VANCOUVER — His imprints may still seem fresh, yet with his fourth fall training camp at the helm of UBC football officially set to open today, you could say that Thunderbirds’ head coach Blake Nill has finally got some blue-and-gold tradition of his own to lean on.
On Thursday afternoon, 16 sleeps ahead of its Canada West conference opener against the visiting Manitoba Bisons (Sept. 1, Thunderbird Stadium), Nill preached a theme of renewal as he brought his entire class of incoming ‘Birds together for a season-opening address at the UBC Football Academic Centre.
And of course that theme was borne from the success of his first season at the school, back in 2015 when a young-and-unheralded Thunderbirds’ team just kept getting better on its way to capturing the Vanier Cup national championship.
“The success of this program will eventually fall to you,” Nill told the 33 incoming UBC players, a mix of pure high school freshmen and more experienced transfer students, about their evolving role within the team’s structure. “You’re part of the UBC program now, but more than anything, you’re the Class of 2018.”
Their names may not all be familiar, but take a quick glance at Nill’s pre-camp depth chart and there is no question that, as talented a returning bunch as these 2018 ‘Birds are, first-year players are going to have an opportunity to prove their stock as starters before the next two weeks are done.
“I do,” Nill answered affirmatively when the question of rookie influence was broached. “I do need some of these (incoming) guys to step up now. I need freshmen in the group. Last year we led the Canada West in every defensive category except for sacks and most of the season, we played six freshmen on defence.
“You need that kind of effort from your young guys because it brings a competitive integrity to your program,” he added. “So yeah, I’m looking for some guys.”
HARKENING BACK TO 2015
Searching was also the theme back in 2015 when Nill left his dynastic conference work with the Calgary Dinos behind and came west to the Point Grey campus.
Take a look at that season’s class of first-year players and the bar set for the 2018’s is clearly sky high.
On the offensive side of the ball, it’s led by quarterback Michael O’Connor and receiver Trivel Pinto. On the defensive side, names like safety Stavros Katsantonis, halfback Malcom Lee and tackle Connor Griffiths lead the way.
Of course it was bolstered all the more by rising redshirt holdovers from the final recruiting class of former head coach Shawn Olson, including running back Ben Cummings, offensive guard Will Latu and defensive halfback Jordan Kennedy.
That entire combined group is back this season, along with a number of others, providing the Class of 2018 with a daily reminder of how much equity can be built over a dedicated three-to-four season span.
“You knew that they were good,” Nill begins when asked for his initial feeling for that first-year group back in August of 2015. “But you just never know how they will transition, how their personal lives and their academics will impact on things.”
With a shared history that includes a Vanier Cup title, followed by back-to-back losses (by three points, and a single point) to Calgary in the Canada West championship Hardy Cup final, the resolve of the returning fourth-year group, who all began as rookies in 2015, is unquestioned.
The same can be said for the fifth-year contingent, led by receiver/runner/returner Marcus Davis, and including linebacker Brad Friesen, centre Levi Hua, cornerback Will Maxwell and defensive tackle Dante Vigini.
NAMES TO REMEMBER
With all that said, who might some of the impact newcomers be?
On the offensive side of the ball, UBC is not only dangerous with Cummings returning for his third straight season as RB-1.
The ‘Birds have plenty of depth beneath him, including Calgary native Ted Kubongo, a highly-touted star coming out of high school who had originally committed to UBC but started his university career at NCAA Div. 1 Maine.
Former West Vancouver Highlanders star tight end Blake Whiteley is looking to put an injury-riddled career stateside behind him as part of a pass-catching group that is led by Pinto and Davis, and includes the likes of Trey Kellogg, Justin Deslauriers and Marcus Browne.
There are some new names near the top of the depth chart along the defensive line, a place Nill thinks could be among the strongest parts of his team.
Griffiths will clog traffic from his tackle spot. Former W.J. Mouat Hawks’ standout Sheriden Lawley has transferred into the program following three seasons at NCAA D1 Connecticut.
And at the end spots, Thomas Schnitzler, a vet of the Saskatoon Hilltops program, and Ottawa high school freshman Lake Korte-Moore, are noted as players of influence.
UBC’s linebacking core seems talented beyond its obvious youth.
Ben Hladik’s epic freshman debut last season has him anchored as the team’s middle linebacker for years to come. Fellow rising second-year Elliot Graham was also impressive.
And now, touted Hamilton prospect Jaxon Ciraolo-Brown joins the group as a pure freshman talent.
The ‘Birds secondary is the program’s most veteran-laden group with fifth-year Maxwell and battled-tested second-years Payton LaGrange and Jean Ventose rising to the challenge at the corner spots.
Katsantonis stands atop the field nationally at safety, while Kennedy and Lee are difference makers at halfback.
A new name to watch on the back end?
Calgary native Harland Hastings, a senior transfer from Acadia, will bring loads of experience to the halfback position.
STANDING TALL AFTER ‘THE KICK’
Of course, so much of the 2018 season will be UBC’s response to a heartbreaking finish against Calgary in the 2017 Hardy Cup final.
Need a refresher?
Last Nov. 11 at McMahon Stadium, Calgary’s Niko DiFonte kicked the longest field goal in the history of Canadian university football on the final play of the game.
His 59-yard rainmaker gave the Dinos a 44-43 win and halted UBC’s season one win ahead of a return to the national final.
Carry that loss the wrong way, and an entire offseason can become your prison.
Nill never let that happen.
“When that kick was made, the second it was made, I knew it was going through,” he said. “I watched the elevation that it left his foot at. But it wasn’t really that kick that beat us.”
Literally, it was. But beyond that, everything else about it and the program’s response to it has provided a most revealing takeaway.
“We may have lost the game on that kick, but we had four or five other opportunities that would have made it inconsequential,” insists Nill.
The hard lesson moving forward?
“What I want our kids to learn from that kick and that game in particular?”the coach begins. “It’s that you’ve got to be consistent, to hold yourself to a higher standard. We got beat by a Calgary team that believed it was going to win every game it played. We weren’t there at that point, but I’m hoping we are closer to that now.”
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