The Canadian university football season is kicking off, and Out of Left Field is here to provide a look at all 27 CIS teams. Presenting: the Guelph Gryphons.
In '06: 2-6, missed playoffs
Players to watch: QB Justin Dunk, RB-KR Nick FitzGibbon, OL Ryan Bomben, OL Ian Keleher, DL Chris Hladich, DL Grant MacDonald
Head coach: Kyle Walters (2nd season)
Co-ordinators: Jamie Cana (offensive), Walters (defensive)
Last league title: 1996
Big ones: Sept. 9 at Queen's, Oct. 13 vs. Windsor
On the web: athletics.uoguelph.ca
Strengths: Dunk gives Guelph a puncher's chance if they get in a shootout, although he's lost his two favourite receivers from his first two seasons. Walters, the youngish head coach who won two Yates Cups as a player, has also sent a jolt of energy through the program and has not hesitated to give first- and second-year players a chance.
Mountains to climb, rivers to cross... Guelph is youthful in outlook, and remember what you were like when you were 19 or 20 years old and things didn't work out? It plays on emotion, and that can bounce back on a team when things go poorly. Keeping their heads in the game will be a challenge, especially for a team that's had to retool its pass defence.
Now that he's more mature, Dunk has to go without his security blankets, receivers Jeff Keegan and Dave McKoy, who have graduated. Being older and wiser also means a more balanced diet. Walters says, "I would like us to be much more balanced this year in our (pass) distribution. Defences focused their attention on McKoy and Keegan last year leading our QB to force some throws into bad situations."
Dunk, who provides a rushing threat (374 yards in '06), and FitzGibbon (414 on the ground), who had his moments as a rookie last season, will try to make defences respect the run more. Last season, defences could sit back and expect Guelph to pass, which is part of the reason Dunk threw 15 interceptions (against 14 TDs). Fifth-year seniors Lorne Foster and Adam Slomer return among the receivers and Walters says he has some good rookies, such as Zack Stacey from high school powerhouse Burlington Nelson.
Hladich provides a needed veteran presence in the force unit, where five of the seven projected starters will be second-year players, including linebacker Adam Dunk, the quarterback's brother. Improving the talent in the secondary has also been a priority after Guelph gave up a lot of pass plays over 20 yards last season. Jamie Shaw, a former quarterback, was moved over to the secondary and like the receiving group, it's wide-open. Cornerback Sean Riley was the Gryphons' lone OUA all-star on defence last season.
Sophomore Rob Maver handled all of Guelph's kicking in '06 and was an OUA second-team all-star as a punter. FitzGibbon had a 24.4-yard average as a kick returner last season, but McKoy will have to be replaced as the punt returner. Walters said finding a "big time punt return man that can give us a spark ... will be a top priority during camp."
Guelph merits watching due to its underdog status. Ideally, a program such as Guelph's would be kind of a scale-model OUA version of Fresno or Boise State, drawing players who were undervalued coming out of high school. In the past two seasons they've beaten McMaster, taken Western down to the final play in London and extended Laurier to overtime.
Walters is counting on "youthful exuberance" and "unproven players looking to make an impact" to lift the team's fortunes. If Queen's or McMaster struggles, Guelph could sneak into the playoffs and be a tough out in an OUA quarter-final.
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