By Emilie Medland-Marchen, September 6 2016 —
The Dinos football team experienced a changing of the guard this year — but there’s plenty of new talent waiting in the wings.
After a pre-season training camp from August 13–26, a non-conference win against the University of Regina Rams and a 23–14 win in their first match against the University of Manitoba Bisons, the football team is back on home turf to take on the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds in their annual Kickoff game on September 9.
For head coach Wayne Harris, it’s business as usual. Despite former Dinos head coach Blake Nill now leading the Thunderbirds, the team sees their opponents as just another obstacle on the path to winning the Hardy Cup.
“When we’re up against UBC, it’s about playing the way we’re capable of,” Harris said. “Not getting our focus redirected towards things that don’t matter. We get to play them twice in the season this year, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens.”
The Dinos had an exceptional regular season last year, heading into the Canada West championships undefeated with a host of talented players including star quarterback Andrew Buckley and running back Mercer Timmis. But in the Hardy Cup against UBC, fate finally caught up to the Dinos. A series of penalties hurt the team in their effort to contest for the top spot in the Canada West conference. And with Nill on the other side of the field — and many of the current Dinos having played underneath him — there was bound to be some tension.
Despite a relatively close final score of 36–24 and a nearly perfect season, the loss was heartbreaking for the Dinos. It was the second year in a row the team missed out on winning the Hardy Cup — history had repeated itself. The Dinos walked away from the season knowing that they had narrowly missed out on claiming a title that, based on the way they had played throughout the regular season, should have been theirs.
It was a heartbreak for the team. But for Harris, the past is in the past. Losing key offensive veterans at the end of last season added to the tough final game, but the incoming rookies on this year’s team offer a chance for a fresh start.
“Every year is a different year with a slightly different team and a slightly different culture,” he said. “Hopefully some new leaders will emerge to carry us through.”
When Harris stepped into the head coach position at the start of last season after his previous role as an assistant to Nill, his approach to the game rippled throughout the squad. Dubbed the “Harris effect,” his leadership brought the Dinos to an undefeated 8–0 record throughout the regular season. This year, Harris has the chance to once again make his strength as a coach
resonate throughout the team. With a group of freshman talent stepping in and the loss of significant veteran players, he’ll have to build from the ground up.
“We’ve definitely got some exciting talent coming forward,” Harris said. “Our guys on defence do an outstanding job, and then we’re really looking for the leadership of [quarterback] Jimmy [Underdahl] to unite our offence. We’ve got some young guys who have had to step it up.”
Last year, the Dinos’ record-breaking offensive squad featured nine first-team All-Canadians. Six of those players have now graduated, including quarterback Andrew Buckley, running back Mercer Timmis and kicker Johnny Mark, all of whom have moved on to the CFL. It was a strong draft class for the Dinos this year, but the departing players also means that the current offensive team will have to step up their game to compete with the top teams in the Canada West.
But there is some new talent waiting in the wings. Fifth-year quarterback Jimmy Underdahl has played patiently beneath the shadow of Buckley for the past five years. He’ll finally have his chance to start now that Buckley has moved on to play for the Calgary Stampeders. After finishing in the top 10 in passing last season, Underdahl is definitely up for the challenge. His experience is a valuable asset to an offence whose top positions have been shuffled this season.
Last week, Harris said he was confident in the ability of Underdahl to step up to the plate.
“There has certainly been some big changes at main positions, like at quarterback with Andrew Buckley,” said Harris. “But Jimmy Underdahl has been with the program for five years now and has been a strong leader. He has all the skills necessary to be very successful. We expect to still be able to have lots of offensive production.”
After a late August pre-season training camp, there’s still plenty of opportunity for brand new faces. First-year quarterback Josiah Joseph is a key recruit this year from the Okanagan Sun after he led his team to a British Columbia Football Conference championship last year.
“Honestly, I’ve always wanted to win a Vanier Cup,” Joseph said. “Anything I can do to help the team, whether it’s run short yardage or be ready for backup, it’s whatever I can do to help. Even if I have to stay home and not play, I’m just prepared to do whatever I can.”
Joseph’s energy is valuable to infuse the team with support from the ground up. Coupled with new recruits on defence and nine key returning defensive starters, the Dinos have the backbone necessary to hold their own against the Thunderbirds.
This year the Dinos’ defence is largely intact, as a number of returning players — including nine starters — are back in play. Defensive linemen Cory Robinson and Connor McGough are two keys to anchoring the line this year. McGough was a second team All-Canadian last year. Together, the two players were important factors in only allowing an average 131 rushing yards per game last season.
Joining them are defensive backs Adam Laurensse and Robert Woodson, both first team All-Canadians last year. Woodson led the conference with five interceptions last season. Supporting him on the back line is new recruit Brennan Van Nistelrooy, who joined the Dinos after being drafted by the B.C. Lions 48th overall in last year’s CFL draft. Defence is set to be a strength for the team this year, as the coaching staff will be led by CFL veteran Tom Higgins.
“Defensively, we haven’t had quite as many changes with most of the backfield returning and the defensive line back entirely,” Harris said. “We feel confident that we have a good program moving forward, but certainly there’s a lot of work still to do.”
In special teams, there’s a race for the kicking position vacated by perennial All-Canadian Johnny Mark, the CIS all-time leader in scoring and field goals. While Mark moved on to play for the Saskatchewan Roughriders in this year’s draft, his position is challenged by fourth-year kicker Alec Curtis and newcomer Niko DiFonte, who joins the Dinos this year from Winnipeg.
The Dinos are now back in Calgary after that 23–14 win against the University of Manitoba, but they’ll have their work cut out for them against the Thunderbirds. For these two teams, the rivalry runs deep — but for Joseph, there’s a lot of excitement too.
“It’s going to be awesome,” Joseph said. “I’ve got some family coming out, so it’s going to be a great game, a preview of the Hardy Cup this year and a rematch from last year.”
Kickoff starts at 5:30 p.m. on September 9 at McMahon stadium. Admission is free for students.