LANGLEY — UBC football fans knew the Michael O’Connor era was officially over early last month when the Toronto Argonauts made him the second-highest selected Canadian quarterback in draft history.
O’Connor followed by throwing a touchdown pass in his first exhibition game against the Montreal Alouettes, and he’s survived a series of cuts at the position including both Brandon Bridge and Regina’s 2016 Hec Crighton winner Noah Picton.
Veteran CFL writer Frank Zicarelli of The Toronto Sun even spoke to O’Connor’s “pocket presence and touch on his throws,” over the course of the preseason.
So with O’Connor taking the first successful step on the next part of his journey, it’s time to officially cast an eye towards UBC’s 2019 quarterback depth chart, and brother, it’s a deep one.
No fewer than five pivots will battle for the right to take the opening snap when the 2019 Canada West season opens Aug. 31 at the home park against the Regina Rams.
“It’s a little worrisome for sure,” admitted UBC head coach Blake Nill on Tuesday afternoon when asked quizzed on a quartet of quarterbacks with precisely zero combined U Sports starts between them. “But we also know what the strengths and weaknesses are of each one.”
There’s a trio of rising second-year players in North Vancouver-Windsor’s Ryan Baker, South Delta’s Michael Calvert, and Cameron Fietz, an Alberta native who prepped at an Illinois sports academy before joining the ‘Birds last season.
There’s also Tommy Yanchuk, who comes west from the Edmonton Huskies, the same CJFL franchise which produced one of the greatest to ever wear UBC blue-and-gold in running back Chris Ciezki.
And there’s 2017 recruit Gabe Olivares from Chilliwack’s G.W. Graham Secondary, who has returned to the program after taking last season off.
There are signs to be read as to just how the preliminary pecking order shapes up, led by the fact that it was Baker who was named the starter for UBC’s exhibition game at Monterrey, Mexico on May 3.
Keep in mind, however, that only Baker, Calvert and Fietz, as enrolled 2018-19 UBC students, were the only quarterbacks eligible to play in the game.
So just how open in the competition as we approach the middle of June?
“Someone has to take the first-team reps at training camp,” Nill continued Tuesday. “We’re not going to have a situation at camp where everyone is getting 20 per cent of the reps and then we determine who the starter is at the end of camp. We have used spring camp to evaluate where our guys are at, we used the Mexico game to further evaluate, and then we can evaluate all summer long because players can do their own workouts.”
Nill, however, admits nothing is going to be etched in stone.
“At some point, we as coaches will just have to say ‘This is the guy that we’re going to start with,’” he begins. “We will have a Plan B and a Plan C, but you can’t really have a Plan D and E. You have to hang your hat on someone or else you’re going to be in trouble.”
So with that said, in alphabetical order, here’s a look at the five UBC quarterbacks vying to be the Day 1 starter:
Over the 2017 B.C. Double-A high school season, (6-foot-2, 200 pounds) led North Vancouver’s Windsor Dukes to the Subway Bowl B.C. title, displaying a level of will and toughness that made him the tier’s most indispensable player.
If he’s the guy, you will see a player who is a dual threat, and whose body language exudes leadership. Baker, as a runner, punished tacklers at every turn through high school.
“Baker is like the prototype quarterback,” says Nill. “He’s a guy who is not afraid to run with the ball. He’s very intelligent, a cognitive guy, an engineering student. And for him, a part of his strength is his ability to prepare, and that might give him an advantage.
At South Delta, Calvert (6-foot-2, 205pounds) was plain-and-simple, one of the most productive high school passers of his generation. He holds the all-time B.C. single-game record of 654 passing yards. When he decided to play rugby over his Grade 12 year, you got an even better idea of his athletic instincts.
“He knows how to compete, and he was one of the top quarterbacks in the country coming out of high school (in 2017),” said Nill. “He knows how to make things happen, and now he has the chance to come in and show us what he can do.”
Not much is known locally about Fietz (6-foot-2, 200 pounds), a Heritage Point, Alta., native who played in Illinois at the Midwest Preparatory Academy.
All three active UBC pivots saw time in the Mexico exhibition, and Nill was impressed with what he sae from Fietz,
“He played very well in that game,” said Nill. “He does a lot of things well and he’s worked very hard. Just like Baker and Calvert, he’s a young guy trying to get better.”
Olivares (5-foot-10, 200 pounds) arrived in 2017 as the top passer from B.C.’s Double A tier, yet coming right in the midst of O’Connor’s record-setting four-year run pretty much guaranteed a spot on the bench.
After taking a season off, it’s obvious he has impressed Nill, who loves his compete and his new level of conditioning.
“I remember when we first recruited Gabe, that (associate) coach (Paul) Orazietti told me that few in the province had his level of competitive nature, and when you watch him, you see that,” said Nill. “He has a strong arm and he wants to compete. He has to get more polished, but he might be the guy who is called upon.”
Nill also volunteered that he has no issues playing a smaller quarterback like the Olivares.
“I got my butt kicked twice when I was in Calgary by Benoit Groulx,” Nill said of the 5-foot-9, 216-pound quarterback with the Laval Rouge et Or. “That guy could barely see over centre but he ripped it up and won two national championships at Laval, and he’s almost identical to Gabe in terms of stature. So I am not afraid of going from Michael O’Connor (6-5, 235) to a different body type.”
There is a presence about the kid from Lloydminster, Alta.’s Holy Rosary High that Nill really appreciates.
“I watched his highlights with the Edmonton Huskies and you see a young man who gave them a chance to win in their conference,” said Nill of Yanchuk (6-foot-1, 195 pounds).
“He’s got more of a gunslinger mentality,” he continued. “He’s got a big arm. If he can make the adaptation to the university level, he could very easily be the guy.”
Nill, of course, is not deaf to the chatter within the U Sports football world, one which openly wonders how steep the drop in quarterback play could be in the first season without O’Connor.
Engage Nill on the topic, and it’s clear he hopes the upcoming season, from a purely quarterback-centric standpoint, will be one in which the system allows an unquestioned leader to emerge.
“What we as a coaching staff have to determine is who is going to give us the opportunity to manage the offence,” said Nill, “and I use that word because, with Michael O’Connor, you called it ‘creating’ the offence. Now with the young guys, we can’t put the same weight on their shoulders. We have to put them in a position to just distribute the ball.”
Of course there are few words more polarizing in football than “managing” when it comes to quarterbacks.
Nill says he is using the word only as it applies to the start of the 2019 season.
His hope is that down the road, the maturation process will swap out management in place of creativity in the pocket and elsewhere, and that the depth chart will be jammed with game-ready talent.
In fact, he harkens back on his own history to illustrate how important it can be.
“In 2010 (at Calgary) I lost a Hec Creighton winner in Erik Glavik in the first game of the season, but we went to the Vanier Cup that year with our 18-year-old quarterback (Eric Dzwilewski),” began Nill.
“Then in 2014, Dzwilewski was coming off an MVP season in the Canada West and he broke his foot (three games into the season) right here at UBC. “So then we turned to an 18-year-old quarterback named Andrew Buckley.”
Who, as the history books show, won back-to-back Hec Crightons from 2014-15.
How to best describe the atmosphere Nill is trying to create as he enters his 22nd season as a U Sports head coach?
He is doing everything he can to help nudge history to repeat itself.
“I understand that we’re not going to have Mike O’Connor here,” he says, “but I have seen this play out before and we’re doing our best to know what we have. “We just want to give these younger players a chance to show us that they can be the guy who takes over Mike’s role.”
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