In his 20-plus seasons as a U Sports head football coach, Blake Nill has made a habit of his coaching his teams into national-title contention.
When exactly the opposite happens to the degree with which it did this season, it’s no wonder that the UBC Thunderbirds’ veteran football boss was having a tough time coming to grips with a 2-6 record and a last-place finish in the Canada West standings.
The bottom line, however, after a season-ending 36-17 loss Saturday in Calgary to the host, 6-2 Dinos?
“The season wasn’t a waste,” Nill began as the road to 2020 was already beginning to take shape. “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.”
The reason Nill was not fully ready to move off of Saturday’s season-ending loss wasn’t solely about the fact that he’s not used to his teams missing the playoffs.
Just as much, Nill was perturbed by the way UBC played in the opening stages of the contest, taking a step back from the steady build they had shown over the prior three games, the last two of which were victories.
After playing peerless football on both sides of the ball last week in a comeback win over then-No. 3-ranked Saskatchewan, UBC came out Saturday and literally handed the Dinos a two touchdown lead.
Thunderbirds’ quarterback Gabe Olivares fumbled the ball and had it returned 40 yards for a score, then threw an interception deep in his own end which was quickly turned into another major score.
How deep a hole had they dug themselves before the game was even 10 minutes old?
Calgary had managed just 37 yards of total offence, yet it led 14-0.
Those are the kinds of miscues which absolutely haunted UBC over an 0-5 start, one which officially ended its hopes of a berth in the Canada West playoffs.
“Honestly, you can’t overcome the kinds of mistakes we made this year,” said Nill, who over two decades at the helm in Canadian university football has finished as low as 2-6 just one other time.
“You can philosophize and you can try to spin it positively, but the bottom line is if you make the kinds of mistakes that we did so consistently, you are going to lose football games. Think about. How many times have teams scored on us without even driving the football. It’s been unbelievable?”
Yet the snaps invested in that core of young players seems on the verge of paying big dividends.
Players like running back Charles Lemay, offensive linemen Theo Benedet and Gio Manu, receivers Edgerrin Williams and Lucas Robertson, and tight end Brad Hladik still have four more years left.
Quarterback Olivares, receiver Jacob Patten, return ace Daniel Appiah and running back Sharique Khan all have three more seasons left.
Defensive back Eric Dika-Balotoken and linemen Kyle Samson and Sam Steele all have four more years of eligibility remaining.
Linebackers Nick Cross and Daniel Kwamou and defensive back Jaxon Ciraolo-Brown all have three more years remaining.
Just for starters, that’s a total of 16 names who could all be here at least through the 2022 season and there are so many more names you could mention of young players who flashed potential with their opportunities this season.
Of course we’re not even talking about any players who would be in their fourth- and fifth-years next season, led by rising fourth-year middle linebacker Ben Hladik.
And, as Nill chimes in “We’ve got the best kicker and punter in the country in (rising fourth-year) Garrin McDonnell.”
Yet as Nill waited at Calgary International Airport for the team’s flight back to Vancouver on Saturday night, the competitive side of his coaching persona wasn’t quite ready to pack it in for the season just complete.
“When you look at the offensive turnovers and pick-sixes, the fumbles returned for touchdowns…my heavens,” he began. “If it’s eight or nine young guys you might be able to get away with it, but when it’s 18 guys, the mistakes are amplified even more because they don’t have a veteran support crew around them. That was our year.
“But I thought that my coaching staff this year did an amazing job coaching up these young kids,” Nill added. “We played well in parts of every game, and I don’t think we would have shown all of the signs of our potential without them.”
And with that said, a future foundation built on the backs of a lot of tough, tough nights has been laid.
In 2019, Thunderbird Stadium was the land of opportunity for young football talent.
Now, the wise, old veteran coach is counting down to 2020 with the thought that so many of the growing pains have been left behind.
NOTES — UBC’s two touchdowns came on a seven-yard TD pass from Olivares to Patten, and on a 17-yard pick-six by Cross, the latter leading the ‘Birds with 10 tackles.
Williams finished with 123 all-purpose yards, 118 of which came through the kick-off and punt return game.
Ciraolo-Brown picked off three passes and returned them a total of 98 yards.
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