VANCOUVER — Sometimes, stuff happens that makes you want to thank your lucky stars.
For UBC Thunderbirds head football coach Blake Nill, one of those days was May 8 of 2020.
“Some days are better than others,” wrote Nill that day on his official Twitter account in announcing that quarterback Garrett Rooker, a 6-foot-3, 205-pound quarterback out of Clear Springs High in League City, just outside of Houston, Tex., had officially committed to the Thunderbirds.
Excited about this great opportunity! Go thunderbirds! ⚡️🦅 https://t.co/brXXJxLMMZ— Garrett Rooker (@garrettrooker12) May 9, 2020
On Thursday, some 16 months later, Nill announced that Rooker will take command of the huddle Saturday in Edmonton (12 p.m.) as the ‘Birds open their Canada West season at Foote Field against the Alberta Golden Bears.
Unlike its last season in 2019, however, the UBC quarterback room is so much deeper, including of course, third-year Gabe Olivares of Chilliwack’s G.W. Graham Grizzlies, who after earning the starting job midway through that season, led the Thunderbirds to their only two wins of the campaign.
Nonetheless, when the Canada West coaches poll was released by the conference on Thursday, the ‘Birds were picked to finish sixth-and-last in the standings. Each head coach voted for the other five teams in its conference, and UBC, with six points, got four last-place votes and one fourth-place vote.
Rooker, 19, chose UBC over a number of other NCAA options and he did it as much for its academics as its football.
A three-year starter playing in Texas’ largest high school classification of 6A, Rooker passed for 5,540 yards and a school record 65 touchdowns for the Chargers.
Yet he was also at the top of his class academically, and as the son of a college professor at Texas A&M Galveston who has regularly sent his grad students to the Point Grey campus, Vancouver was anything but off the radar.
One of those grad students happened to send a basketball highlight tape of Rooker to UBC men’s head coach Kevin Hanson, who was the one who ultimately told Nill about Rooker.
“Ever since I committed, it was a big decision and I knew when I committed I was going to come here no matter what,” Rooker explained last week at fall camp, before his status as the starting quarterback had been made official.
“I knew there were some questions about the (2020) season,” he continued about the uncertainty brought on by the global pandemic. “We didn’t have a ruling or not on whether we were going to have a season, but it’s a great university and I am getting a great education as well, and that was a big part of the decision.
“I knew I just had to put my head down and that football would come,” he added. “Now, here it is.”
For a deep dive into Rooker’s history, read this piece I wrote on the day he committed to UBC
MORE ON UBC QB’S PLUS VIDEO:
Interestingly enough, there is another Texas quarterback on the UBC roster this season in the form of 6-foot-4, 240-pound Derek Engel of 5A Grapevine High.
We’ve got more on Engel and the rest of a deep-and-talented quarterback room below, including a video produced by new Varsity Letters’ student intern Sampson Fang, currently on his gap-year after graduating from Burnaby’s Byrne Creek Secondary this past spring. The video was shot just over a week ago and thus decisions about the team’s starting quarterback had not yet made. Fang will be producing video and contributing in other areas over the course of this academic year, so please welcome him to our team!
WHAT TO LOOK FOR FROM UBC’S NEW STARTING QUARTERBACK
What kind of a quarterback are UBC football fans going to see when Garrett Rooker takes his first snaps Saturday on Canada West TV?
Head coach Nill goes back in his mind to his days coaching the Calgary Dinos to come up with his best comparable.
“If I could compare him to anyone, he is like a kid I had at Calgary named Eric Dzwilewski,” Nill said of the 2010 U SPORTS Rookie of the Year and Idaho high school product. “He was elusive like Rooker is, and they both have the same ability to extend plays. Rooker is very cognizant of where opportunities in the offence are going to be available, and a big part of his skill set is that he is a very intelligent kid.”
Ask Rooker about himself, and he seems eager to meld the strongest parts of his game with the Thunderbirds’ receiver core.
“For me, it’s just being able to extend a play,” he said. “I am not much of a runner I would say, but I can get outside the pocket and we’ve got a lot of speedy wide receivers. So I want to be able to get the ball into the hands of some great athletes and to be able to extend plays.”
When you take all of his pluses and add them together, you get what amounts to a presence, and as Nill has considered what the Texan is actually all about, he’s seen more and more the potential for something special.
“He was not only all-district in football, but also in basketball, and we’re talking 6A Houston here,” continued Nill. “If the kid is considered one of the best in the biggest high school classification in Houston, you know that he is one going to be a pretty good athlete.”
Yet beyond that, he also checked in with one of the best GPA’s among UBC incoming 2020 class of kinesiology students.
“Yeah, Rooker is a smart dude,” continued Nill. “He gets it. When we call a play, you are going to see him looking at reads two and three. Now, everyone thinks university quarterbacks all do that, but I can tell you that very few do.”
IT’S TEXAS… TIMES TWO!
Like his new teammate and fellow Texan Garrett Rooker, pure freshman quarterback Derek Engel heard Canada calling.
“I came to play football, I thought I had a good chance to play,” Engel said last week when asked about how a quarterback from Grapevine, Tex., located about 30 minutes between both Dallas and Ft. Worth, wound up in the Lower Mainland.
“But, my mom Judy is Canadian and I wanted to interact more with her culture, and learn more about Canadian football,” the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Engel explained last week at fall camp practice.
Engel is part of a crowded quarterback depth chart behind Rooker, one which includes two other newcomers, as well as a pair of established starters.
Second-year man Tommy Yanchuk, an Edmonton Huskies product, started the first four games of the 2019 season, while third-year Olivares shone while starting the final four games of what was a frustrating 2-6 campaign for the ‘Birds.
Olivares was particularly effective in back-to-back wins, going 22-of-39 for 353 yards while throwing one touchdown pass and rushing for another in a 33-28 win at Regina, then going 27-of-40 for 376 yards and a pair of touchdowns in huge a 38-37 upset on Oct. 19 of that season over the then-No. 3 nationally-ranked Saskatchewan Huskies. He finished with 1,280 yards passing.
Also on the roster are freshmen Jay Mather from North Delta’s Seaquam Seahawks and Braden Sunderland out of Bellevue (Wash.) and Issaquah High.
With four first-years, a second-year and a third-year, and with Canada West starts already under the belts of the two eldest pivots, it’s a quarterback room with both incredible depth and future potential.
Engel, while learning the ropes, seems as excited as Rooker to jump into the classroom where he enters as a forestry major.
“I grew up a science kid and I wanted to learn more about the wilderness,” Engel said. “I aspire to become an engineer at some point and so I figured I could employ forestry with engineering at some point. And this is a great place to learn about forestry. Lots of trees and forests up here. We definitely don’t have this in Texas.”
Nill says that Engel “is not as polished as Rooker, but he carries a little swagger, and every time he throws the ball, it’s caught.”
“When you look at his HUDL tape, he is a drop-back passer, but he can also run,” adds Nill, who smiles when adding “He’s a kid who came up to me and said ‘Hey coach, if I’m not starting at the end of training camp, just move me to linebacker or tight end.”
To which Engel responds: “Yeah, if I’m coming this far from home, I just want to play football. So if I’m not the (starting) quarterback, just throw me somewhere else because I know I can play.”
A TRUE FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS FLAIR TO HOME OPENER
In a fitting turn of scheduling fate, UBC will open the home portion of 2021 Canada West season on Friday, Oct. 1 against the Saskatchewan Huskies.
With the Texans now in tow, Friday Night Lights takes on a much more authentic flavour.
“I get that a lot,” Rooker says. “But it’s what I grew up with and I really enjoyed that part of my high school career… first growing up and being able to go watch those games, and then later actually being a part of Friday Night Lights. Football is not quite as big up here, so to bring a little of that culture and mindset to Canada is really cool.”
Rooker says he’s also learned a lot just being around Olivares and Yanchuk, the team’s veteran quarterbacks.
“It’s pretty cool with a lot of different people from a lot of different places, and then Derek came from Texas,” said Rooker. “It’s been a cool quarterback room and I have been able to learn a lot from the vets that have been around here. I’m soaking in as much knowledge as I can because obviously Canadian football is different. I am completely new up here in Vancouver, so it’s just been really fun hanging out with those guys.”
Yet by its very nature, the quarterback room’s composition will do a lot to help move the UBC Thunderbirds back to a place of advantage at the game’s most pivotal position, something which has been lost since the graduation of 2015 Vanier Cup championship quarterback Michael O’Connor after the 2018 season.
“The thing I like about it is that it’s created a level of competition that they all have to have,” assessed Nill. “We needed to be better there as a positional group and this has given us that opportunity. When you show up at practice, you have to make plays and execute, and if you don’t, the guy beside you is going to.”
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