CIS Countdown 2009: Queen's Golden Gaels

Burning questions:

ARE they going to be able to defend the run with three new starters on the defensive line and (likely) no Thaine Carter at middle linebacker?

WILL QB Dan Brannagan become Canadian university football's all-time leader in passing yardage (at 8,131 yards he is 2,071 away from Matt Connell's one-year-old record)?

WHICH pass rusher does the opposing running back stay in to chip on, Osie Ukwuoma or Shomari Williams? (This presumes Williams plays outside.)

HOW bitterly ironic is it that the way the Gaels' 2008 season ended — star running back gets injured, team falls in playoffs, everyone feels burned-up inside and wonders about feeling cursed — was also a storyline on Friday Night Lights last season? Is there any way to avoid talking about that in late October? (Not on your life.)

2008 recap and record — (8-1, 8-0). For two months, the biggest issue with Queen's seemed to be whether they were the Gaels or the Golden Gaels, as they rolled to the school's first perfect regular season in 20 years while boasting a 2,400-yard passer (Brannagan), 1,000-yard rusher (Giffin), 1,000-yard receiver (Scott Valberg), CIS defensive player of the year (Carter) and coach of the year, Pat Sheahan, who won the honour for the second time in his career. Their 45 touchdowns were the most ever for an OUA team outside of the 2002-05 period.

All of that added to whatever is typically found behind Door No. 3 after Ottawa came into Richardson Stadium and won 23-13 in the OUA semi-final, ending Queen's season early. Injuries which took Carter and record-setting running back Mike Giffin out of commission and Brannagan playing with a suspected concussion played a part and Ottawa took the air of the ball with a ball-control offence. It was probably the toughest loss the Gaels have had in a good 20 years, not counting playoff games vs. Laurier, but it could set up a great redemption story.

Setting up '09 — Giffin and DT Dee Sterling were unique talents who will not easily be replaced, but Queen's returns much of its core (and watch out for Shomari Williams). Its best receiver, Scott Valberg, had a year of eligibility restored, while its best cover guy, Jimmy Allin, also returned.

Receivers such as Blaise Morrison should help Queen's diversify its passing game. The Gaels might be by-committee along the ground, with Giffin's caddies, Marty Gordon and Jimmy Therrien, both returning. Queen's was the most balanced team in the country on offence in 2008. Gordon and Therrien, both slashing-type runners, totalled 291 yards in the two games Giffin missed with his season-ending knee injury.

Defensively, Queen's has enough depth to overcome the losses up front. University of Houston transfer Williams, a CFL prospect whom TSN's Duane Forde speaks very highly of, shores up the front seven. Williams was an outside linebacker at Houston, but could slot in at rush end, outside linebacker or at Carter's middle linebacker spot by dint of age, size and experience. Queen's also returns outside 'backers T.J. Leeper and Chris Smith. Tackle Kevin Magee could be critical in helping tie up the interior of the line to allow end Osie Ukwuoma and Williams, if he lines up there, to bring heat off the edge.

Getting Allin and Matt Vickers, who took last season off to attend teachers' college, should help. Queen's was bend-but-don't-break against the pass last season and had only seven interceptions in the regular season. That figure likely has to improve. In the grand scheme, Queen's likely stands the best chance of thwarting Western. The Gaels face a lot of doubters after the post-season woes and surely know they will be reminded of it at every turn this season, but give a good team enough chances and they will pull it off eventually. They are under the radar, but could surprise. It's happened before at Queen's.

(Sun Media had an in-depth at the Gaels on Saturday.)

Returning starters — 9 offence, 8 defence

Stepping out — RB Mike Giffin, TE Scott Stinson, DLs Dee Sterling, Neil Puffer and Ross Corley; DB Michael Botting; MLB Thaine Carter (shoulder and knee surgeries, but he is still on the roster)

Stepping up — QB Dan Brannagan, WR Scott Valberg, RBs Marty Gordon and Jimmy Therrien, SB Devan Sheahan, C Dan Bederman, DE Osie Ukwuoma, DE-LB Shomari Williams, LBs T.J. Leeper and Chris Smith, CB-KR Jimmy Allin, DB Alex DaPrato

Breakout performers — Inside receiver Chris Ioannides had his moments last season while Stinson was injured and is big and fast enough to create matchup problems for linebackers and DBs in the OUA. Morrison, who lines up as the receiver opposite Valberg, started to come on late last season.

Future reference — QB Justin Chapdelaine and OL Josh Prinsen. Chapdelaine, son of B.C. Lions assistant coach Jacques Chapdelaine, was one of Queen's biggest recruits and could potentially become the QB after Brannagan graduates. He is wearing jersey No. 1, if that any indication (Queen's doesn't hand out Brad Elberg's digit out too often). The 6-foot-7, 290-pound Prinsen, a Kingston native, had NCAA interest but elected to join his hometown team. He is the third big O-lineman in three seasons who has opted to stay home, joining Matt O'Donnell and Derek Morris of Napanee. Matt Lapointe, from St. Peter in Ottawa, was also a key O-line recruit.

Coach & coordinators — Pat Sheahan (10th season), defensive coordinator Pat Tracey (also 10th season, ninth in his present capacity). Veteran offensive coordinator Warren Goldie left the team to focus on family and business interests.

Enrolment — 14,111 undergraduate (21,607 total)

Stadium/atmosphere — There is a bias here, but Canadian university athletics could stand to have more of the tradition Queen's brings to the party. The general public in Kingston supports the team very well and the presence of the bagpipers, the rendition of Queen's College Colours (aka "the Oil Thigh") performed after every touchdown and the Gaels' all-gold uniforms is stirring. The Queen's and Kingston commuity does a great job of keeping up the appearance of tradition, and it's impossible not to go along for the ride on a Saturday afternoon in the fall. Richardson Stadium is no architectural masterpiece, but a trip there should be on every CIS supporter's bucket list.

What's that line from Anchorman? "If you don't think this is the best song ever, I will fight you."

Off-the-field factors — There are no words for the empty feeling that will come around in late September when there is no official homecoming game. Never underestimate the NIMBY syndrome!

Alumni in CFL — Argonauts RB-ST Bryan Crawford, Argonauts WR Brad Smith, Roughriders WR Rob Bagg, Tiger-Cats DE Matt Kirk, Alouettes FB Mike Giffin, Roughriders DT Kevin Scott, Eskimos DT Dee Sterling.

From last season's preview — "The (2007) playoff loss to hated Western threw everything about an otherwise rousing season into question for anyone who's invested mentally and physically (or just emotionally) in Queen's football."

Stock up or stock down — Up. They're established, even if 8-0 won't happen again.

Schedule (all times Eastern)
Tuesday, Aug. 31 at U of T, 7 p.m. (exhibition)
Monday, Sept. 7 vs. Guelph, 2 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 12 vs. McMaster, 1 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 19 at Ottawa, 1 p.m.
Saturday, Sept. 26 vs. York, 1 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 3 at Windsor, 1 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 10 at Waterloo, 1 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 17 vs. Western, 1 p.m.
Saturday, Oct. 24 at Laurier, 1 p.m.
(Bye: Toronto)
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  1. I have to say with the defence being what it is, I think the Gaels might surprise a few folks this season. Combine that with the guys coming back who want to erase the memories of last season, they could be quite dangerous.

  2. What I want to see is what happens with the ground game at Queen's. Without a Power Back like Giffin that essentially forces teams to stack the box on just about every down will Valberg be as much a threat this season for instance?

    Queen's will still be right in the thick of things, top 3 in the OUA for sure imho, but the RB situation is what I want to watch unfold personally.

  3. The question will be if Brannagan has the ability to mount drives. For the past two years he's put up huge yardage but his completion rating is usually in the 50's. As we saw in the playoffs airing it out over the middle once you get down is not a great strategy. The run will be huge but the ability to dink and dunk down the field to pick up first downs will be even bigger.
    PS. Smash and the Dillon Panthers had a writers strike, what was Queens excuse?

  4. I speak from experience.

    A successful (8-0) season; eliminated by a big loss in the playoffs burns deep in the offseason. That team knows that they are completely capable of beating both Western and Ottawa. Heck, they did (in the regular season). It motivates the players to return for one more season to prove it; to their opponents; to each other; to themselves. Its happening - most of that, very successful, ’08 team are back. This is not a rebuilding season. These guys have their second chance and I believe that they will prove that such a devastating experience will only make them stronger. With a little luck (always necessary in the CIS - I don't care who you are) in a few months from now, the 2009 Gaels will be playing in the national semi-final for the chance to play in 'The Show' the following week.