VANCOUVER — The visits, both those to living rooms across the country and around the sprawling Point Grey campus, are complete.
Faces have been put to names, and within a few months, jersey numbers will be assigned.
The ink is just now drying on the official paperwork which constitutes the third recruiting class in Blake Nill’s reign as head coach of the UBC Thunderbirds football team.
Yet if it’s typical for coaches across the country to greet the completion of a recruiting cycle with unbridled optimism, Nill is taking all of that a step further by issuing a ranking that labels his incoming 44-player Class of 2017 as amongst the best he’s ever culled.
“We’ve had a very good recruiting season,” Nill said earlier this week. “In my personal opinion, I would say it’s in the top three in my career.”
Nill has won three Vanier Cup titles over the course of his star-studded career, and of course no one knows how productive the class will be. But if the incomers live up to that number as a group over their five years on the Point Grey campus, a fourth national title could be on the way.
“We’re going to have athletes that are real difference-makers and that has to make you excited,” continued Nill, who begins his 20th season as a U Sports (formerly CIS) head coach this fall. “We’re happy with our (recruiting) efforts at all positional groups, and I think this the top linebacking class I’ve ever had.”
Nill isn’t downplaying anything, and coming off a Vanier Cup encore season in 2016 which was made vulnerable by a lack of depth across the roster, he and recruiting coordinator Paul Orazietti seemed especially determined to put their biggest signature yet on the program’s foundation.
Beginning Saturday, the countdown to its Sept. 1 opener at Regina was 133 days.
So much will happen before then, including a fall camp which will signify just how much push the incoming class will exert on the veteran core.
With that in mind, Varsity Letters chatted with Nill about three positional groups whose final letter grade this December will likely be the ones most impacted by its newcomers.
Over his first two seasons as UBC head coach, Nill has led the ‘Birds to back-to-back Hardy Cup appearances, and of course, a 2015 Vanier Cup national title.
And one of the most impressive parts of the current two-year run?
It has been how UBC has been able to remain as productive as it has along the ground with virtually no depth at the position, at least by Nill’s past standard.
“I am used to carrying six-to-eight running backs of high quality,” Nill said. “That has been the past norm for me. But when I got here in ’15, we got by with Banger (Brandon Deschamps, 1,116 yards, 9 TDs in 12 games).
“I couldn’t believe we got through the whole year with one guy. And then last year it was Benny (Ben Cummings, 970 yards, 6 TDs in 11 games).
Cummings, whose late season surge was highlighted by a four-game stretch in which he rushed for 692 yards on an 8.8 yards-per-carry average, is back for his third season.
Yet for the first time in Nill’s UBC career, a blue-chip committee has also be installed.
The names to watch?
Ted Kubongo and Shane Noel not only bring contrasting styles as a potential backfield pair of the future, both are a full season older than the rest of the pure freshmen having spent last season at the prep school level.
“Teddy is a downhill runner, a big and powerful kid with the kind of speed that if he breaches the line, you won’t catch him,” said Nill of the 5-foot-11, 192-pound Calgary native who has originally committed to his hometown Dinos before pulling back and spending this past season at Ottawa-St. Matthews, the original starting point for ‘Birds rising third-year starting pivot Michael O’Connor.
“He was arguably the best kid to come out of Calgary last year,” added Nill. “Someone is literally going to have to stand right in front of him to slow him down.”
Noel, a local product out of Burnaby’s St. Thomas More, appeared headed to NCAA Div. 1 San Diego State before spending last season at Connecticut’s Loomis Chaffee Prep.
“Noel is more of a slasher,” said Nill, who then compared the pair of recruits to two of the best he coached during his stint as boss of the Calgary Dinos. “He reminds me a bit of Matt Walter. Kubongo is more of a Steven Lumbala-type of guy. That is a thunder-and-lightning duo.
“And you really like that because they are not only physically a year older, but emotionally a year older. Kubongo is so motivated. He wants to win now. Both he and Noel carry that attitude very well.”
Mo Hassan, a talented freshman from Coquitlam’s Centennial Centaurs, coming off an injury-plagued Grade 12 season, is also a running back to watch.
Right off the top, Nill boldly calls this group his No. 1 overall incoming class of linebackers, so it goes without saying he feels it’s a group full of home run hitters.
A core of returnees in Dylan Chapdelaine, Dante Vigini, Evan Horton and Charles Nwoye will be both fortified and challenged by a freshmen quintet culled from across the country.
“I think we have a number of (incoming) guys, all in the 6-4-to-6-5 and 230-pound range who all move well, and are all long and lanky.”
Vernon Secondary’s Ben Hladik (6-foot-5, 230 pounds) was so highly sought by Nill that he was the first player in the Class of 2017 to sign, committing to the ‘Birds just one week into the 2016 season back in September.
In February, the ‘Birds plucked a pair of players out of Hamilton in Elliot Graham and Isaiah Joseph.
Graham, 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, helped his Westdale Warriors to a provincial title as a Grade 11, while Joseph, originally out of Cathedral High, is the same size and a year older, spending last season at Welland’s Canada Prep Academy.
And then in March, Nill continued to reap the rewards of his Calgary roots in signing a pair of multiple-position players from the same high school.
Kale Berglund, a 6-foot-5, 225-pounder who spent a lot of time as a defensive end, and 6-foot-4, 230-pound Alex Fedchun who also spent most of his time along the line, both played for Earnest Manning Secondary.
“Those two were among the two best recruits in the country,” said Nill, “and the Earnest Manning coaches have worked so well to develop and showcase their players for us.”
Cole Barron, a 6-foot, 225-pounder from Holy Cross, has also been an impressive part of a deep incoming class.
“They are going to be the kind of guys who will have an impact in our (3-4) defence,” said Nill. “We need transitional athletes that can both get to the line of scrimmage and into coverage situations.”
Yes, there was a lack of depth across the board for UBC in 2016, but more specifically, this is the unit that was most affected by injuries.
Veteran Alex Morrison and multi-skilled Marcus Davis who impacts the entire offence, were the two biggest hits, but as well, injuries in the defensive secondary forced Trivel Pinto to become a modern-day two-way marvel.
Pinto, Will Watson, Marshall Cook and promising Trey Kellogg are all back, yet the core still needs depth. Kellogg quarterbacked Team South as a high school senior in 2015 Football Alberta Senior Bowl where his running back, Kubongo, set a new standard for the showcase tilt with 197 rushing yards to go along with a touchdown.
“To be honest, the receiving core last year, I thought under-performed and that’s not a knock on any one player,” said Nill. “But we were not able to compete at the
same level as we did in 2015. Part of that was due to injuries, part due to a couple of players moving around.”
Nill hasn’t remain static over the off-season.
“One of the primary goals was to send a shockwave through that positional group,” he admitted. “We weren’t going to be completely satisfied by just bringing in high school kids to compete. We are bringing in impact guys right away.”
That experience includes the likes of B.C. Football Conference transfers Lliam Wishart (Kamloops-Valleyview) and Keenan Godden (Abbotsford-W.J. Mouat).
As well, former St. Thomas More standout J.J. DesLauriers has transferred to the Point Grey campus from Simon Fraser.
DesLauriers is the eighth member of the storied football family to have played at either UBC, SFU or both.
“At spring camp all three of those guys were taking first-team reps,” said Nill.
But it’s not like there isn’t room for pure frosh impact. Marcus Browne, the younger brother of ‘Birds rising third-year basketball guard Taylor, arrives at 6-foot-5 and 200 pounds with a penchant for contact.
“He is arguably one of the top kids in the province,” Nill said of Browne, “so we’ve got a combination of athletes in that positional group that will force change through competitive integrity.”
We’ll break down other UBC positional groups in the run up to the ‘Birds 2017 Canada West opener Sept. 1 at Regina. UBC plays its home opener Sept. 9 against Manitoba.
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