Wednesday, August 27, 2008

CIS Countdown #9: Queen's Golden Gaels

Fast facts: Time will tell whether that 6-2 regular season in 2007 was real-real, or Beijing Olympics-real. The playoff loss to hated Western threw everything about an otherwise rousing season into question for anyone who's invested mentally and physically (or just emotionally) in Queen's football.

As much as that early exit stung, the Gaels are turning some heads across Ontario. According to an All Canada Gridiron poll, Queen's has the best recruiting class in the OUA. Queen's overall talent level is as good, if not better, than at any time during Pat Sheahan's tenure as coach.

Queen's should be a Top 10 team which is in the thick of the OUA, although another team from the distant hinterlands of the 613 area code, Ottawa, is the presumptive favourite. The Gaels' defence, which has had maybe two bad days since the start of 2006, returns its two most disruptive linemen, its best linebacker and two best cover guys in the secondary. On the offensive side, quarterback Dan Brannagan for the second straight year is adjusting to the loss of a CFL-bound receiver, but as OUA observers saw with Justin Dunk at Guelph last season, that can be a spur for a QB to spread the passes around.

Diversity is going to be a theme for Queen's offence; Sheahan has said has much. The Gaels return two fifth-year touchdown threats, school record-setting running back Mike Giffin and wideout Scott Valberg. If balance proves elusive, they're not a bad pair to rely on.

Coach: Pat Sheahan (ninth season, 20th as a CIS head coach). The Gaels have a 39-27 overall record (.591 winning percentage) since rejoining the OUA for football in 2001. That's more than respectable, all things considered.

Co-ordinators: Warren Goldie, offence; Pat Tracey, defence. Queen's has the longest-running coach and co-ordinators combo in the OUA, as all three have been together since 2001. Queen's has a good rep with the CFL, as evidenced by the number of Gaels graduates who find their way into training camps and on to rosters.

Enrolment: 13,500 undergraduate

Alumni in the CFL: 'Riders WR Rob Bagg; Lions D-lineman Matt Kirk; Argos RB Bryan Crawford

Famous non-football alumni: Actor Tom Cavanagh; federal cabinet minister John Baird; CNN reporter Ali Velshi; playwright Judith Thompson; Carleton University basketball coach Dave Smart; humourist Jay Pinkerton; Speaker of the House of Commons Peter Milliken; singer-songwriter Sarah Harmer; three-fifths of The Tragically Hip and all three members of Bedouin Soundclash.

Three-year record: 13-11

2007 units ranking: 9th on offence, 3rd on defence

Key losses: WR Rob Bagg, DT-LS Kevin Scott, LT Cody Kennedy, LB D.J. Mulholland, DB Matt Vickers

Returning starters: 9 offence, 9 defence; kicker Dan Village also returns.

Players to watch: There are four quarterbacks in the OUA who have been their team's starter since 2005. Dan Brannagan has easily had the most curious career arc, compared to Dunk at Guelph and Josh Sacobie of Ottawa and Michael Faulds at Western.

Steady play from a fourth-year starter should be an immutable for a team vying for a spot in the Yates Cup. Brannagan grades out very well in Mr. Pettapiece's quarterback rankings and his 15-to-6 touchdown-interception ratio in 2007 was very good, but there's a perception that Queen's offence is frequently very peaks-and-valleys; they didn't get in the end zone in a loss to Laurier when both teams came in 4-0 last fall.

As was the case last season, Brannagan is adjusting to life without an all-Canadian receiver (Bagg; it was Brad Smith the season before). The likes of Valberg, slotback Devan Sheahan (the coach's son) and tight end Scott Stinson provide a variety of targets for the QB. The nature of Giffin's role is a hot pre-season topic. A Mike Alstott-type with a fullback body and tailback mindset, he's a little betwixt and between about which position is best for him. He also had 205 touches (rushing attempts and receptions) last season, more than five times as much as any other Queen's player.

Queen's defence kept them in most games last season. The high points are middle linebacker Thaine Carter; tackle Dee Sterling and end Osie Ukwuoma along the line; the secondary is back, with Jimmy Allin at halfback and Jay Oduwole on the corner. Allin accounted for six of the unit's 13 takeaways last season, meaning returning kicks isn't his only means of providing field position.

The Gaels had just 22 sacks and interceptions last season, an OUA low. That begs the question of whether they took the notion of bend-but-don't-break defence a little too far in 2007. That caught up to them in the playoff loss to Western.

For future reference: Queen's All Canada Gridiron-approved newcomers could have an impact this fall; Sheahan is, er-ah, optimistic that some rookies will develop quickly. Mike Farine, a 6-foot-2 receiver from Toronto's Northern Secondary whose success as a point guard on a top high school basketball team attests to his athletic ability, could see the field quicker than most. (Queen's newcomers also include his former quarterback at Northern, Elliot Beutel, but he's a ways away with Jansen Shrubb returning as Brannagan's backup.)

Another two-sport newcomer is DB Ian Armour, a former national karate champion. Queen's got one of the two big offensive stars out of Bishop Ryan in Hamilton, receiver Mitchell Callaghan, who could have some potential on defence. (Laurier got Ryan's other big star, running back Ryan Rowe.)

Schedule (swing games in bold):
Sept. 1 McMaster
Sept. 6 @ Guelph (The Score University Rush)
Sept. 13 Laurier
Sept. 20 @ Toronto
Sept. 27 Western (The Score University Rush)
Oct. 4 @ York
Oct. 11 Ottawa
Oct. 18 @ Waterloo

The Gaels will miss Windsor in the schedule rotation. Fun fact: Queen's didn't play Laurier in either 2004 or '06, so you can impress people and win drinks at cocktail parties by pointing out that they haven't scored a touchdown vs. the Golden Hawks since Tom Denison was still on the team. That came on Nov. 1, 2003, the infamous Over The Bar game that OOLF's two Laurier alums never get tired of bringing up.

Final analysis: Queen's football is in a much better place than it was nine or 10 years ago, when the depth chart was so thin you read a newspaper through it and there were very real suspicions the administration was hoping football would just up and disappear from campus. (Queen's administration of the day was never quite as obvious about their wishes as a certain other G13 school that's a 2½-hour drive away.)

Sheahan, who has two recruiting coaches, has been able to improve the overall talent level. The alumni, athletic department and the surrounding Kingston community are on side. (To some extent, Queen's athletics has the icons of ineptitude, the Kingston Frontenacs, to thank for any media coverage or buzz in the city.) All that's needed now is a stadium with a seating arrangement that better covers up that current students aren't big on going to games.

Nevertheless, to borrow from that well-known YouTube clip which mocks Notre Dame fans, the Gaels are 0-for-the-2000s where championships are concerned. The perception is there that this group of Gaels hasn't had a big breakthrough that their talent should warrant.

If Queen's has the answers, then this year is a clean slate to write them down on.

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


Anonymous said...


Good work on this countdown—some nice analysis here.

However, I was at the Queen’s-McGill game and came away rather unimpressed with the Golden Gaels. (I know, I know—it was just an exhibition game.) Giffin aside—he’s certainly a quality back—I thought Queen’s looked undersized and not particularly athletic at most positions, certainly a lot slower/smaller on defense than I’m used to seeing.

To be blunt, I have a very difficult time believing this is the ninth-best team in the nation. (Come to think of it, I also have a very difficult time believing five of the top nine come from the OUA.)

Other than that, your countdown has been a good read before the season gets underway this week.


sager said...

Thanks for stating it respectfully. I wasn't at the game so I have nothing to counter your statement about the quality of Queen's.

Just to clarify, the countdown is based on each team's regular-season record over the last 3 seasons. (Time constraints, lack of confidence, got in the way of doing a true Top 27, but there's always next year.)

I doubt many people would rank Acadia (#11) ahead of Manitoba (#12), but believe it or not, when Rob tallied the records, it came out that way.

Anonymous said...

Wow, quick response! I was just checking back to see if my comment got posted...

Now I understand where your countdown is coming from - thanks for clearing that up.

BTW, I should also break the surprising news that McGill, outside of the Connell-Galas-Sinotte triumvirate, is wretched.

Tyler King said...

"Sheahan believes up to 10 rookies could push veterans for playing time"

Not true. Sheahan confirmed as much in an interview for Kingston's most listened to hourlong sports talk show. Especially when you've got a zillion returning starters, that was a silly thing for the Whig to say.