Bakersfield Bandit: UBC’s Katsantonis energizes retooled defence of Vanier Cup champions

Stavros Katsantonis has become so seasoned, so quickly at the back end of the UBC Thunderbirds’ defence, that even he sometimes forgets how new he is to the world of CIS football.

“We know we lost some players, but we also knew we had the guys to step up and fill some big shoes and those young guys are doing great,” Katsantonis says, when it’s pointed out the team’s Vanier Cup-winning defence of a season ago has opened 2016 without its six top regular-season tacklers.

Then he catches the gaffe.

“… But, that’s not to say that I’m not young because I’m still a second-year player.”

Arriving from Bakersfield (Calif.) last season as a little-known, pure freshman depth player, he would go on to emerge as a playmaking catalyst just in time for UBC’s magical run to the national title.

On Friday (4:30 p.m., Shaw TV), in a Canada West showdown in Calgary against the Dinos (1-0), the 5-11 defensive back will look to continue padding his resume. His current credentials make him one of the nation’s most physical and efficient defenders.

Over his last seven games with UBC (1-0), dating back to the team’s Canada West regular-season finale against Manitoba, the aptly-nicknamed Bakersfield Bandit has registered 37.5 tackles and five interceptions. That’s quite a jump in production from the 15.5 tackles and two interceptions he had over the first seven games of his ‘Birds career.

And this season, Katsantonis has moved into the free safety position vacated when Taylor Loffler was drafted 19th overall by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

“Taylor took me under his wing last year and really taught me some things that have helped me on the field,” said the resourceful Katsantonis who, along with fellow defensive back Jordan Kennedy, registered a team-leading 8.5 tackles and an interception in UBC’s 39-24 season-opening win last Saturday against Alberta. “He’s helped me play some good safety.”

Inspiration through perspiration has also come from a pretty famous pair of brothers, both with NFL pedigree.

“I went back home for a couple of months in the off-season and trained with the Carr brothers,” says Katsantonis of current Oakland Raiders starting quarterback Derek Carr and his older brother David, the retired 11-year NFL pivot who was the No. 1 overall pick in 2002.

“They have a private training facility in Bakersfield and they really helped me improve my physical game. Derek has definitely been a great mentor, and as a starting NFL quarterback I was just a sponge. The NFL is the plan for me.”

Katsantonis even says the Carrs have become Thunderbirds followers.

“They knew I was going to play Canadian football and they followed my season and saw that we won a national championship,” Katsantonis laughs. “They were really proud.”

Now, along with the rest of a retooled UBC defence that includes returnees such as Dylan Chapdelaine, A.J. Blackwell, Riley Jones and Kevin Wiens, the Bakersfield Bandit has emerged as a leader and a player to watch.

Photo: UBC Thunderbirds' free safety Stavros Katsantonis gets airborne to beat Alberta wide receiver Peter Zajdel for an interception last Saturday in Vancouver. (Richard Lam/UBC athletics)

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