CIS Countdown 2010: Queen's Golden Gaels

In 50 words or less: Have a tough act to follow after losing major components of their Vanier Cup-winning team, in all three phases of the game. Coaches Pat Sheahan and Pat Tracey have raised the bar to where anything below fourth in the OUA is below standard, but it will take time.

[Ed. note: We apologize for the insufficiently short nature of this preview, but Neate couldn't really find anything to say about Queen's. — R.P.]

Burning questions:

WILL the running game with returning tailback Jimmy Therrien, be good enough to provide offensive balance while scrambling sophomore QB Justin Chapdelaine learns the ropes? And how much will Chapdelaine and the offence benefit by having 11 days off between the first two games?

MIGHT senior receiver Devan Sheahan make it four seasons in a row that a grad of a west-end Kingston high school has caught 800 yards' worth of passes for the Gaels?

HOW MUCH of a pass rush will a young yet relatively experienced (given its youth) defensive line generate as the likes of Kyle MacDonald, John Miniaci and Frank Pankewich expand their roles?

WHAT is the secondary, whose returnees made only one interception in the regular season in '09, going to look like? Queen's won five games last season where the opposing QB passed for 350-plus yards. Is that a sign of trouble ahead defending the pass or an offshoot of the fact all five of those games involved facing a fifth-year passer (a season opener vs. Guelph and Justin Dunk, Western's Michael Faulds twice, Laval's Benoit Groulx and Calgary's Erik Glavic) they'll never see again?

IS 6-foot-11, 318-pound left tackle Matt O'Donnell going to become a CFL first-round pick? And does his height justify taking a late-round flier on him in Year 2 MUBL draft, on the off-off-off-off-chance he takes up basketball? He could get rebounds and blocked shots, man.

HOW many more lifetimes do we have to pass through before we see a return specialist have a season like Jim-my Al-lin did in 2009 (five special teams TDs)?

WHICH is it, Golden Gaels or Gaels?

2009 recap: (11-1, 7-1 OUA). Bill Cosby once said, "The past is a ghost, the future a dream, and all we ever have is now," but this is never getting old. I plan on playing it at a wedding reception someday, not necessarily my own.

The Gaels, who had gone 7-1 or better three times since 2002 without earning a championship banner, finally landed the (whispered) Great White Buffalo. They won three come-in-off-the-ledge playoff games, outlasting Western by four points in the Yates Cup, Laval by three in the Mitchell Bowl and Calgary by two in the Vanier Cup to become No. 1.

(Self-indulgent inside joke: Ask John Bower about the come-in-off-the-ledge part as it pertained to a certain Streaming Sports Network contributor.)

It was the greatest comeback in Vanier Cup history (winning 33-31 after being down 18 points at halftime). It was also the first time a team from Ontario won a national final outside Ontario. (Okay, it was only the second time the Vanier Cup wasn't played in Ontario. But still: precedent-setting!)

Pat Sheahan became the first head coach in CIS history to record two post-season wins over Laval (the other coming in '98 when Concordia beat the Rouge et Or in the Dunsmore Cup). Another fun fact: Queen's now has the distinction of being the most recent Ontario team to win a national playoff game in Quebec and most recent to win one out West, although the latter happened in 1968.

Queen's also became the first school to make a Vanier Cup appearance in five different decades and the Golden Gaels finished fourth in The Canadian Press voting for the country's team of the year.

Brannagan, the graduating quarterback, got votes for the Lou Marsh Award as Canada's male athlete of the year, while rush end Shomari Williams became the first overall pick in the CFL draft, going to the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Not bad for two guys who weren't even voted second-team all-Canadian, really.

(In fairness, Williams didn't put up big numbers in the regular season; just three sacks in six games, a half-sack less than he had in one game vs. Laval.)

One more fun fact: Would you believe the Gaels and Alabama Crimson Tide have each won national titles in the same season three times in the past half-century, 1978, '92 and 2009? Of course, Andrew Bucholtz would point out Boise State didn't join the NCAA's top football division until 1996.

Departures: Just a few [/understatement].
  • More than likely, both bookends of the defensive line, Williams and Osie Ukwuoma. The latter is focusing on his first year at Queen's law school and has not practised this season, which might explain why some season previews list Ukwuoma as a returnee and others say he's departed.

  • Five of the regulars in the "back eight" — linebackers T.J. Leeper and Chris Smith (now with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers); plus cornerback Jimmy Allin and his team-high five interceptions, all-star D-back Dave Rooney and safety Matt Vickers, who had a key end-zone INT in the Vanier Cup;

  • The country's most prolific passing combo in both 2008 and '09, Toronto Argonauts practice squadder Brannagan and wideout Scott Valberg, along with wideout Mark Surya (who transferred to Laurier). Each receiver made decisive fourth-quarter TD catches during the playoff run;

  • Offensive guards Vince DeCivita and Jon Koidis;

  • Two of the three regular backs, tailback Marty Gordon (team-high 6.4 yards per carry) and blocking back Patrick Corbin. Both are now on the coaching staff, along with Valberg.
Eight regular or part-time starters return on offence, five on defence, along with do-it-all placekicker-punter Dan Village.

Arrivals: Six-foot-three, 260-pound DE Derek Wiggan has already made his intentions clear to someday become the second coming of Shomari Williams, continuing a recent run of good Gaels D-linemen that also includes the Hamilton Tiger-Cats' Matt Kirk and Edmonton Eskimos' Dee Sterling. Wiggan also told the Toronto Star in June that he wants to be a judge, so we'll have some fun thinking up a catchphrase.

You can hear it now: Sack by Wiggan! He's rendered his verdict, and it's an eight-yard loss!

Presuming a 1992 birthdate, Wiggan was born in the year when the Gaels won the Vanier Cup and Night Court ended its run. Thus he was born to wear the Tricolour and someday, a jurist's robe.

The Gaels' recruiting class might have been more about quality than quantity, since they already had a large roster. (OK, Mr. Glass Half Full.)

The notable newbies on offence include a backfield tandem from Burlington Notre Dame, 6-foot-3, 210-pound QB Billy McPhee and tailback Keith Lagace. Queen's also got a highly touted receiver out of London, Dimitris Korakianitis.

Receiver Aaron Gazendam, who played under Gaels legend Tim Pendergast at Kingston Holy Cross, opted to stay home. (In a bit of an omen, Pendergast, the QB of Queen's 1992 national championship team, guided Holy Cross to its first-ever city title not long before Queen's went on its run.)

Switching back over to the D, LB Sam Sabourin out of Ottawa has some promise, to put it mildly. Sheahan has called Sabourin, who attended South Carleton in Stittsville, Ont., the most prepared rookie linebacker he's ever seen.

Keep an eye on: Chapdelaine has been likened by his coach to Phill Côté, the slippery scrambler who guided Ottawa to the 2000 Vanier Cup and also won a Hec Crighton Trophy in '99 (that season, he set a conference record for most rushing TDs in a season, and he was a quarterback).

In fact, Chapdelaine showed a flash of his potential as a dual-threat QB during the Oil Thigh No Brannagan game last season, Queen's Week 3 win over Ottawa which was decided by a slo-pitch score, 20-8. One play that's frozen in memory is the then 17-year-old true freshman keeping the ball on a zone read and doing a little soccer-style hesitation move that froze an Ottawa defender. Having created some space, Chapdelaine then scooted for a vital first down.

If Ottawa had won that day and everything else had played out the same way, the Gee-Gees would have finished first instead of fourth and Queen's would have ended up in third place. Who knows how recent CIS football history might have been?

So, Chapdelaine brings poise — and poise counts! — but what about his passing?

Some hasty first impressions formed based on the limited action he saw as a raw rookie in September, when Brannagan was injured. However, Kingston Whig-Standard sports editor Mike Koreen has observed Chapdelaine's mechanics are no longer "a bit shot-put-like" after an off-season of tutoring. The Vancouver native presumably benefited from getting No. 2 quarterback reps in 2009, a rare privilege for a frosh.

He's still just an sophomore, though, so rein it in. Pointing out, "Matt Saracen was a sophomore the year Dillon won State!" is irrelevant, since that was four years ago, and fictional.

There are some returnees around Chapdelaine. Fifth-year centre Dan Bederman is back as the fulcrum of the offensive line, along with the tackles, O'Donnell and Derek Morris, who did a good job keeping pass rushers off Brannagan. The Gaels' offensive efficiency was helped by the fact their starting QB was sacked just five times in the regular season (we'd add the playoff totals, but the CIS website doesn't have any boxscores available from last year's playoffs. It's only history).

Leading rusher Therrien and the receiving trio of Devan Sheahan (522 yards in regular season on a 14.2-yard average), tight end Chris Ioannides (501, 11.1 avg.) and wideout Blaise Morrison (421, 16.2 avg.) each return.

Queen's, whose pro-style attack last season featured a lot of five-receiver sets and just enough runs to keep defences honest, likely will have some drop-off in its receiving depth. It is worth noting 6-foot-5, 220-pound wideout Tom Howes, who had a neat slash role last season as a short-yardage QB and backup receiver, was in the East-West Bowl, which speaks to his raw ability. Greg Plumpton was the sixth receiver last season and Giovanni Aprile (not pronounced the same as the month; it's Ah-preel) was a major recruit in 2009, so they're in the mix.

Defensively, Alex Daprato, who plays that sort of halfback-linebacker hybrid which has evolved as a reaction to the spread offence, is probably Queen's most proven returning starter. One untold story of the championship season was how Tracey found roles for The Other Guys, younger players such as Pankewich, MacDonald, Miniaci and DE Ted Festeryga along the line, plus a pair of East-West Bowl picks, ILB Stephen Laporte and DB Ben D'Andrea. They, among others, will each have to do a little more.

Young cornerback T.J. Chase-Dunawa also profiles as that defensive back-return specialist type.

It's been erased by memories of the championship run, but Queen's was a little bend-don't-break by times in the '09 regular season, with sacks and takeaways few and far between. It was almost like they saved their ballhawking for do-or-die games. Witness the defence coming up with three takeaways and a blocked field goal in the second half of the Vanier Cup.

Village is coming off a 12-of-13 regular season on field goals and made pressure kicks at the end of the first half in both the Yates Cup and Mitchell Bowl. He punted reasonably well, although the team had some early-season team issues with blocked punts.

Finding a returner to provide a modicum of Allin's magic, well, that would be good.

A 5-3 regular season seems to be a popular prediction for Queen's. The opener at McMaster and the Battle Of The 613 vs. Bradley Sinopoli and Ottawa on Sept. 25 stack up as swing games.

Earning a home playoff game for a fourth consecutive season seems like a reasonable goal, although the margin for error seems slim. That hasn't happened since 1988-92, the Doug Hargreaves days.

Coach & coordinators: Pat Sheahan and assistant coach/defensive coordinator Pat Tracey, who are entering their 11th season together in Kingston, each earned their second Vanier Cup ring last season. (Sheahan was offensive coordinator on McGill's '87 team and Tracey was a star player when Guelph won in '84). The two Pats have helped bring one of the country's most storied programs into the modern era, sending a steady stream of players on to the CFL. Ten Gaels are currently on CFL rosters.

Sheahan doubles as O.C., but his older son, Ryan Sheahan, is vital as the quarterback coach/video coordinator. Defensive backs coach Ryan Bechmanis serves as special teams coordinator.

Off-the-field factors: One is the law of diminishing returns. This is bound to exert some influence on the Gaels' fortunes, if the past two Ontario schools which won the national title are any indication.

Laurier, the 2005 champ, reached the Yates Cup the following season and has not done so since, despite four consecutive top-3 finishes. Ottawa followed a similar pattern after winning it all in 2000. It lost in the Yates in '01 (its first season in the OUA after the old O-QIFC disbanded) and took a few years to become a contender again. It's self-evident, but championship teams often reach a peak, and that might affect Queen's in 2010.

The second off-field issue is, well, the field. Queen's is marking its 40th season at Richardson Stadium, but alumni are working against the clock to raise money to replace it. Being one of the few Top 10 teams which plays on real grass probably worked to the Gaels' advantage now that most teams have gone to field turf. However, Richardson is badly showing its age (no one was put out when out-of-town media called it "rickety" last fall because you can't get mad when someone speaks the truth).

Every other OUA football school except Ottawa and York has upgraded its field within the past decade, so Queen's is overdue to get with the times. Queen's principal Daniel Woolf has vowed to get something done before the end of his term.

From last season's preview: "In the grand scheme, Queen's likely stands the best chance of thwarting [two-time OUA champion] 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."

Also, "Which pass rusher does the opposing running back stay in to chip on, Osie Ukwuoma or Shomari Williams?"

Williams was MVP of the Mitchell Bowl, in which Ukwuoma made the decisive fumble recovery in the final 90 seconds after a strip sack by Pankewich.

Stock up or stock down: UP. There will be a dip in the 2010 standings, mind you, but ideally for Queen's, the national title should change the perception of the program. And help with getting that new stadium.

Tues., Aug. 31 at McMaster, 7 p.m.
Sun., Sept. 12 vs. Windsor, 1 p.m.
Sat., Sept. 18 at Guelph, 1 p.m. (University Rush)
Sat., Sept. 25 vs. Ottawa, 1 p.m.
Sat., Oct. 2 at Western, 1 p.m. (University Rush)
Sat., Oct. 9 vs. U of T, 1 p.m.
Sat., Oct. 16 at Laurier, 1 p.m. (University Rush)
Sat., Oct. 23 vs. York, 1 p.m. (Legacy Weekend)
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