Saturday, August 23, 2008

CIS Countdown #13: Guelph Gryphons

Fast facts: The Gryphons lived up to the pre-season Fresno State/Boise State analogy, upsetting the established order in the OUA, going into Laurier's house in the playoffs and rallying from a 24-point deficit to take out the Golden Hawks, 38-31. With that win, they became the first No. 5 seed ever to host a Yates Cup, which they lost 34-21 to Western. They were 4-4 in the regular season, but the the four losses were by an average of eight points. QB Justin Dunk and RB Nick Fitzgibbon give the Gryphons as good a backfield as any team in the OUA. Defensively, they have to make sure that such a young team doesn't wear down late in the season: They gave up an average of 544 yards on defence over their final four games.

A tough early schedule -- at Laurier and home to Queen's in the first week of September -- will give a good picture of how much the Gryphons have built on last season's success.

Coach: Kyle Walters (3rd season). By almost all accounts, the energetic Walters has led the Gryphons out of OUA obscurity. A former standout safety, first with the Gryphons and then in the CFL with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, he became a coach in 2004, serving a two-year apprenticeship as defensive co-ordinator before taking the top job.

Co-ordinators: Kyle Walters, offence; Bill Brown, defence. Walters has now officially done it all as a player and coach. He was a running back in high school, switched to safety in university (where he was a captain in his final season, 1996, the last time the U of G won the Yates Cup) and shone on special teams during his pro career. He's now gone from defensive co-ordinator to head coach, to a head coach who also has the offensive co-ordinator's portfolio.

Greg Layson, the hardest-working university beat reporter in Ontario, wrote a piece earlier this week that described how Walters wants to run a more open attack, perhaps something like the spread option that's all the rage in the NCAA. Employing more motion and more misdirection would better use Dunk and Fitzgibbon's unique skill sets. 

Guelph used to be perceived as the typical OUA team, using a straight-ahead power attack with combine-sized linemen (hey, you can't tee-up Guelph without an agricultural reference). It's probably a good idea to go on YouTube and for highlights of the 2004 Utah Utes, who were a BCS-buster using a spread option attack. At the CIS level, Dunk is a lot like the college incarnation of Alex Smith — a tall quarterback who is fast and experienced enough to run plays that involve some intricate ball-handling  (oh, grow up)

Enrolment: 17,332

Alumni in the CFL: Argos LB Mike O'Shea, Roughriders WRs David McKoy and Michael Palmer

Famous non-football alumni: Two of Canada's most influential sportswomen, Hockey Night in Canada commentator Cassie Campbell and trailblazing jockey Emma-Jayne Wilson; actress Laura Bertram of Ready Or Not fame; Major-Gen. T.J. Grant, former commander of the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan; author Jane Urquhart

Three-year record: 9-14-1

2007 unit rankings: 6th on offence, 12th on defence

Key losses: DL Chris Hladich, LB Chris Decker, DB Ricky Gorton, DB Pete Degouw, WR Lorne Foster. Hladich, who could be very disruptive in the interior of the defensive line, is probably the toughest one to replace. Scott Puillandre, who had good potential as a linebacker, has left the team to join the Canadian Forces.

Returning starters: The entire offensive line returns, along with nine starters on defence. Steady-eddie kicker Rob Maver is also back.

Players to watch: Fourth-year starter Dunk, the most profilic passer in school history, improved his pass distribution last season, improving his TD-to-interception ration from 14-to-15 to 17-to-10, even as he was throwing to three rookie receivers, Jedd Gardner, David Harrison and Zach Stacey. Stacey could prove the best of the bunch.

Fitzgibbon (1,370 yards from scrimmage, 13 TDs in 2007) gives the Gryphons a classic halfback who can drop the shoulder on a defender and give the offence an extra receiver in the passing game. Defensively, Sebastian Howard had an OUA-best six interceptions as a freshman last season, while DL Grant McDonald and LB Taggart Russell anchor the front seven; Russell becomes a focal point now that Decker's gone.

For future reference: The Gryphons focused on the back eight in recruiting -- the hometown Mercury reported in July that 17 of the 32 rookies Walters has received commitments from were either linebackers or D-backs. QB Jake Reinhart, a Guelph native, could have impact down the line. CB Jordan Duncan is being reunited with Howard, his junior teammate from the Niagara Spears.

Schedule (swing games in bold):
Sept. 1 @ Laurier
Sept. 6 Queen's
Sept. 13 @ Windsor
Sept. 20 McMaster
Sept. 27 U of T
Oct. 4 @ Waterloo
Oct. 11 vs. York
Oct. 18 @ Western

The Gryphons miss Ottawa in the OUA's schedule rotation.

Final analysis: OUA observers will find out about Guelph very quickly. They return to the scene of the crime for the opener at Laurier, where they pulled off a comeback win in the playoffs. Then there's a short turnaround (well, it's short for everyone) for a home game vs. Queen's, who shut down the Gryphons in a Week 2 matchup last season, keeping Fitzgibbon to 27 yards on the ground and outplaying the Gryphons offensive line.

It's not out of the realm of possibility that the Gryphons could get out of the gate 0-2 and still rally for a 5-3 finish. Guelph is past the days of moral victories, but it's not yet at Ottawa's level.

The Gryphons are one of five teams who have an argument that they should be in the Yates Cup on Nov. 9. Red and gold are the colours of fall, but Guelph's season will come down to how well their defence holds up after the leaves turn.

(Contributors to this preview: Rob Pettapiece, Duane Rollins.)

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