CIS Countdown '09: U of T Varsity Blues

Burning questions:

WAS winning two games in '08 a sign Toronto's fortunes are improving or a product of having some fifth-year offensive talent to rally around?

HOW many pairs of shoes do they have to fill with the graduation of David Hamilton and Mark Stinson? U of T's leading passer, two leading rushers and top two receivers have exhausted their eligibility, plus four starting linemen have graduated.

DOES defensive back Derek Batchelor make every tackle? No, sometimes he gets the assist.

2008 recap and record — (2-6). The Blues were a team of interest every week for a change. Under DeLaval, who returned from two seasons with the Calgary Dinos, they snapped a national record 49-game losing streak in the opener vs. Waterloo and were not eliminated until the final Saturday of the season, where they hung in with Ottawa, losing only 39-30. (The Gee-Gees were a hurtin' unit, but still...). A lot of the credit went to the since departed passing combination of David Hamilton (2,409 yards total offence and 15 combined TDs) and receivers Cory Kennedy (602 yards) and Mark Stinson (817 rushing-receiving yards).

Setting up '09 — The defence will be ahead of the offence at Varsity Centre, given the skill position players who have to be replaced. The Blues put the ball in the air 298 times last season, making them the third most pass-happy team in the country after McGill and Waterloo. DeLaval gave playing time to two other QBs, scrambling southpaw Andrew Gillis and George Gretes (son of former York coach Tom Gretes), so the learning curve should not be too step for the new starting QB. Earl Johnson (378 receiving yards, 12.6 average) is the leading returning receiver, while wideout-blogger Drew Meerveld and sophomore Michael Prempeh also add experience. The leading returning rusher, Zak Kolkowski, only had 159 yards last season.

Defensively, the likes of East-West Bowl selectee Scott Smith at linebacker and DBs such as Batchelor and Matt Morris give U of T some key cogs in the back eight. The unit was seventh overall in the OUA at 435 yards per game, which is flirting with respectability. Up front, 320-pound Lincoln Bryan started as a freshman. The Blues could use more guys like him.

Three of the first four games are at home. This might help give U of T a better shot at banking a couple wins and sustaining interest in the team. Holding serve would at least show they have pulled themselves up by the bootstraps.

Returning starters — 4 offence, 10 defence

Stepping out — QB David Hamilton, WR-RB-P Mark Stinson, WRs Cory Kennedy and Jeff LaForge, OLs David Scott-McDowell and Cam Deans

Stepping up — QB Andrew Gillis, WRs Drew Meerweld and Michael Prempeh, DBs Derek Batchelor and Matt Morris, LB Scott Smith, K Andrew Lomansey

Breakout performers — The handy-dandy OUA media guide lists WR Ahad Bandealy as a key newcomer. Bandealy previously played at Bethune-Cookman, a FCS program in Florida. He was a sophomore in 2006 according to a PDF of a game program, so take that as you will.

Future reference — The future is now for some of U of T's young O-linemen, including guard Corey Hafazi, who's likely to be starting. U of T's featured recruits also include Cody Rossi and Giovanni Boscariol, who were two-way linemen last season with the Vancouver College Fighting Irish, a noted B.C. high school powerhouse. Rossi is playing inside receiver.

Another touted newcomer is O-lineman Harold Lee from the London Lucas Vikings (Lee presumably knows that he has the same name as the character John Cho played in the Harold & Kumar movies, so don't bother pointing it out). The Varsity Blues like their Ottawa-area players: Renfrew Collegiate receiver Ben Sharpe has also come aboard.

Coach & coordinators — Greg DeLaval (second season after having interim tag removed); assistant head coach John Engel; defensive co-ordinator Donnavan Carter (who coached defensive backs last season).

Enrolment — 45,009 according to its Wiki

Stadium/atmosphere — If the new Varsity Centre in downtown Toronto is good enough for Usain Bolt, the fastest (and thus most interesting) man in the world, it stands to reason it should impress 18-year-old high school players. By all accounts, it is a wonderful place to watch football, plus U of T has two Friday night home games this season. The beer garden under the stands is also close enough that fans can yell at the players as they're going to and from the locker room, which is fine as long as there are no swears.

Here's the celebration video from that 18-17 win last Labour Day over Waterloo. Come on, who doesn't want part of that?

Off-the-field factors — Four former CFLers have lent some new blood to the coaching staff, which is hopefully a sign Toronto is moderning the operation. Samir Chahine, who starred at McGill in the late 1990s and played for the Ottawa Renegades, has come aboard as an offensive line coach, while former Hamilton Ticat Clinton Wayne is the new D-line coach. Along with Carter, another former CFL d-back, Richard Karikari (St. FX/Montréal Alouettes), is the new strength and conditioning coordinator. It should be viewed as a positive that some ex-pros are lending their expertise to a program.

Alumni in CFL — Hamilton Tiger-Cats president Scott Mitchell.

From last season's preview — "A bevy of players have gone through a full football career, likely giving the same full effort of every other player in the league, and not been rewarded with a single win. The fault without question lies with a university administration that has deliberately ignored and, in earlier times, sabotaged this team to ensure its failure. This is a former university football powerhouse and its current state is one of the biggest things holding back the reputation of the OUA and broader CIS."
Tyler King

Stock up or stock down — Up.

Monday, Aug. 31 vs. Queen's, 7 p.m. (exhibition)
Monday, Sept. 7 vs. Laurier, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 12 at Windsor, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 18 vs. Guelph, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 25 vs. Ottawa, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 3 at. York, 1 p.m.
Thursday, Oct. 8 at McMaster, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 17 vs. Waterloo, 1 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 24 at Western, 1 p.m.
(Bye: Queen's)
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