Previewing the Ontario conference is going to take a couple days -- 10 teams! -- so we'll be hopping all over the place for the next couple days. Presenting: the McMaster Marauders.
In '06: 6-3, lost 25-19 to Queen's in OUA quarter-final
Players to watch: QB Adam Archibald, LB Simon Binder, DL Eugene Boakye, WR Jordan Charter, DL Chris Van Zeyl
Head coach: Stefan Ptaszek (2nd season)
Co-ordinators: Ptaszek (offensive), Greg Knox (defensive), Larry Guarascia (special teams)
Last league title: 2003
Big ones: Sept. 3 at Laurier, Sept. 8 vs. Western, Sept. 29 vs. Ottawa
On the web: athrec.mcmaster.ca
Strengths: Archibald, the one-time star at Frontenac Secondary in Kingston, should have a good final season now that he's in his second year running Ptaszek's offence and has a bevy of receivers including Charter, B.J. Mallot and Rob Serviss.
Mountains to climb, rivers to cross... Four of the five starters in the defensive secondary are new and Mac faces a dangerous receiver (Laurier's Dante Luciani) and veteran QB (Western's Mike Faulds) right out of the box. The offensive line will also have some new faces, which will put added pressure on Archibald.
As offensive co-ordinator at Laurier during its two-year Yates Cup title run, Ptaszek directed a group that took a thinking man's approach to moving the ball, with a fair bit of motion and misdirection. He'll likely try to take that a little farther at Mac. He has two experienced QBs, Archibald and sophomore backup Ryan Fantham, depth at receiver and an experienced fullback, Rob Mitchell. (Ptaszek's offences at Laurier used an H-back, a blocker and receiver who was listed as a fullback, and the man who filled that role, Byron Hickey, is now a Marauders coach.)
Adapting a scheme that is more about imagination than superior athletes, which is new to Mac, might be a somewhat of a necessity. The Marauders lost tailback tandem Andre Sadeghian and Jordan Kozina, to the CFL and national rugby team respectively. Lineman Kyle Koch is still on the Winnipeg Blue Bombers roster, so opening 400-series highway-wide holes for the running game might not work the way it did in the Jesse Lumsden era. Ugonna Ihekwoaba, a Burlington native, should challenge for time at tailback.
The front seven has typically been a Marauders strength, thanks in small part to a good talent pool in Southern Ontario. Linemen Eugene Boakye and Chris Van Zeyl, who were each third-round CFL picks, have both come back and Simon Binder leads the linebacker group.
The question mark is the secondary, which was hit hard by graduation (including that of Ottawa's Jesse Card, who set the school record for most interceptions) and will take time to develop. The Week 5 matchup vs. Ottawa and Josh Sacobie will be a good measuring stick of how that group is coming along.
Pauolo Faiazza was 8-of-15 on field goals last season and averaged just over 35 yards per punt, which suggests consistency needs to improve. He is a threat to throw the ball or run with it on fakes. Mac had some issues with breakdowns on special teams last season, particularly in the playoff loss vs. Queen's.
Mac's four straight Yates Cups (2000-03) was the last throes of what worked for the OUA's power programs in the '80s and '90s. The better teams, such as Western and Laurier, typically kept offensive and defensive schemes relatively simple and trusted in having superior athletes. The rise of Laval and Quebec football, the scrapping of the OAC (Grade 13) year in Ontario high schools and Western Canada teams' use of more experienced junior players has put an end to that approach working on a national level.
Laurier had a breakthrough, winning the Vanier Cup in 2005, because it thought more seriously about how to trick its talent into being better. Ptaszek, who was part of that shift in thinking, will probably try to do this over time at McMaster. Considering the school's size, support of sports, its facilities, and the talent and fan support, it should lead to the Marauders delivering a long-sought Vanier Cup appearance inside of five years.
This season, Mac is coming under the radar screen a bit. If it gets through a gauntlet -- it plays last season's OUA final four of Laurier, Western, Queen's and Ottawa before the end of September -- relatively intact and has a good outing vs. Guelph in the final week, it could be heard from in the playoffs. Right now, they look shakier than they have in some time, but in fairness, the bar's been set pretty high in Hamilton for nearly a decade.
That's all for now. Send your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org.