We're working West to East to preview the 2007 CIS football season. Presenting: The Alberta Golden Bears.
In '06: 4-4, missed playoffs
Players to watch: QB Quade Armstrong, LB Dan Bass (pictured), SB Damon Fraietta, RB Tendayi Jozzy, LT Simeon Rottier, S Scott Stevenson
Head coach: Jerry Friesen (7th season)
Co-ordinators: Rick Walters (offensive), Darryl Draudsen (defensive)
Last league title: 1981
Big ones: Sept. 8 vs. Reginia, Sept. 29 at Calgary
On the web: bears.ualberta.ca
Strengths: The Bears will be able to run the ball on offence -- and plan to spread out the carries. With Bass fronting their 3-4 defence, they should be able to stop the run and get some pressure on the passer.
Mountains to climb, rivers to cross... It's going to take Zen-like patience to wait for the defensive backs to gel. Four of the five starters are new and there's a chance the U of A will go with a second-year player and a true freshman as the cornerbacks. Suffice to say, stopping the pass might be problematic and completing passes could be tough. Armstrong, a second-year starter, was below 50 per cent last season.
The Bears have tweaked the offence after becoming a little too reliant on Jozzy (pictured), who gained 897 yards in '06 but became less productive late in the season. Walters, the former Edmonton Eskimos receiver, is planning to put in a two-back set to keep him rested. Newcomers Bobby Rau, Tyler Budinski and John Smeysters will get a chance at the tailback and fullback spots. Rookie Duncan Hankinson, a slash player, is also in the mix.
Armstrong and the U of A passing game has nowhere to go but up, and he will have three new starters along the offensive line blocking for him. Fraietta (450 yards on 36 catches in '06) is the main target. Rottier is expected to get CFL attention.
The main question seems to be how well the Bears can defend the pass. Stevenson is the lone starter back in the secondary, where projected starting corners Randon Ralph (cousin of the Ticats' Brett Ralph) and Chris Muchena are in their first and second seasons. The Bears also had to shift a couple receivers over to this area, which is usually a dead giveaway that there's a lack of depth.
With covering for young defensive backs, the usual rule of thumb is to add pressure, not coverage. The Bears can do this with Bass and a veteran line anchored by fifth-year seniors Dwayne Kumpula and Derek Krinke. Special teams standout Greg Whelan, who's one of the Bears' fastest players, could be more of a full-time defensive player. There's no givens, but Bass should get all-Canadian recognition.
The Bears are putting the kicking and return duties in new hands and feet. Rookie Hugh O'Neill, who booted a 48-yarder in high school last fall, has an inside track on doing the punting and placekicking. Fellow newcomer Hankinson is expected to become a dangerous return man in good time.
(UPDATE, Aug. 26: O'Neill booted an 85-yard kickoff single in Alberta's exhibition game vs. Calgary. He has a big leg.)
Friesen and the Bears have their work cut out them after being close to a long-sought Canada West championship not so long ago. The schedule is tough, with Saskatchewan as a home-and-home opponent and no bye week during the regular season (the Bears' open week is the last week of the regular season). The Bears might (stress, might) end up being that team that is physical and doesn't give up anything easily, especially on defence, but might lack for playmakers at the skill positions. Alberta has an outside shot at the playoffs if they can keep teams in low-scoring games, but it won't come easily.
(Photos courtesy Uwe Welz photography.)
That's all for now. Send your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org.