VANCOUVER — UBC Thunderbirds football in the Blake Nill-era hit its low ebb in 2019, yet four seasons after its rousing, unexpected 2015 Vanier Cup national championship title debut, a second wind has begun to blow through the ranks of the blue and gold.
It was just over six months ago, as a lost Canada West season concluded with a 36-17 loss at Calgary that Nill, the fifth all-time winningest football coach in U Sports history (158-67), insisted that 2019’s last-place 2-6 record had not been compiled in vain.
“The season wasn’t a waste,” Nill told VarsityLetters.ca that day. “We made a decision early in training camp to invest in a core of 18-year-old players, and consequently you can pay a harsh price for doing that. Hopefully, it will make a difference moving forward.”
When it does, provided the 2020 campaign’s start date is not slowed by the pandemic, the season’s theme will undoubtedly centre around a fresh start.
Not only has the Thunderbirds’ roster now completely turned from the one Nill inherited from predecessor Shawn Olson, Nill’s own initial recruiting class — featuring the likes of Michael O’Connor, Trivel Pinto and Taylor Loffler — has also now moved.
This coming season will be Nill’s sixth at UBC, the program’s longest streak of continuity since Frank Smith capped his 21-season run in 1994.
And while virtually the entire roster returns from a season ago, including one of the nation’s finest players in rising fourth-year linebacker Ben Hladik of Vernon, the long-term success of Nill’s second chapter at UBC might wind up being written by his incoming freshmen class, led not only by Jason Soriano, the reigning B.C. High School Triple A Player of the Year, but as well by its Defensive Player of the Year, Kaishaun Carter of Burnaby’s St. Thomas More.
“When you evaluate recruits, especially in the scholarship game, you can’t make a mistake because the resources are finite,” begins Nill. “You are like a GM in pro sports and if you make a bad call on a kid, you will wear it for a few years.
“Both of these kids are direct recruits into UBC,” Nill continued of Soriano and Carter. “Their academics show they have the work ethic and the integrity to get it done, and their high school (football) careers have been the same. I’ve met their families and so I know they both come from very strong backgrounds. I never use the words ‘can’t miss’ but they are the ones who can make you ‘Coach of the Year’ if you get enough of them.
Soriano, the 5-foot-10, 180-pound Soriano had what can only be described as an astounding finish to his high school career.
Having been named B.C.’s Player of the Year in advance of Subway Bowl’s B.C. Triple-A championship game, Soriano suited up for the final game of his high school career this past Nov. 30 and proceeded to lead Vancouver College to a 45-0 win over Surrey’s Lord Tweedsmuir Panthers.
The dominant theme in the week-long build-up to the title tilt centred around how uncannily efficient Soriano, also a track and basketball standout at VC, had been all season long, scoring virtually every time he touched the football.
In that championship final, Soriano caught four passes, three of which went for touchdowns (of 52, 47 and 42 yards). He also rushed for a 45-yard major and then, over a second half in which he didn’t even take an offensive snap, capped a mythic performance by returning an interception 25 yards for a score, his fifth touchdown of the contest.
Nill confirmed that Soriano will focus on offence at UBC, but left open the possibility that in situations with the appropriate stakes that he could well be a part of some defensive schemes.
“Jason Soriano can come in this year and play as big a role as he prepares himself to handle, and what I mean is, does he have the skill set to be the guy? Yes. Is he making the right decisions to be the guy? I would hope he would be because he’s Marcus Davis. You know how good Marcus Davis was and if Jason wants to follow in Marcus’ footsteps, he has to come in mentally prepared like Marcus Davis did.”
B.C. High School Football’s two-time Player of the Year in 2012 and 2013 coming out of Mt. Douglas Secondary in Victoria, Davis brought a dynamic home-run potential to the field, the likes of which are rarely seen.
Over his first two seasons, before injuries began to slow him, Davis accumulated 3,054 all-purpose yards between rushing, receiving and kick returns.
When Nill watches Soriano, who is cerebral, tough and blessed with elite 100m sprinter’s speed, he sees a player just as dangerous because of his intangibles.
“I think he just knows how to play the game,” says Nill. “He has plenty of physical talent, but if it was just about his physical talent, you might be able to deal with him as an opponent. But it’s not just about that with him. He has another entire skill set that is just way above average.”
So look for UBC to explore virtually every means imaginable to get Soriano the ball in space, as well as utilizing him in the punt and kick-off return games.
“I also told Jason that we might need him to come in (as a defensive back) on second-and-long,” smiled Nill. “I told him that Trivel (Pinto) did that two years ago and was an all-star doing it.”
Kaishaun Carter, at 6-foot-2 and 245 pounds, looks destined to become a mainstay on the interior of UBC’s defensive line.
Like Soriano, so much of what separates him lies is the instinctive part of his game.
Put that together with his physical attributes, and you get the potential of a game-changing talent.
“The only difference at the start between Kaishaun and Jason is that Kaishaun has to play at the line of scrimmage, so the physical component is going to be a bigger factor,” says Nill.
“It’s his instincts,” the coach continued. “He knows how to bend and curve, how to dip. He uses his hands very well. He just does things at his age that most young men don’t, some even by the time they are done with their university careers. I’m talking about how he uses his leverage, keeps that pad level low, slips blocks… he’s just a difficult target for offensive linemen to get their hands on. Now, we have to get him bigger and stronger so that he can do what he did at the high school level here on the university level.”
And down the road?
“He is going to be a pro,” Nill adds. “He just has to keep working hard and get his physical skills to that level.”
Those are two big additions, but there were also a pair of key subtractions to the roster not related to graduation.
Nill said that promising running back Charles Lemay, the former Vernon Panthers standout, has elected not to return to the team, focusing instead on a career as a firefighter.
Nill added that receiver Jacob Patten, who had a breakout 2019 season in which he led the team with 581 receiving yards and five touchdowns, has also elected not to return. Nill said Patten was investigating a potential switch to soccer.
In addition to bringing in a number of talented recruits from across Canada and into the U.S., UBC has also signed a number of other B.C. high school football grads.
They include running backs Daesaun Johnson (Vancouver College) and Christian Carlon-Diaz (North Delta-Seaquam), receiver Isaiah Edwards (Surrey-Earl Marriott), defensive back Keijaun Johnson (Vancouver College), linebacker Own Stark (New Westminster), offensive lineman Darren Baker (North Vancouver-Windsor) and athlete Silas Marchan (Surrey-Holy Cross).
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