After closing the 2015 campaign with eight straight victories capped by the school’s first Vanier Cup championship in 18 years, Cinderella is a secret no more.
So what’s the current altitude and attitude of a UBC Thunderbirds football program that reinvented itself from a 2-6 afterthought in 2014 to an 11-2 national titlist last season?
If you’re T-Birds head coach Blake Nill, the man who navigated the miraculous turnaround in just his first season on the Point Grey campus, the pre-season state of the union is as much about staying hungry and humble as it is about replenishing a roster that lost six key cogs to the professional ranks.
“When you are the Edmonton Eskimos of the 1970s and you win every year, you know how to come back and be ready,” explained Nill earlier this week as he prepared his team to board a ferry for its season-opening exhibition game Friday (7 p.m.) at Westhills Stadium in Langford against the Manitoba Bisons.
“This team has never done that. So we’re working on skill sets associated with grounding the kids. They need to realize that this season is going to be even more complex.”
It’s been 11 months since UBC last lost a football game, a 45-29 home-field stinker against the Saskatchewan Huskies in which the visitors built a 21-0 lead before the first quarter was even complete.
“I think that day we all just realized that we were better, that we were capable of a lot more,” said UBC run-catch threat Marcus Davis, the former Victoria-Mt. Douglas star who will get the chance to play in front of a legion of his hometown fans as the ‘Birds face Manitoba in the first-ever CIS football game played on Vancouver Island. “After that loss, we finally started to put all the pieces together.”
The puzzle was ultimately completed on the final Saturday of November in Quebec City when kicker Quinn Van Gylswyk booted a 20-yard field goal on the final play of the game for a 26-23 Vanier Cup win over the defending champion Montreal Carabins.
Fast forward to Friday, and a lot of those pieces have been scrambled.
Van Gylswyk, along with defensive stalwarts Taylor Loffler, Terrell Davis, Mitch Barnett, Boyd Richardson and Dominique Termansen, all moved on to the CFL. Additionally, defensive coordinator James Colzie departed to take the head coaching position at St. Mary’s, the same school Nill had previously led to a pair of Vanier Cup titles at the turn of the century.
The UBC offence will miss the power style of graduated running back Brandon Deschamps, yet the depth of returnees under the guidance of Nill, coordinator Steve Burrato and second-year quarterback Michael O’Connor is atypical of a defending national champion.
“I trained here and threw with the receivers all summer and that was a big positive,” said O’Connor, the former Penn State transfer who has his top five receiver-types from last season all back in the huddle. “Trust is such a big thing and we have that.”
Of O’Connor’s 281 completions, 3,959 passing yards and 23 touchdowns, the quintet of Will Watson, Marcus Davis, Trivel Pinto, Alex Morrison and Marshall Cook combined to make 220 catches for 3,028 yards and score 20 touchdowns.
The challenges will come defensively, especially up the middle of the unit where safety Loffler and linebackers Terrell Davis and Barnett were as ferocious a trio of tacklers as the program has ever had.
To that end, Nill loves the energy new defensive coordinator Pat Tracey, who helped lead Queen’s to a Vanier Cup in 2009, has brought.
And as the journey toward a potential repeat begins, Nill isn’t afraid to lean on his past experiences.
“Fortunately, I have won before,” said the thrice-ringed coach, who won his first two Vanier Cups, both at St. Mary’s, in back-to-back seasons (2001-02) and almost three-peated before eventually winning six straight Canada West Hardy Cup titles without tasting Vanier Cup-winning glory at the helm of the Calgary Dinos. “I know what it’s like to repeat, to almost win it, and to be told you’re a lock to win it and not get out of the conference.
“We’re still dealing with a relative lack of experience at the success-level area,” continued Nill, who has coached eight teams into the national final. “We’re dealing with an entirely different skill set here. The kids had no expectations last season. This year, they are clearly wearing the target. There is so much that can happen and my job is to pass my experience on to them.”
All proceeds from Friday’s game will go to support Greater Victoria Minor Football, the B.C. Football Conference’s Westshore Rebels and the UBC Football Island Scholarship Fund. … UBC, 6-2 in Canada West regular-season play last year, will open its conference schedule on Sept. 3 when its hosts the Alberta Golden Bears in an 8 p.m. contest at Thunderbird Stadium. Homecoming will take place Sept. 17 against Regina, but before that, the Birds play their first conference road game Sept. 9 at arch-rival Calgary.
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