2009 UBC Thunderbirds Football Preview
What does the 2009 UBC Football team need to do to be successful?
The short answer from UBC head coach Ted Goveia: “It’s important that we are able to move the ball on offence and get into the end zone.”
This remark comes on the heels of a 2-6 record last year, a season that was mere moments from being a .500 showing after a pair of losses in the dying seconds of games to SFU and Regina.
The strength of the 2008 team was its defence and speciality teams as the T-Birds had five conference all-stars named in those categories. Just two of those five all-stars return, however, which means more has to come from a young but relatively experienced and talented offensive unit.
“I think at certain times last year we had pretty good personnel but they were young and inexperienced,” said Goveia. “This group is really talented, plays with a lot of energy and they work really hard. The future is playing now at UBC and we need to make believers out of this group because they have what it takes to be great.”
Despite the youth, almost none of the skill players are seniors, Goveia believes the pieces are there for success and it starts with a more aggressive coaching philosophy.
“If we want to move the ball, we are going to have to be more creative on offence in terms on how we as coaches are doing things. Sometimes you get caught with a young team and you never really turn the page on the playbook. Good teams pick up on this and start sitting on routes as the year goes on because you are doing the same thing.”
Another change for the T-Birds will come at the quarterback position with 2008 opening day starter Marc McVeigh, who led UBC with 1,018 passing yards last season, moving over to receiver while last season’s back-up, Billy Greene, enters the year as the presumptive number one.
Greene, a standout with Holy Cross during his high school days, saw action in six games last year throwing for 478 yards in his rookie season.
“Billy is a special athlete,” said Goveia. “He is a highly competitive individual and he wants the ball in his hands in the biggest moments. Billy’s a great leader and he thrives on being in the pressure situations.”
Backing up Greene is another youngster in Boomer Chaube who made one appearance last year for the T-Birds with McVeigh also available to go back under centre.
Whichever youthful quarterback steps up and take the reins they should expect solid protection from a talented and veteran offensive line, anchored by the return of fifth-year standout Mike Morris. The 19th pick in this year’s CFL Draft, the 6-foot-4, 300-pound Morris anchors the left side of the UBC line and has plenty of size helping him elsewhere on the line.
Goveia believes the blend of size and talent should make this unit, if healthy, the driving force of this year’s offence.
“Like every team, if we want to have success moving the ball it starts with the O-line. This is the most talented offensive line I’ve seen at UBC in my time here. This unit can open some holes for us.”
Joining Morris in the trenches are veterans Oamo Culbreath, Zack Kotilla, Cody Husband, Dan Mendes, and rookie transfer Kelly Kurisu.
Culbreath, Kotilla, and Mendes were all part of the starting unit in 2008 with the 6-foot-7, 310-pound Cody Husband getting a promotion from the sixth man to starter after seeing lots of action across the line last season. Kurisu, a transfer from the folded Western Washington program, should be an impact player in the CIS after one red-shirted season with the Vikings.
One group of players that should benefit from this talented line are the T-Bird running backs. UBC returns their top two rushers from last season and added a number of big recruits in the backfield during the off-season.
Junior Dave Boyd led the team with 462 yards last season and a pair of touchdowns on a 5.2 yard per carry average, while fifth-year Cheng Wei tallied 359 yards and a major on 78 carries.
“Dave has great vision and shake and he can make people miss or he can take people on. He was great in the second half of last year, especially in the Shrum Bowl. We need him to play the way he played that night against SFU. Cheng is one of the fastest guys in the league and brings a veteran savvy to the position,” said Goveia of his returning tailbacks. “Those two guys will get their chances but if they can’t deliver, we have a number of talented rookies that are just waiting to step in.”
Tibi Banica, a 2008 AAA BC provincial all-star who scored 46 career TDs for Terry Fox, and Pickering native Daniel Heslop, who was the top rated running back in Ontario by the Toronto Star last year, are just two of the the accomplished rushers recruited by the T-Birds this season.
Rounding out the UBC offensive group is a young receiver corps that must step up after a pair of unexpected departures.
Blaine Kruger led the Canada West last season with 36 receptions en route to his all-star nomination but the standout rookie will not be back as he was signed by the Calgary Stampeders early in the CFL season. Another unforeseen loss was that of Curtis Moss. The dual sport star had such a successful summer season as a javelin thrower, the Burnaby native earned carded status in that sport and has to forgoe the football season.
Two names that should become household as they play a larger role this season are Spencer Betts and Jordan Grieve. Both youngsters had coming out parties last year with Betts the big play specialist and Grieve the consistent, go-to receiver.
The duo combined for 489 yards but they couldn’t have come more differently as Grieve made 20 receptions with a solid 12.4 yard per catch average while Betts had an eye-popping average of 48.2 yards per catch with two of his five receptions going all the way for touchdowns. Fifth-year Nate D’Arcy brings four years of UBC experience to the group with youngsters Micha Theil and Brent Borthistle are expected to step up into the rotation.
Moving to the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Dino Geremia has a solid blend of skilled veterans and impact youngsters that will be charged with picking up the slack left by the departures of a number of big names.
“We have some big holes to fill but we have the guys to do it,” said Geremia. “This is the first time I have brought back my entire defensive coaching staff which is going to help with the transition at some key positions.”
Gone are 2008 CIS first-team all-Canadian defensive end Scott McCuaig, CW all-star defensive lineman Tommy Buchmann, starting safety Doug Goldsby, and a trio of veteran standouts in linemen Graham Best and Sean Ortiz and safety Alex Betts.
“We aren’t going to replace guys like Tommy Buchmann and Scott McCuaig in a year, so the key isn’t to necessarily look back but to focus on all the strengths we bring to the table,” added Goveia about this year’s defensive group. “The guys that have been here awhile need to step up and take some of the pressure off some of the more inexperienced positions.”
The biggest change comes along the defensive line with the departure of McCuaig, Best, Buchmann, and Ortiz who combined for 102 tackles and 14.5 sacks in 2008.
Nose tackle Mike Hayes is the lone returning starter and he had solid 2008 season with 15 tackles and one fumble recovery. Some of the secondary unit players that will be expected to contribute as starters this season include Serge Kaminsky and Brent Knull. Shaun Kalkat is another name Geremia believes can step up at defensive end and he takes the field for the T-Birds for the first time after red-shirting last season.
The linebackers corps, unlike the defensive line, returns every key player and should be the strength of this year’s defensive unit.
Nathan Kanya had a breakout season last year for the T-Birds, finishing tenth in the conference with 46 tackles and was tied for third with six sacks. Devin Kavanagh was third on the T-Birds in tackles, behind McCuaig and Kanya, with 35 and added 2.5 sacks. Fifth-year Braydon Hobbs brings tons of expereince and a 25-tackle performance last season to the group while depth linebackers Anthony Rasotto and Scott Thiessen saw significant action last season and are more than capable of stepping in.
“Our linebackers will definitely be a big key for us on defence,” said Goveia. “They did a great job last year playing tough and getting to the quarterback. This year we also need them to step up and create a few more turnovers and make the big defensive plays.”
The secondary will feel the loss of Goldsby and Betts but two-time Canada West all-star Tyler Codron anchors a deep and skilled group of defensive backs.
Codron tallied 21.5 tackles and one interception last season and teams with Alex Babalos, who had 16.5 tackles, one sack, and one interception, in the middle. Starting corners Chris Mark and Sam Carino each had big 2008 seasons. Mark, a 6-foot-5 junior, had two interceptions and three pass break-ups while Carino had one of the fullest stat lines of any T-Bird with 23 tackles, one interception, three pass break-ups, one fumble recovery, two forced fumbles, and one blocked kick.
Speciality teams will see a transition with the graduation of long-time kicker and punter Shawn McIsaac who earned all-star status last season after making a conference high 19 field goals on 23 attempts (82.6%).
Replacing McIsaac, who returns to help coach speciality teams this year, is highly touted rookie Billy Pavlopoulos from Christ the King Catholic Secondary in Georgetown, Ontario.
“I thought we did a great job with speciality teams last year, especially with field goals and punting,” said Goveia. “We will be working in a new kicker this year but we are hoping he can continue where Shawn left off. Billy was one of the top high school kickers in the country and he has a really strong leg. He has what it takes to be a great kicker, but to reach that level he has to be able to deliver the way Shawn did.”
Spencer Betts, who did the lion’s share of the returning in his rookie season, will be looked upon again to give the T-Birds solid field position as he topped the league with an 11.6 punt return average and was the lone returner to reach the end zone, courtesy of a 98-yard dash versus Manitoba. He also finished third in the conference with a 20.5 kickoff return average en route to earning a spot on the conference all-star squad.
For Goveia, who returns essentially his entire coaching staff with the only new additions some familiar faces in McIsaac and former wideout Braden Smith, the plan for the season is relatively simple.
“It all comes down to synergy and getting these guys to play together,” said the fourth-year head coach. “Over the last six months they have put in a huge amount of work to get ready for this year. I haven’t had a team work harder in 16 years as a coach. Whether that translates into victories or not, we’ll wait and see but I can’t question their work ethic and commitment which is a great place to start.”