VANCOUVER — A new chapter in UBC Thunderbirds football history?
You can author some variation of that narrative with the dawning of each new Canada West season, yet as the Aug. 31 opener at home to the Regina Rams looms ever closer, there is a legitimate feeling that 2019’s true story remains as unwritten and mysterious as head coach Blake Nill’s 2015 debut campaign at the helm of the blue and gold.
You of course remember 2015?
A preseason win at Laval was later followed by an eight-game season-ending win streak which capped not only an 11-2 season, but a Vanier Cup national title run, just the second this century by a Canada West member school.
With both the talent he inherited from predecessor Shawn Olson and brought in himself, Nill’s Birds have spent the past three years competing in the direct shadow of 2015’s unexpected yet magnificent run to greatness.
Yet after back-to-back losses in the conference title game in ’16 and ’17 and last year’s disappointing Hardy Cup semifinal ouster, so many of its key players, including starting quarterback Michael O’Connor, have moved on from the program.
So during a fall camp in which Nill and his bevy of positional coaches work to develop new storylines within their respective units, one group seems to stand out above the rest in terms of its ability to potentially define a young team’s identity.
The UBC linebacking core is shaping up as one of the best in U Sports, and potentially the team’s best since its 2015 Vanier Cup season when it produced five of the team’s top nine tacklers.
Terrell Davis, Mitch Barnett, Yianni Cabylis, Riley Jones and A.J. Blackwell were a menacing quintet, cohorts in gridiron crime with the likes of thumpers from the secondary in Taylor Loffler and Stavros Katsantonis.
Together, UBC’s defence averaged 62.3 tackles-per-game over the national title season, however that number has dwindled each season since, falling to 51.9 in 2016, then 56.4 in 2017 and 49.4 last season.
And while all of the names but one have changed, Nill has managed to piece together a new linebacking group over the past few seasons, one which he senses is ready to make its own mark this season and do its part to reverse the declining tackle trend.
“I believe that we already return a fairly veteran group (at linebacker), a group of athletes which I think are now recognized at that position,” the head coach said during a break in fall camp practice on Wednesday. “Now, we’ve added to that group.”
It starts with returning third-year superstar middle linebacker Ben Hladik of Vernon, the 6-foot-4, 235-pound reigning Canada West Defensive Player of the Year and U Sports first-team All-Canadian, and continues through to the fifth-year Blackwell, the former Carson Graham standout who returns to the team after a season in junior football.
And it’s completed by the addition of outside linebacker Nick Cross, one of the most heralded in-conference transfers in recent program history. Back in the same 2017 recruiting season which netted Hladik, Cross made two visits to the Point Grey campus and almost chose Nill and the Birds before deciding to play for the Regina Rams.
“He’s so fast and agile,” said Hladik of Cross whose skill set will undoubtedly extend into pass coverage. “Then, there’s the intensity he brings to practice every day. Everybody feeds off of it. And I think we can really compliment each other. I am more of the power rusher and he is more agile, able to get around the O-line and cover more as well.”
Just like those so-called thunder-and-lightning offensive backfields, noted for their change-of-pace styles, Hladik and Cross bring a similar contrast to the other side of the ball with a combined base of skills which could extend from the defensive front to those islands in the secondary.
“I thought I had a chance at Nick coming out of high school and I was so impressed with him back then,” said Nill of Cross who elected to sit out all of last season after a dynamic 2017 freshman debut in which he led the Rams in tackles with 46 stops, including 33 solo tackles in eight games. “With the work ethic he’s shown, the kid is going to be a success.”
Says Cross when asked to describe his skill package: “I would say its more of a hybrid position. They could put me in a bunch of different positions, whether in box with all the defensive linemen or out covering receivers. I am confident I can get the job done.”
As a second-year player last season, his 49.5 tackles (39 solo stops) were 16.5 more than UBC’s next-highest tackler.
Now, as he hits the midway mark of his UBC career he seems poised to become the highest single-season tackler in the Nill era, with a chance to surpass the 56.5 stops of both Davis (2015) and Blackwell (2016).
And yes, the athletic Blackwell is back after a season with the Langley Rams in which his defensive dominance was well noted.
The breakout rising player in camp?
As far as the linebackers are concerned, the trio of Nill, Hladik and Cross all tipped their hat to second-year Daniel Kwamou, the Calgary-Notre Dame grad who could flank alongside Hladik at an inside position.
And the unit also has a freshman making a strong early impression in 6-foot-3 Mitch Townsend, the North Vancouver-Windsor grad who lined up as a defensive end throughout his high school career.
“Blackwell is back and he is very similar to Cross in his athleticism,” begins Nill. “Kwamou is above-average athletically in the middle and Townsend is a tall, lanky kid who I liked immediately. The sky is the limit for him.”
Yet there are so many other names.
The ‘Birds’ preliminary three-deep listed a total of 13 players in the linebacking core.
Among them fourth-year Zack Vint of Kelowna, third-year former Edmonton Wildcat James Ens, second-years Luke Burton-Krahn from Victoria, Hamitlon’s Jaxon Ciraolo-Brown and Calgary’s Cormac Scholz, and freshmen Dario Ciccone of Burnaby’s St. Thomas More, and brothers John and Marcus Nikolovski from Oakville (Ont.).
Ask Hladik if it is indeed the start of a new chapter for the team and he agrees, but stresses it is essential that the legacy imparted from the national championship year remain a vibrant part of the current team’s culture.
“So many guys were drafted and what they left behind, it’s up to us to follow in their footsteps,” said Hladik who says he has made it a point to become a more vocal leader. “When I practice each day, it’s so we can get back to that level.
UBC kicks off the 2019 season at home to Regina on August 31 (7 p.m.). The Birds are at Saskatchewan on Sept. 6 then play host to Calgary in a 3 p.m. contest Sept. 14.
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