. David Benavides (West Vancouver, B.C.) and Andrew Fabian (Brooks, Alta.) will also report to camp for a shot at kicker’s duties.
Despite the loss of fifth-year seniors Pat Callan and Josh MacDonald, the defensive line will be among the strongest aspects of the 2009 edition of the Dinos. Deji Oduwole (4th, Coquitlam, B.C.), Brandon Rockhill (4th, Parksville, B.C.), Kelly Temple (2nd, Sexsmith, Alta.), Josh Symons (3rd, Calgary), and Andrew Obrecht (5th, Calgary) are the returning veterans, and they will be joined by a quartet of solid recruits. Hughes-Martin Kalonji (1st, Montreal) heads west from Cégep Vieux Montreal, where he starred for the Spartiates, while Carlos Guglielmi (3rd, Kelowna, B.C.) transfers from Butte College. Linden Gaydosh (1st, Peace River, Alta.) represented Canada in Ohio at the Junior World Championships, and Medicine Hat freshman Ryan Keating is another solid incoming athlete.
“The D-line is going to be maybe the strongest area on this team,” said Nill. “We had a very good recruiting year with four top athletes coming in, and we’ll also be looking for big years from Deji, Rockhill, Symons, and Temple.”
The same trio of linebackers started every game for the Dinos in 2008, and all three return as likely starters in 2009. Andrea Bonaventura (4th, Hamilton, Ont.) is the reigning defensive player of the year in Canada West and the team’s only first team All-Canadian, and he returns to Calgary after a training camp stint with the Edmonton Eskimos, who selected him in the third round (20th overall) of May’s CFL Canadian Draft. Chase Moore (5th, Calgary) and Julian Simmerling (4th, West Vancouver, B.C.) join Bonaventura as headliners of the linebacking corps.
Redshirt freshmen Adam Driedger (Calgary) and Sam Hurl (Calgary), will likely move to the active roster this season, with several rookies also trying out at the position.
“We have strong veterans returning at linebacker, but we go from a position of strong veterans to relative youth very quickly,” said Nill. “We don’t have that depth just yet, but the linebackers that we do have coming in are all excellent athletes, 6-4, 220-type guys, and I think that group of youngsters will develop over the coming years and it’s going to be a strength of ours for a long time to come.”
The team’s biggest question mark heading into 2009 is the secondary, which loses two conference all-stars in the graduated Jon Waldie and James Green, who was taken two picks before Bonaventura in the CFL Draft by Toronto and is seeing significant field time with the Argonauts. Brett Ferguson has also moved on after starting all 11 games at halfback last season, leaving Matt Grohn (5th, Lethbridge, Alta.) and Steve Truzak (5th, Bedford, N.S.) as the only returning starters.
Casey Fraser (3rd, High River, Alta.) started one game at safety last season, while Michael Lau (3rd, Calgary) saw spot duty along with Tye Noble (2nd, Winnipeg), Chudi Nzekwu (3rd, Calgary), and Wyatt Getty (2nd, Calgary). Thomas Spoletini out of Rundle College is among the recruits in the secondary, along with Calgary Colts transfer Brian Hagen and Jamahl Knowles, who arrives via the South Surrey Rams.
“One of my concerns is how we’ll get along without James and Jon,” Nill said. “We have the athletes to take over in those spots, but those are positions that require a lot of experience and lots of repetition, both in practice and in game situations. It’s also the kind of position where if you make a mistake, it usually results in a big play against you, so it’s an area of concern.”
2009 UC Dinos Football Camp
Thursday, Aug. 20
Team Meetings & Medicals, no media availability
Friday, Aug. 21-Sunday, Aug. 23
8:30-10:30 a.m. Practice #1 (University of Calgary fields, west of Olympic Oval)
10:30-11 a.m. Players and coaches available to media
11 a.m.-3 p.m. Team lunch and meetings
3-5 p.m. Practice #2 (UC fields)
5-5:30 p.m. Players and coaches available to media
Monday, Aug. 24-Thursday, Aug. 27
9-10:15 a.m. Meetings
10:40-11:40 a.m. Walk-through practice (UC fields)
11:40 a.m.-12 p.m. Players and coaches available to media
12-5 p.m. Team lunch and meetings
5-7 p.m. Practice (McMahon Stadium)
7-7:30 p.m. Players and coaches available to media
Friday, Aug. 28
Saturday, Aug. 29
1:30 p.m. Exhibition Game: Dinos vs. Montana State-Northern @ Medicine Hat, Alta.