2015 record (Canada West regular season): 6 W – 2 L 2015 record (CW playoffs): 2 W – 0 L 2015 record (CIS Playoffs): 2 W – 0 L
The hype is real.
The UBC Thunderbirds football team will head into the 2016-17 CIS season as the reigning Vanier Cup champions. Perpetual underdogs, the 'Birds pulled off an incredible Cinderella run last year, all the way to a last-second 23-20 win over the Montreal Carabins in the national final.
This year, the T-Birds aren't sneaking up on anybody.
"We earned teams' respect last year, and now we're going in with targets on our back," notes sophomore quarterback Michael O'Connor, who threw for school records 3,989 yards and 23 touchdowns (tied with Billy Greene) as a rookie. "Teams are going to be gunning for us, and we're going to have to bring our 'A' game every night in return. It's going to push us to be better."
"Having those increased expectations, that's going to be an adjustment for some of the athletes," admits head coach Blake Nill, now in his second year on the T-Birds' sideline. "We're going to have to continue to drill it into them what it means to play every game as a championship team."
According to one of the newest T-Birds, Nill has been doing his best to accomplish that in early season practices.
"First thing I noticed was the intensity," said incoming freshman defensive lineman Jag Sandhu. "Coach Nill doesn't let up. The bar is set so high here, it's crazy. If someone isn't pulling their weight even for a second, someone's going to call them out on it."
That same intensity last year not only got the 'Birds a national title, but helped send five defenders to the CFL, including standout safety Taylor Loffler and linebacker Terrell Davis.
"That's something we're going to have to get used to," says Nill with a smile.
As for the upcoming year, the veteran CIS head coach is looking to both his veterans and the next generation of 'Birds to help fill the talent vacuum on the defensive side of the ball.
"Guys like Malcom Lee, Jordan Kennedy, [Vanier Cup Defensive MVP Stavros] Katsantonis – we'll need those guys to step up and become leaders. The top-end of our linebacker core and defensive backfield is going to be really good, but it's in those depth roles where we'll need [freshmen like Parker] Simson, (Henrique) Custodio – a big kid out of Pennsylvania – and Ryan von Ende out of South Delta to comes in and make an impact. Jacob Ghazizadeh from Handsworth could be another one. On the defensive line, junior transfer Ryley Butler is going to play, and Sandhu has some impressive upside."
On offence, though, the 'Birds don't have nearly as much uncertainty – with O'Connor under centre and his full complement of receivers returning, including offensive dynamo Marcus Davis and senior wideout Alex Morrison, the 'Blue and Gold' could boast one of the most explosive aerial attacks in the country.
For now, though, it's about the little things.
"We're all comfortable with each other now, so that makes things a lot easier," says O'Connor. "We've got the basics on lock, so we can continue to work on execution, making sure things are as crisp as they can be by the time the season rolls around for real."
On the ground, it appears to be a running-by-committee approach, as converted receiver Ben Cummings and Dwayne Neustaeter return in the wake of "bell cow" Brandon Deschamps' graduation.
"It's hard to replace the kind of production that Banger [Deschamps] gave us last year, but I think that the guys we have will be able to help us out a lot in the screen game and in terms of opening up our passing options out of the backfield," says O'Connor.
Maybe more important than continuity on the field is on the sideline, as offensive coordinator Steve Buratto returns for another year.
"Having Steve back with the guys is huge for us – we're a year older, more experienced with his system, and because guys have his stuff down for the most part, he'll be able to expand the package, and make us a little more dangerous and creative," says Nill.
One of the biggest holes on the roster was left by the boot of Quinn van Gylswyk, as the big-footed kicker/punter was drafted by the CFL's Saskatchewan Roughriders this past May. Fortunately for the 'Birds, they appear to have found an answer in New Mexico State transfer Greg Hutchins.
"He has been excellent so far in camp," says Nill of the 6-foot-3, 200-pound kicker. "He's going to be a big deal."
With talent in place all over the roster, Nill's expectations for the 2016-17 Blue and Gold are high.
"I've been coaching in the CIS long enough to know that it can't always happen, but my goal every year is to be the last team standing," says Nill. "This year is no different."
As for O'Connor, when asked how he expects the team to follow up on such an incredible season, his answer was simple.
"We have to be better."
How exactly does a team better a championship? It's going to be fun to find out.
UBC kicks off their regular season on September 3rd against Alberta and welcomes the Regina Rams to Thunderbird Stadium for "Homecoming" on September 17th.