VANCOUVER — The UBC Thunderbirds have settled their training camp battle at quarterback.
Tommy Yanchuk, a 20-year-old who last season played with the Canadian Junior Football League’s Edmonton Huskies, will command the offence Saturday (7 p.m., Canada West TV) when the ‘Birds open the post-Michael O’Connor era by hosting the Regina Rams at Thunderbird Stadium in the Canada West opener for both teams.
“Lot of emotion, coming out of high school and then playing two years of junior football to make it to U Sports and then to get the starting job,” Yanchuk (6-foot, 195 pounds) told Varsity Letters on Tuesday before practice. “Now it’s here. It’s four days away. There’s a whole bunch of emotion. I am pretty excited. I have to take it and never look back.”
O’Connor’s four years, highlighted by a Vanier Cup national title in 2015, featured one of the most productive spans in program history.
And while the Penn State transfer works to establish himself in the CFL with the Toronto Argonauts, Yanchuk and two B.C. hopefuls (North Vancouver-Windsor’s Ryan Baker and Chilliwack-G.W. Graham’s Gabe Olivares) all waged a spirited battle through fall camp.
Baker, a pure freshman, topped the QB depth chart in the spring, but battled an illness through the start of camp and wasn’t able to even throw a pass until Wednesday of last week.
Nonetheless, first-year UBC offensive coordinator Taylor Nill has loved what Yanchuk, a Lloydminster (Alta.)-Holy Rosary High grad, has brought to a position in which post-secondary playing experience has been in rather short supply.
“I really appreciate his leadership ability,” said Nill after UBC opened at No. 10 in the first U Sports national poll of the season released Tuesday. “He really commands the huddle. And the fact that he has been around since winter, he already has a nice rapport with all the guys.”
Yes, if you’re looking for a sign that points to the level of commitment Yanchuk has shown to come in and make a difference, you can start with the fact that it wasn’t too long after the completion of his junior football season in Edmonton that he moved to Vancouver to begin his own kind of preparatory classes.
“I moved out here at the end of January and I know that’s kind of weird because I’m a rookie,” begins Yanchuk, who after leading the Huskies into the Prairie Football Conference finals last season, suffered a separated shoulder that he spent apart of the off-season recuperating from. “But because I have been here for the last six months, I am pretty tight with all the fellas, and I am super happy I did that. I got out here early so that when school and football started, I’d be ready to rock and roll.”
UBC head coach Blake Nill said in the spring that Yanchuk’s biggest weapons where his arm and his slinger’s mentality.
On Tuesday, Yanchuk said he wouldn’t shy away from using those gifts, but that he was determined to have everything happen within their proper context.
“I think I am just coming in with the mindset of what we have done through camp,” said Yanchuk. “Our OC has a great plan set up, so I’ll let the reads do the talking for me, and just let my feet tell me where the ball should go. I am not going to force anything and I am not going to be conservative. I am just going to read the proper defender for the play and just do what my play tells me do.”
Still, Taylor Nill knows that, all things being equal, the ‘Birds have the potential to keep verticality in the lexicon of its offence with Yanchuk at the helm.
“He can definitely sling the ball,” said Nill. “He can go vertical. He can get the ball out quickly on our quick-series type calls, and he can make the right decision in the RPO. He has a quick release and I don’t believe there is any throw he can’t make.”
Of course there will continue to be huge competition at position.
Olivares defines that competitive spirit, and at times since the end of last season, he’s looked like the program’s best answer to O’Connor.
And Baker remains right there with a chance to also ascend into the top spot again if things don’t go as smoothly as planned. As the coaching staff indicated, he’s just now getting comfortable back on the field in pads.
“We’re all a bit different in personality so it’s fun to be around each other,” said Yanchuk, “and we are pushing each other. If I see one of the other guys make a great throw, I am like ‘I have to make a better one.’ It’s been awesome. It’s just healthy competition in my eyes.”
Former South Delta Sun Devils’ pivot Michael Calvert, who saw time last season as O’Connor’s back-up, has moved to a position within the ‘Birds defensive secondary, head coach Blake Nill said.
UBC head coach Blake Nill knew in the spring that stalwart Ben Cummings would not be returning for his final season in blue and gold.
That meant a new chapter was about to be written in the offensive backfield.
Come Saturday, it will be a committee approach with returnees Sharique Khan (Ft. McMurray-Holy Trinity) and Ted Kubongo (Calgary-St. Matthews), both second-year players, potentially taking the leading role based on their game-day reps with the team last season.
The play, however, of both second-year speedster Daniel Appiah (Calgary-Ernest Manning)and the quick-study abilities of pure freshman Charles Lemay (Vernon) give the group its initial depth.
“Their experience enables us to use them more in pass protection,” Blake Nill said of Khan and Kubongo. “Both of them are former DBs who can also catch the ball out of the backfield, and if they aren’t elite speed guys, once they break the line, they can outrun a lot of defenders.”
Says the head coach of his two younger backs: “(Lemay) is just a sponge right now. He’s doing everything we ask. It’s great to have a young guy that the veterans can bring along, and that guy is Charles. Appiah, he is small but he is explosive. He’s a kid that if you get him into space, he’s tough to corral.”
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