In our continuing effort to eliminate Eastern bias within our lifetime, we're working West to East to preview the 2007 CIS football season. Presenting: the Saskatchewan Huskies.
In '06: 9-3, lost 13-8 to Laval in Vanier Cup
Players to watch: S Dylan Barker, LB Gabe Mackasey, SB Scott McHenry, RT Jordan Rempel, RB Scott Stevens, QB Bret Thompson
Head coach: Brian Towriss (24th season)
Co-ordinators: Mike Harrington (offensive), Ed Carleton (defensive), Cal Hobbs (special teams)
Last year they didn't win the league title: 2003
Big ones: Sept. 22 at Manitoba, Sept. 29 at UBC, Oct. 27 vs. Regina
On the web: huskies.usask.ca, The View From The Stands (Snake Wilson's blog)
Strengths: Thanks to the strong junior programs in the province, the Huskies are pretty much always assured of being experienced at every spot, although there's always an adjustment from juniors to the CIS game. The offensive line and the linebacker groups give the Huskies stability on each side of the ball. Most of the skill position talent returns.
Potential problems: Some unfamilarity on the offensive line early on could be unresolved by the time the Huskies enter their back-to-back road trips to Manitoba and UBC in weeks 4 and 5. The secondary seemed to be less than the sums of its parts in '06, giving up 213 passing yards per game.
The U of S stays strong year-in, year-out in part due to the approach to the offensive line, stockpiling big bodies like a NCAA team (think Nebraska in the Tom Osborne era) in the days before scholarship limits. The program's tradition and the university's relatively low tuition (at least in the eyes of this Ontario boy) makes it an attractive place for good-sized Prairie lads, even if playing time is hard to come by. The Huskies carry so many O-linemen they actually need two coaches for that position group, so they have a fallback for the loss of three regulars from the '06 squad. Hubert Buydens, who's shifting from guard into the left tackle spot vacated by graduated all-Canadian Chris Sutherland, and right tackle Jordan Rempel anchor the group.
Thompson should be past the interception issues that dogged him early last season (he had 10 picks in just 186 attempts). He's ready, willing and able to run around (and into) defenders, putting another dangerous runner on the field to complement tailbacks Scott Stevens and Tyler O'Gorman. Last season's leading receivers, McHenry and wideout Leighton Heron, also return.
There will be at least two new starters in the secondary and all-Canadian end Brian Guebert will also have to be replaced. Tyler Dueck, who was a special teams dynamo last season, has a bead on the departed Rick Vandenameele's cornerback spot. Mackasey and Chad Guidinger anchor a front seven that should be able to play the run better if it doesn't have to give the secondary too much help. Lyndon Boychuk, a second-year linebacker, was getting a lot of work with the first team during pre-season practices.
Veteran Braden Suchan gives the Huskies little to worry about. He led Canada West in punting last season, was second in kickoff average and was a respectable 10-of-15 on field goals. Cornerback Paul Woldu handled most of the punt return duties last season and the coverage teams are usually strong due to the surfeit of backup players auditioning to get more reps on offence or defence.
The regular season pretty much comes down to that Week 4 rematch of last season's Canada West final in Winnipeg against the U of M. The Huskies, who open vs. the three non-playoff teams from a year ago (Alberta, Calgary, Simon Fraser) might end up losing that game and becoming a stronger team in the long run. Around the U of S, it's a Vanier Cup appearance or bust and the Huskies don't fret too much about losing a few of the little games if it can work its way to the big ones.
(Huskies blogger Snake Wilson of A View From The Stands was invaluable in helping write this and several other Canada West previews.)