BURNABY — Christian Butenschoen is not buying all of this talk of youth being served along the trenches of perhaps the youngest offensive line in all of NCAA D2 football.
“Even though we’re young, the chemistry there is looking good right now,” the team’s 6-foot-3, 290 pound sophomore left guard out of Bellingham High explained earlier this week of the progress the team has made heading into Saturday’s season opener (1 p.m.) stateside in Moscow against the FCS Idaho Vandals.
“Right now, we’re on the same page and we’re ready to go… I don’t think I’ve ever been more ready in my life.”
The exuberance of that youth is going to be put to a very stern test by the Big Sky Conference’s Vandals, yet with a true dean of offensive line coaches in four-time Grey Cup winner Dan Dorazio not only guiding the unit, but also serving as the team’s co-offensive coordinator, how can Butenschoen not exude a feeling of confidence in the unit’s plan for steady growth, no matter how tough the schedule gets?
Unfortunately for SFU, head coach Mike Rigell said earlier this week that the lone veteran of the group — senior right tackle Scott Maki — would not play due to injury.
Take a look at the two-deep depth chart at the rest of the room’s experience, and it is populated exclusively by freshmen or sophomores, albeit many who are a full year older in age, like every other team, based on the fact that the eligibility clock stopped ticking during 2020.
“We have some great young talent,” Rigell said when asked to address the offensive line. “We are going to put them out there and they are going to get a chance to showcase their skills. The only way you can get good at this game is to get real-game reps. So we’re going to pour that foundation now, and just play hard… we aren’t going to worry who it is that we’re playing against.”
If the form chart holds by kick-off time, freshly-named starting quarterback Brandon Niksich (see update below) will be taking his snaps from centre Kai Tinker, a 6-foot-, 255-pound freshman centre from Lakeridge High in Lake Oswego (Ore.).
Jacob Anderson, a 6-4, 270 freshman from Snohomish (Wash.)-Glacier Peak will anchor at left tackle.
On the other side, Connor Burns (6-4, 285, freshman, Lower Sackville, NS-Western Reserve) will likely slide into Maki’s spot at right tackle, alongside local product Reuben Buchanan (6-1, 285), the right guard and former Notre Dame Juggler who returns to the program this season.
Whatever the scheme, Butenschoen, or ‘Boots’ as he is known to his teammates and the coaching staff, has been elated with the unit’s progress, something he invested himself in by remaining atop the mountain during the lost 2020 campaign to train despite growing up just south of the border in Bellingham.
“What coach Dorazio has been doing with us scheme-wise, footwork-wise, technique-wise, we are 10 miles ahead, 20 miles ahead, 100 miles ahead of where we were in my first year,” Butenschoen explained of the progress he feels has unfolded over the course of the pandemic.
And now, that line is entrusted with protecting Niksich, the sophomore pivot who started all but one of the team’s games in 2019 after replacing starter Justin Seiber who suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the first half of the team’s first game.
Seiber had been named the starting 2021 pivot earlier in the week by Rigell, however after coming out of practices late this week, the team has elected, for cautionary reasons, to sit Seiber out of Saturday’s proceedings. The decision is not COVID-related.
Playing what basically amounted to the entire 2019 season as the starter in place of the injured Seiber, Niksich engineered SFU’s only win of 2019, going 22-of-32 for 242 yards and three touchdowns against no interceptions in a 24-17 win over Azusa Pacific. All three of Niksich’s scoring strikes were caught by current New York Giants’ receiver Rysen John.
Former Surrey-Lord Tweedsmuir Panthers’ standout Key’Shaun Dorsey has moved into the back-up role.
With that said, kickoff time for SFU football is now just one sleep away.
“We’re excited,” said Rigell. “We’re knocking off the rust. The guys just want to play against somebody else.
“It’s real challenge any time you go up against an FCS D-1 team,” added Rigell, who himself played at the FCS level at Brigham Young. “You’re up against a lot of different dynamics and things that can happen, but our guys are really excited about the opportunity. We feel like a lot of our guys had a chance to go D-1 and be at some Big Sky schools. Idaho recruited some of our guys and people always fall through the cracks.”
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