Freshman linebacker Ben Hladic made an immediate impact in his CIS debut for the UBC Thunderbirds in their win last week over the University of Manitoba. Bob Frid / PNG
In a way, Ben Hladik is going to school while he goes back to school.
Confused? So’s he.
You try going from a base 4-3 defence to a highly reactive, malleable and complex defensive system, and then you’ll know what the Vernon native is going through. Aside from the fact he’s playing football under Canadian rules, instead of the four-down American rules he grew up playing at Vernon Secondary, Hladik is adapting to playing at a level he’s never seen before.
“It was a massive difference,” said the 6-foot-4, 225-pound linebacker. “For me, playing double-A to going to play CIS, it was a major step up. Just the size of everyone, the speed of everyone … it’s almost a totally different game.
“It’s a lot different in high school. We just ran base, base coverages, the simplest stuff we could, so everyone got it. Here, there’s switching on every formation, and you have to know all these different plays for every team … it’s crazy.
“But I’ve got coaches who are going to put me in the best situation every week to succeed, and make sure I know my stuff. My teammates have been a big help, too. All the older guys are really good at helping out the younger guys.”
And Hladik is doing better than just getting a passing grade. In his first career start last week in UBC’s 32-18 win over the Manitoba Bisons, he had six tackles, including three for a loss, a fumble recovery and two batted balls. The defence overall held the Bisons to just 24 rushing yards, and blanked them in two quarters, including a third-quarter domination that saw UBC outscore them 19-0.
“It was a good game, but there’s always room to improve,” he said. “We had four rookies starting on defence and we all made the most of our opportunities. (I wanted to make a) good first impression in my first game starting, so hopefully (the coaches) give me more time there.”
His performance validated what the Thunderbirds coaches had seen in Hladik. Despite being named the provincial double-A MVP after a stellar senior campaign with the Panthers in which he played both tight end and defensive end, he seemingly slipped under the radar of most universities — except for UBC’s.
Head coach Blake Nill and assistant Paul Orazietti made the trip to Vernon to recruit Hladik. A return trip to UBC sealed the deal for the uber-athletic player, who became the first player signed by the team that was coming off a Vanier Cup win.
“After I walked around the UBC campus, I just knew,” he said. “And it was just a great team, had a lot of potential. I just knew it was where I wanted to be.”
And the T-Birds picked up a player who’s work ethic sees him spending as much time in the weight room as he does in the film room.
“To be honest, I think a lot of schools, media, etc., dropped the ball on this kid,” Nill said before training camp in March.
“Now, recruiting is not an exact science, it is subjective for sure, but when you have an athlete who stands nearly 6-foot-5, weighs 230 pounds, and has the training numbers he does you would think he would have been on a lot more radars.”
The University of Saskatchewan Huskies will certainly be doing their homework on him, as they visit Thunderbird Stadium for UBC’s homecoming game this Saturday. Close to 10,000 fans are expected for the 5 p.m. tilt.
Hladik has football in his genes. He and younger brother Bradley, now a star senior with the Panthers, learned the game from their grandfather Frank and dad Scott, who each played high school football in Alberta. Older brother Andy also played in Vernon.
But none of them went professional. Ben Hladik could be the first. It’s only two games into a long season, and he’s concentrating on that first.
“I want to keep starting, have as big an impact on the team as I can,” he said. “Of course, the goal is to win the championship, and I think we can do it.”