UBC freshman receiver Jason Soriano spent the lost 2020 season honing his skills as a full-time pass-catcher for the Birds. Now, the ex-Vancouver College star is part of three-man receiving core head coach Blake Nill has nicknamed The Smurfs. Soriano digs in on a route during a fall camp session last week. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of Varsity Letters 2021. All Rights Reserved)
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UBC Football 2021: Thunderbirds’ head coach Blake Nill dubs his diminutive, speedy receiver trio of Soriano, Phillips, Williams as ‘The Smurfs’ ahead of Saturday opener at Alberta!

VANCOUVER — As children of the 2000’s, you couldn’t blame a certain trio of UBC Thunderbirds’ receivers for being a little perplexed last week when head coach Blake Nill announced during a team gathering that he had discovered their perfect nickname.

“I have these three guys who are all around 5-10 and they have burners,” explained Nill of 20-year-old returnee Edgerrin Williams, 19-year-old redshirt freshman Jason Soriano, and 18-year-old pure freshman Jaden Phillips.

“Everyone just looks at them and says ‘They’re too small, they can’t do it,’” continued Nill, “so the other day in a meeting, I googled ‘The Smurfs’ and then explained to them that in the early 1980s, that Washington won the Super Bowl with a receiving core that included a guy who was 5-7 (Alvin Garrett), another who was 5-8 (Virgil Seay) and another who was 5-10 (Charlie Brown).”

Welcome to UBC’s modern-day version of The Smurfs, which itself began as a 1950’s Belgian comic strip about a fictional kingdom of small, blue-hued  creatures who lived in the forest. The comic later morphed into a hit North American animated TV series beginning in 1981 and gained momentum at the same time as the franchise now known as the Washington Football Team went on a tear through the 1982 playoffs, winning Super Bowl XVII in January of 1983.

With the first official depth chart of the 2021 Canada West season still a few days away, it’s folly to assume any absolutes regarding just what the starting line-ups will look like on either side of the ball as UBC’s conference-opening re-start kicks off this Saturday (12 p.m.) at Edmonton’s Foote Field against the host Alberta Golden Bears.

Yet when it comes to the team’s receiving core, one which has taken a hit in terms of the two graduation classes which have transpired since it last played on Oct. 26 of 2019, that trio has not only been a breath of fresh air throughout training camp, but now, with a an actual nickname, is helping to bring identity back to a post-Michael O’Connor era bunch which really hasn’t had one since the Penn State transfer quarterback departed for the CFL.

“Those three, they have the right mindset,” said UBC offensive coordinator Taylor Nill. “Those three… if you don’t throw them the football every couple of routes, you’re going to get an earful about it, and that is what you want.”

Of the three, Soriano is the one most known to B.C. football fans.

One of the most talented and diversely-skilled B.C. high school players in recent memory, Saturday will mark the first game the 5-foot-10, 175-pound Soriano has played since Nov. 30, 2019 when he caught three touchdown passes, ran for another major and added yet another via the pick-six to lead Vancouver College to a 45-0 AAA Subway Bowl win over Lord Tweedsmuir, in the process capping a perfect season for the Fighting Irish.

Jason Soriano snares a pass this past week during UBC Thunderbirds’ fall camp at Thunderbird Stadium. The Birds open the 2021 season this Saturday on the road against the Alberta Golden Bears. (Photo by Howard Tsumura property of Varsity Letters 2021. All Rights Reserved)

For his part, Soriano is taking the positives out of a cancelled 2020 university campaign as he’s transitioned to a full-time receiver role.

“With me, in high school, I was mostly a free safety and they would occasionally put me on offence,” said Soriano, who was so good wherever he played, be it offence or defence, that he was honoured as 2019’s B.C. high school AAA MVP. Soriano also won a bronze medal in the 100m final at the B.C. High School Track and Field championships over his Grade 11 year at Vancouver College and is expected to continue sprinting with the ‘Birds.

“Over the last year-and-a-half, I have really focused on playing receiver and it’s helped me to polish my game,”  he said last week before stepping on to the new turf at Thunderbird Stadium, where UBC will open the home portion of its season Oct. 1 under Friday night lights (7 p.m.) against the Saskatchewan Huskies. “It’s given me the chance to focus on my footwork, my routes, my alignment… all the stuff you didn’t really learn in high school.”

Both Soriano and Phillips (5-foot-10, 190 pounds), an Oakville, Ont. native and graduate of the Ontario-based Football North Academy, are rookie members of The Smurfs.

UBC’s Edgerrin Williams has been waiting and working. Now he is ready for a breakout 2021 Canada West season. (Photo by Richard Lam property of UBC athletics 2021. All Rights Reserved)

They will join forces with 20-year-old, second-year returnee Edgerrin Williams-Hernandez (5-10, 188), a product of Hamilton (Ont.)-St. Thomas More whose previous experience with UBC in 2019 consisted of just five games, where he made nine catches for 89 yards.

“It’s funny, but back in high school, I played with the same types of receivers,” said Garrett Rooker, one of the front-runners in the battle for UBC’s starting quarterback spot. “You just put the ball out there and speed kills. So I am used to putting the ball into the hands of really fast guys. They are going to be an exciting group to work with.”

But of course The Smurfs are just one dimension within UBC’s deep receiver room.

Some 16 receivers are included on the team’s 2021 eligibility list, including veteran returning leaders in J.J. Deslauriers, the eighth and final member of the famed Deslauriers football family to play university football within his generation; fourth-year Liam Wishart from Valleyview Secondary in Kamloops, the team’s top returning yardage gainer from 2019,  and third-year Nick Pollitt from Calgary’s Henry Wise Wood Secondary.

Add in the contributions that could come from the backfield, and from the tight ends, including perhaps the likes of second-years Lucas Robertson and Brad Hladik, and there are a plethora of options for whomever is named the starting quarterback.

Back in their heyday with the now-Washington Football Team, The Smurfs were actually an off-shoot of a larger group of players on the team named ‘The Fun Bunch’, a group so boisterous, elaborate and trend-settingly choreographed in its touchdown-celebrating antics that history notes them as the ones most responsible for the NFL cracking down on what it deemed excessive celebration.

Whatever success UBC’s modern-day version of The Smurfs actually has on the field won’t be known until the new Canada West season gets underway.

But either way, they are bringing back identity to UBC football after 700 days (or 23 months) of waiting.

“Obviously, we’re not the biggest guys around and a lot of us are really young,” begins Soriano. “But I think we’re going to be faster than a lot of secondaries in the Canada West this year. I’ve been wanting to get the ball more. It’s what I do best. We are going to be tough to cover. We’re looking to put on a show.”

Adds Blake Nill: “When they get their hands on the ball in the open field, look out.”

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