VANCOUVER — The leading tackler on the best defensive team in the Canada West has a confession to make.
“Up until the end of last season, I had never played a down of defence in my life,” says Will Maxwell. “Until last year, I had never even made a tackle.”
Fortunately for Maxwell, a fourth-year transfer from the University of Calgary who on Friday lines up against his old teammates in a crucial conference showdown at Thunderbird Stadium (6:30 p.m., Canada West TV), he’s playing for a coach who if not for his football acumen might well be a Hollywood head honcho in the casting business.
“To be blunt, I talked to Will and I told him he could be a pro athlete,” begins Blake Nill, the UBC head coach who had originally recruited Maxwell to the Dinos as a receiver in 2014, his final season as Calgary’s head coach.
“But I told him that if he wanted an opportunity to get there, he would have to play special teams and adopt a bit more physical skill set in terms of blocking and tackling,” continued Nill. “Part of the discussion we had was whether or not his hands were consistent enough for him to reach his potential on the field as a receiver, or whether we had to look at things from another point of view.”
That is Nill at his best, leading with the positive and re-inventing the future for a student-athlete who had been mis-cast in his original role.
Maxwell had starred at receiver at St. Francis High in Calgary, yet he had gained as much recognition for his exploits on the track, where he excelled at both the 100m and 200m sprints.
More than anything he was an athlete, in recruiting terms the handle given to those whose future potential is best determined by being splashed across the blank canvas of the gridiron.
Nill had left Calgary and arrived at UBC, leading the team to the 2015 Vanier Cup national title.
That same season, Maxwell came down with a sports hernia injury with one more regular-season game remaining and thus was done with the Dinos for the rest of the campaign.
Maxwell then called Nill, and after accepting the fact he would have to switch positions, was on the Point Grey campus for the start of the 2016 season.
Yet due to the date of his final game with the Dinos, he couldn’t play for the Birds until the team’s final regular season game on Oct. 29 at Thunderbird Stadium.
Any guess who UBC was playing that day?
A NEW IDENTITY
“The first game I was eligible to play was against Calgary,” Maxwell explains. “I was so overwhelmed on defence that day that I couldn’t use all the things I had learned. Tackling was the biggest thing for me. I wasn’t mentally ready and I beat myself up every time I missed one.”
Nill was nonplussed.
Decades of experience told him to stay the course, that the merits of a player blessed with speed, athleticism and smarts would be enough to allow him to find his stride.
And so there Maxwell was, earning a starting nod in the team’s first conference game of this season, Sept. 1 in Regina.
Playing on the corner, but still a pup in terms of his actual live-game reps, Maxwell intercepted Rams’ quarterback Noah Picton and returned it 30 yards.
“I just thought about all of the work I had put in, and to then get my first career interception in my first career start just made me so excited,” Maxwell said. “And to get it off a quarterback like Noah Picton felt great. We were teammates at the East-West game. It was good for my morale.”
Heading into Friday’s clash with the Dinos, Maxwell’s 17.5 tackles lead the team as he brings yet another dimension to a ball-hawking UBC secondary led by All-Canadian safety Stavros Katsantonis.
“I think we could have the most athletic group of defensive backs in the country,” Maxwell says with pride. “I am trying, in all aspects of may game, to continually put my best foot forward, and I love the fact that coach Nill does a good job of never letting you be content with your performance.
“I may be leading the team in tackles, but I still feel like I’m not doing enough.”
RE-INVENTION, THEN REVITALIZATION
Another interesting stat about the kid who up until 11 months ago had never made a tackle?
It’s his CFL draft year.
“At the end of every game I play, I evaluate my performance with the CFL as the end goal,” says Maxwell. “But in terms of actually thinking about that stuff happening, it’s on the back-burner because we’re trying to win a Vanier Cup. That is No. 1. And if we go to that level, then my draft stock is going to rise anyway.”
There is something awfully enticing when placing Maxwell’s future as a CFL cornerback on a graph reflecting both his limited experience and the accomplishments he has already garnered.
And there’s also the small matter of that 96-yard kick-off return for a touchdown he managed as part of UBC’s 41-21 win over host Alberta last week. It was enough for Maxwell to gain recognition as the conference’s Special Teams Player of the Week.
Add it all up and it makes you think of potential, and how vast his room for growth still is.
“Physically, he is everything you want in an athlete,” says Nill of the 5-foot-11, 200-pound Maxwell who clocked 10.96 seconds in the 100m and 21.93 seconds in the 200m while sprinting indoors for the Dinos. “He is big and strong, with above-average speed. He’s adopted a more physical mindset and you can just see him starting to flourish.”
At first mis-cast, Will Maxwell is now starring in a role he was seemingly always meant to play.
And while his skills as a football player seem enough to one day make him a professional, even greater was his willingness to stare re-invention in the eye.
He did it and then he winked as if to say ‘I got this.’
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