Western Mustangs start football season as contenders but with differences

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Another year, another season of high expectations . . . it simply wouldn’t be an Ontario university football season without the Western Mustangs being cast as one of the favourites for a Yates Cup championship.

But as much as the expectations have become a predictable element of the purple and white preseason regime, the feeling of inevitable Mustang success is no longer at the level it used to be in the OUA.

Since 2009, after having won the Yates Cup in 2007 and 2008, the Mustangs have been to the Yates Cup six times. They’ve lost four of them.

That speaks to levelling of the OUA playing field. Even though the Mustangs are regular visitors to the semifinals and final, with five or six strong programs there is always someone ready to take you down.

But it is also a snapshot of what is mounting pressure whenever a Mustangs football team gets into the playoffs. Winning is expected.

This year will be one in which Greg Marshall’s boys will be expected to pay a premium for how last year ended.

As much as all Mustang fans would like to look past the Laurier Golden Hawks Houdini-like escape and the Mustangs Criss Angel-like disappearance allowing the Hawks to win the Yates Cup, no one is going to forget. The opposing teams will take heart in the mighty Mustangs meltdown, while everyone else will see if that has any long-term effects on the returning players.

It has already caused some significant changes to how the Mustangs do business. Marshall has brought in offensive co-ordinator Steve Snyder. It was a move that left many in blanked-face disbelief, not because Snyder isn’t capable, but because no one believed Marshall would ever give up the gig.

Marshall will play a more traditional role in which the head coach gets involved in all aspects of his team, especially in crucial game situations.

To make things even more deliciously mouth-watering, the Mustangs have had to fill a number of positions vacated by outstanding players. Both the offensive and defensive lines lost OUA and all-Canadians. Rupert Butcher and John Biewald are gone from the defensive line, while the offensive line was smacked heavily with the loss of Eddie Meredith, Sean Jamieson and Matt Van Praet.

The Mustang receiving group also took a hit. Justin Sanvido and Jamal Kett are gone, along with all-Canadian George Johnson. Sanvido and Johnson were also outstanding blockers.

The Mustangs lost a good receiver out of the backfield and a reliable blocking fullback in Tom Marshall.

“In 2013, we started nine or 10 second-year players, 19-year-olds. We had a dynamic offence and we lost to Calgary but we put a lot of points on the board,” Marshall said. “For the most part that group graduated last year. We have to replace all of them.”

The Mustangs have traditionally been able to fill those holes, even though competition for recruiting is feverish. The Mustangs, though, have players who often don’t play until later in their time at Western, whether because of depth or injury. Marshall uses the example of centre Mark Wheatley, who suffered a knee injury, had to sit out a year and lost what was going to be a starter’s role.

“First year, he was a defensive lineman,” Marshall explained. “The second year we moved him to the offensive line. The third year he tears up his knee. The fourth year he tries to come back off a hobbled knee. He gets beaten out coming off the knee by a freshman (Matt) Bettencourt. He helped Bettencourt become a better player. Now Matt Van Praet leaves, Mark’s our centre and he’s going to be good. His knee’s strong.

“The continuity getting kids like that, that might not have been five-star players when they get here are now five star players.”

Marshall believes he’s shored up the areas of most immediate need, the offensive and defensive lines. That’s good news considering the Mustangs will have to run the football. “We’re a little thin at receiver,” Marshall said.

Harry McMaster and Brett Ellerman will have to step up to give returning quarterback Chris Merchant pass catching targets.

The Mustangs have no lack of running backs with Alex Taylor, one of the best in the country, along with Trey Humes, Cedrick Joseph and Yannick Harou.

The Mustangs will be happy that safety Jesse McNair has returned, but they’ll be looking for corners to replace all-stars Malcolm Brown and Simon Bahru.

The Mustangs will be returning an athletic, hard-hitting group of linebackers led by Jean Gabriel Poulin, Nick Vanin, Phillippe Dion and Fraser Sopik, who really came into his own last year.

Marshall said one of the best recruits is Snyder.

“He’s been good for me,” Marshall said. “I just get a better feeling for what we are doing, even what our offence is doing. I love calling plays and I can tell you I probably would never have brought in an offensive co-ordinator if it wasn’t for Steve. He’s just the right guy for this.”

Around the OUA

Carleton Ravens

2016: 6-2, fourth place, lost 51-24 to Western in semifinal

The Ravens took a huge step last year as many of the Grade A recruits from their first year back went into their fourth year. Now we’ll see how their recruiting has gone since and whether that growth cycle continues.

They lost Nate Behar, Tunde Adeleke, Nate Hamlin, Kwabena Asare, Emmanuel Adusei and veteran quarterback Jesse Mills. Back are Jayde Rowe, who was statistically the top running back in the OUA, Kyle VanWynsberghe and St. Thomas native centre Zach Annen among 10 returning offensive starters. Linebacker Leon Cenerini and defensive lineman Kene Oyneka return, along with seven others defensive starters.

Guelph Gryphons

2016: 3-5, sixth, lost 17-11 to McMaster in OUA quarterfinals

The Gryphons hope to build off a disappointing season and got some good news with the return to two key elements of their offence; running back Johnny Augustine and London native receiver Jacob Scarfone. It’s also time for fourth-year quarterback James Roberts to show more consistency. With 10 returning starters on offence, Roberts will have a lot to work with, as will Londoner Kevin McNeill, the Gryphons head coach.

Defence may be an issue, although the Gryphons have linebacker Luke Koro and Nick Parisotto. Londoner Derek Drouillard will also play a key role. Six starters return on defence.

McMaster Marauders

2016: 6-2, third, lost 21-19 to Laurier in OUA semifinal

For a number of years McMaster was a team that put up a lot of points, especially with strong-armed quarterbacks and an exceptional receiving group. The Mac defence will carry this team, at least initially.

Dylan Astrom and Anthony Bontorin will be under centre and will have receiver Dan Petermann, one of the OUA’s best to throw to. Mitch O’Connor will be the other main target. Gone are wide receiver Danny Vandervoort, quarterback Asher Hastings, running back Chris Pezzetta and lineman Zack Intzandt.

McMaster returns five starters on offence and seven on defence.

Ottawa Gee-Gees

2016: 6-2, fifth, lost 45-9 to Carleton in quarterfinals

The Gee-Gees have been on an upward cycle and could challenge the top contenders for one of the first round byes. A lot of that success will rest on how well Woodstock native Victor Twynstra does taking over at quarterback from second team all-Canadian Derek Wendel. Twynstra is a fifth-year player but hasn’t had a lot of playing time. Running back Bryce Vieira and Tyler McLaren at receiver will play big roles for Twynstra.

The Gee-Gees have had to focus on both the offensive and defensive lines, which proved troublesome to the team last season. The Gee-Gees return seven on offence and eight on defence, including safety Ty Cranston and linebacker Jackson Bennett.

Queen’s Gaels

2016: 4-4, seventh, missed playoffs

If there is a dark horse team in the OUA, it may be the Gaels. They will ride their defence this year with 11 starters returning, including linebacker Nelkas Kwemo, defensive line Zac Sauer and defensive back Wesley Mann. Fourth-year quarterback Nate Hobbs continues to learn. He has nine returners, including favourite target Chris Osei-Kusi and running back Jonah Pataki.

The old Richardson Stadium used to be a huge advantage for the Gaels but in the second year of the refurbished stadium the Gaels will feel a little more at home.

Toronto Varsity Blues

2016: 2-6, eighth, missed playoffs

Who knows when and if the Toronto Blues will get better. The team has made some changes bringing in full-time offensive and defensive co-ordinators, which will help. They also brought in a quarterback transfer Connor Ennis from the Washington State Cougars. He’s touted as a prototypical pocket passer with a good arm. He’ll have Divante Smith and Kaleb Leach in the backfield, while lineman Danny Sprukulis is one of six starters returned from last year on offence.

Seven starters are back on defence, including defensive back Nick Hallet from London.

Waterloo Warriors

2016: 0-8, 11th, missed playoffs

The Warriors should win their first game in two years. In a preseason scrimmage against the Western Mustangs, the Chris Bertoia-coached Warriors looked a much improved team. Experts believe they landed some big-time talent, especially at the quarterback position with Tre Ford and Justin Henderson.

They also have 12 returning starters to the offence. That might be the best thing with an 0-8 team but there are some stalwarts among the 12, including wide receivers Mitch Kernick, returning from injury, and Richmond Nketiah and offensive lineman Jesse Gibbon. The Warriors need to create some sort of offence to give the defence a chance to rest.

Laurier Golden Hawks

2016: 7-1, second, Yates Cup champions, lost 36-6 to Laval in the UTeck Bowl

If there is any team that will be pumped for this season it’s going to be the Golden Hawks. They performed a miracle, coming back from 21 points down with eight minutes left against Western to win the Yates Cup. It was the biggest comeback in Cup history.

The Hawks have nine starters returning on offence, led by fifth-year quarterback Michael Knevel, receiver Kurleigh Gittens Jr. and running back Levondre Gordon.

It was the defence that carried the Hawks, though. They have nine returning starters but they have lost a couple of major components of that unit, linebacker Nakas Onyeka and fearsome defensive lineman Kwaku Boateng. Defensive backs Godfrey Onyeka and Londoner Scott Hutter will key the defence.

Windsor Lancers

2016: 2-6, ninth, missed playoffs

The Lancers have taken the same approach as the Toronto Blues. They’ve added specialized coaching staff to help turn a program around. They will focus on making both sides of their lines more effective. On the offensive side they have OL Brett Boersma returning for a fifth year as well as Drew Desjarlis, another offensive lineman. They landed top offensive line recruit Lindon Izvej. Quarterback transfer Ben Bergamin from Western could be a solid addition, but he never got much chance at Western.

The Lancers are also returning nine defensive starters.

York Lions

2016: 2-6, ninth, missed playoffs

This may be the best York team in recent memory. Some believe the Lions are good enough to make the playoffs. The Lions have had several top recruiting classes in recent years. They have nine returning starters on offence, including receivers Adam Adeboboye and Colton Hunchak, quarterback Brett Hunchak and running back Kayden Johnson.

If the Lions can hang in defensively they’ll be competitive. They brought in American defensive back Desi Dixon, who has an impressive resume.

Compiled by Morris Dalla Costa, The London Free Press 

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