Friday, August 22, 2008

CIS Countdown: #18 Regina Rams

Fast facts:
- A Cougar by any other name: Interestingly enough, the football team is the only team at the University of Regina named the Rams. The school's other teams (men's and women's basketball, volleyball and hockey, women's soccer, and mixed-gender track and field, swimming, wrestling and cross-country teams) are known as the University of Regina Cougars. History is the reason for the distinction. The Rams started life as a Regina junior football team that was founded in 1954 after the amalgamation of two other junior teams. They joined forces with the University of Regina in 1999 to compete in the CIAU (which is now CIS).
- A proud history: The Rams won 15 titles at the Canadian Junior Football Championships between 1966 and 1998, and won the Canada West conference championship (the Hardy Cup), the Atlantic Bowl and a berth in the Vanier Cup in 2000, which was only their second season of interuniversity competition. The Rams also made Hardy Cup appearances in 2001 and 2002.
- Seeing double: There will be two T. Orbans on the Rams this year, returning quarterback Teale and his younger brother, rookie linebacker Taylor. Taylor joins the team this season after two seasons with the Regina Thunder. Check out Tim Switzer's story in yesterday's Regina Leader-Post for more details.

Coach: The Rams are coached by Frank McCrystal, who's entering his 30th year of coaching with the Rams. He played with the junior team as a linebacker, then coached high school for a couple of years before becoming a Rams' assistant coach. He took over the top job with the junior team in 1984, and stayed on when they became a CIS team. Last year, he was awarded the Frank Tindall Trophy as the CIS coach of the year.

Co-ordinators: The Rams don't only have amazing continuity in their head coach, they also have it in their co-ordinators. Bernie Schmidt, the Rams' offensive co-ordinator and quarterbacks coach, has been coaching for the past 31 years at the high school, junior and university levels, and has spent 27 of those years with the Rams. Defensive co-ordinator and linebackers coach Paul Dawson has been coaching for 24 years in high school, junior and university football. He's been with the Rams for the past 13 years. Both co-ordinators are also former players with the junior team. Special teams is handled by Blaine Pearce (who also coaches the defensive backs) and Chris Warnecke (who also coaches the receivers).

Enrolment: 10, 690 undergraduates, 1480 graduates [according to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada]. Regina does very well for their size, but their strong connections to junior football undoubtably help.

Alumni in the CFL: The Rams have five alumni who were on CFL rosters back in July. They are B.C. slotback Jason Clermont, Saskatchewan fullback Neal Hughes and wide receiver Chris Getzlaf, Winnipeg offensive lineman Brendon LaBatte and Hamilton wide receiver Chris Bauman. They also have punter Jon Ryan in the NFL with Green Bay.

Famous non-football alumni: Liberal MP Ralph Goodale, noted journalist Pamela Wallin and jazz singer Dionne Taylor.

Three-year record: 13-11, with a zero point differential per game over that span: thus, they had a little luck on their side to grab that extra win. They turned in an impressive 6-2 season last year, though.

2007 units ranking: Regina had a strong offence last year, finishing fifth in CIS competition with a 32.1 points-per-game average (37 per cent above the league average). Their defence was weaker, as they allowed 24.5 points per game, 15th best in CIS competition and 4.5 per cent above the league average. They put up an impressive margin of victory, though, outscoring opponents by an average of 7.6 points per game.

Key losses: The Rams have been hit hard with departures this year. The worst losses perhaps came at running back, where they'll be without their top three players from last year's depth chart. Graham Mosiondz, who carried the ball 87 times last year for 483 yards (a 5.55 yards-per-carry average) in five games, is expected to miss the entire season due to injury. They'll also lose Derek Belvedere, who put up 438 yards on 70 carries (a 6.26 yards-per-carry average) in six games last season, and the less-frequently used Taylor Kidby, who only recorded 12 carries for 64 yards (a 5.33 yards-per-carry average). Belvedere graduated earlier this year, while Kidby has joined the junior football Vancouver Island Raiders. Other big losses for the Rams include linebackers Mat Nesbitt and Steve Wilson. Nesbitt put up a Canada West-leading 64 tackles last season, and was named the CIS Defensive Player of the Year, as well as a first-team All-Canadian, while Wilson was named to the Canada West all-star team. On the offensive line, the Rams lost both their starting guards: second team All-Canadian LaBatte, who went to the Bombers, and Max Ivanov, who completed his eligibility last year.

Returning starters: Quarterback Teale Orban is a key one: he finished fourth in passing yards last season with 2273. He recorded 177 completions on 293 attempts for a 60.41 completion percentage, and threw 22 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. He was the Canada West nominee for the Hec Creighton Trophy as the most outstanding player in CIS competition, and is the conference's all-time leader in touchdown passes with 66. According to Rob's adjusted net yards system, he was only the sixth-best QB in the league last season, though (but the top quarterback in Canada West).

Orban has two of his key receivers coming back as well: slotback Chad Goldie, who is the Rams' career leader with 139 pass receptions and was a Canada West all-star last year, is back for a fifth year, while third-year wide receiver Jordan Sisco, who led the team with 678 receiving yards last season, will also be back.

The defensive line will be strong, as they return four out of five starters. Two linemen who should stand out for the Rams this year are defensive tackle Paul McDill, who put up 11 tackles, three sacks, two pass breakups and a fumble recovery last season, and defensive end Stan Van Sichem, who led the team with five sacks and also broke up seven pass attempts.

Players to watch: Keep an eye on returning linebackers Brandon Ganne, Todd Kristoff and Scott Magee, who will have to step up to fill the void left by Nesbitt and WIlson. The Rams' defense might be vulnerable this year: they weren't outstanding on the defensive side of the ball last season, and they've lost a couple of their top players.

For future reference: Rookie running backs Luke Derkson and Dane Kerluke may play a big role in the Rams' success, given the loss of all their veteran running backs. Both have substantial junior football experience: Kerluke comes in from the Victoria Rebels, while Derkson played for the Vancouver Island Raiders (curiously enough, that's the same team that Kidby left the Rams for).

Schedule (swing games in bold):

Aug. 30 @ Manitoba

Sept. 6 vs. Saskatchewan

Sept. 19 @ UBC

Sept. 27 vs. SFU

Oct. 4 vs. Alberta

Oct. 11 @ Calgary

Oct. 18 @ Alberta

Oct 24 vs. Manitoba

Final analysis:

It may be a bit of a tougher year for the Rams, given their losses at running back and on defence. Several other teams in the conference seem to have improved notably in the off-season, which will make things more difficult. They also have to play defending Vanier Cup champion Manitoba twice, which isn't an easy task. However, their passing offence and Orban should still be up to the challenge, and if one of the new running backs turns out to be a star, they could go a long way. I'm thinking they'll probably finish 5-3 this year.

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

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