CIS Countdown 2011: Queen's Golden Gaels

In 50 words or less: Their heads have stopped pounding from the Vanier hangover and Queen's has a good shot at finishing in the black and being dangerous come playoff time. New starting quarterback Billy McPhee takes the helm of a team beginning a new cycle of building toward contention.

Burning questions:
  1. WILL the amount of time the young McPhee has to pass behind a young offensive line have to be measued in nanoseconds?

  2. CAN a strong young defensive line, bolstered by the return of all-Canadian Osie Ukwuoma, put opponents in unfavourable second-and-long sitations more often than not?

  3. HOW FAR away are they from another deep post-season run?

2010 recap: (3-6 overall, 3-5 regular season).

The upshot of that last fall is it dispersed any false sense of security created by the championship run in 2009. The tables turned on Queen's, whose season basically was divided into thirds. They played just well enough to lose three times, by a combined nine points, to McMaster (23-18), Guelph (15-13) and Ottawa (27-25 in overtime), each of which was a Top 10 team at some point. (Thank you to various Ontario-centric Top 10 voters for making that possible by putting the Gryphons on your ballot even after they lost 36-2 to Laurier.) There were three blowout losses against Laurier, eventual Yates Cup champion Western and McMaster, the latter in a playoff game, in which the Gaels were lit up for 40-plus points. All three wins were walkovers by a combined score of 173-8.

The long season ultimately laid bare how hard it is to stay near the top in OUA football and also signalled to the holdovers that there was a leadership void. Above all, the season showed who is the quarterback of the present, which is why McPhee is under centre and former starter Justin Chapdelaine is catching passes instead of throwing them.

Departures: The mass exodus already occurred after 2009, so the departures list was relatively brief. The offensive line (two) and receiving corps (three) each lost multiple starters. Six-foot-10, 329-pound left tackle Matt O'Donnell signed with the NFL's Cincinnati Bengals and five-year centre Dan Bederman graduated. Wideouts Blaise Morrison (251 yards, 12.6 per catch) and Devan Sheahan (559 yards, 11.4 avg.) are also finished, much to the relief of play-by-play and public address announcers leaguewide who had to try to tell No. 6 apart from No. 8.

In a grim way, the Gaels got a head start on bidding adieu to some of their core contributors. Injuries deprived two heart-and-soul performers, inside receiver Chris Ioannides and Sam linebacker Alex Daprato, of getting the most out of their final seasons. The injury bug also cost standout guard Derek Morris much of his season (he's now the elder statesman of the O-line).

Tailback Jimmy Therrien (515 yards, 4.8 per carry) ran gamely during his final season whilst playing in an offence that did not pack nearly as much of a pass threat as it did from 2007-09.

Arrivals: Sheahan's recruiting class is highlighted by the Gaels' highest-profile recruit out of Quebec in some time and an O-linemen who can stand eyeball-to-eyeball with the towering O'Donnell. Cornerback Christophe Smith was a CEGEP standout with the Vanier College Cheetahs; the other big recruits on his side of the ball are monster D-back Colton Ballou (6-foot-3, 195) out of Edmonton and hometown linebacker Luke Ball, son of former Gaels standout and coach Rob Ball.

Offensively, 6-foot-10, 320-pound offensive tackle Nick Romanchuk is probably not too far from starting. The notable newbies at the skill spots are WR Curtis Carmichael from Toronto's Birchmount Park and RB Jesse Andrews out of Arnprior, Ont., who's described as a "cutback runner."

Keep an eye on:

  • QB Billy McPhee seems poised to become the next standout Queen's quarterback for a team that will return to something more resembling the pro-style offence it ran from 2007-09. It's reasonable and fair to expect some growing pains in the form of passes being caught by players clad in a colour other than yellow gold, since young QBs often do try to force a pass into a tight space until learning otherwise.

    McPhee, by all accounts, had a good spring camp. He also has a good support system between QB coach Ryan Sheahan and former Toronto Argonauts quarterback Danny Brannagan, who will be helping at training camp. It probably doesn't hurt that two of his receivers, Chapdelaine and Thomas Howes, have a unique perspective since both are converted QBs. The Gaels could go as their new QB and re-jigged offensive line, with Morris the lone player with more than year's experience starting, take them.

  • WR-KR Johnny Aprile and SB Justin Chapdelaine helm a group of receivers which should be coming into its own after being largely raw and unpolished a year ago. Aprile led the Gaels last season with 601 yards from scrimmage and can be very elusive after the catch. Chapdelaine, who's even switched his number to from 1 to 3 as part of his transition, is a superb athlete who could present a matchup problem if he's used in the slot. Jayevan Foster might be the sleeper of the group.

  • RB Ryan Granberg (515 yards, 9.0 per carry) is a downhill runner who doesn't get much acclaim when people talk about the OUA's best backs. Still, he can be fun to watch and his low-to-the-ground stride can make for a lot of missed tackles.

  • MLB Sam Sabourin was a bright spot in an otherwise lost season, winning OUA rookie-of-the-year honours. He's a very good sideline-to-sideline defender with all-Canadian potential; he'll be complemented well by a smart fifth-year LB, Stephen Laporte.

  • DTs Kyle MacDonald and John Miniaci and DEs Frank Pankewich and Derek Wiggan could lead up the Tricolour's best position group this season whether Ukwuoma returns. If Ukwuoma, who attended Calgary Stampeders training camp, returns as expected for his fifth season (update: he's back!), the Gaels' D-line could prove capable of consistently pressuring the passer with only four rushers. That quality helped Queen's a lot in 2008-09, when it went 16-3 against OUA teams. They'll also be tapping into the expertise of a new position coach, Leroy Blugh, who played 15 seasons as a D-lineman in the CFL.

    Ukwuoma is not on an unofficial training camp roster issued by Queen's, but the key word is unofficial. Ted Festeryga, who started at rush end last season, has moved to linebacker, so that might make people wonder.

  • Corners Andrew Lue and Josh Sultana and halfback Ben D'Andrea are among the experienced returnees in a secondary which got torched a few times last season. Cornerback T.J. Chase-Dunawa also showed fine potential last season before being slowed by injury.

  • K-P Dan Village, who's already Queen's career scoring leader (271 points), is pretty stable in all three kicking capacities.
Coach & coordinators: Head coach-offensive coordinator Pat Sheahan and assistant head coach-defensive coordinator Pat Tracey enter their 12th season together in Kingston. The two Pats have helped restore Queen's to prominence, as 2010 was just the Gaels' third losing season since coming back to OUA football in 2001. Their staff typically has pretty good attention to detail.

Having Blugh, who stepped down this spring as Bishop's Gaiters head coach for personal reasons, come aboard as defensive line coach is a coup. It can't be too often that a team loses a position coach who has been a CIS head coach, Bob Vespaziani, and replaces him with another former head coach. Overall, it's a pretty good staff blending youthful exuberance with experience, with quarterbacks coach/video coordinator Ryan Sheahan and special teams coordinator Ryan Bechmanis having earned their spurs the past couple seasons.

Off-the-field factors: Contrary to what nine other OUA teams and anyone associated with the 2009 Laval Rouge et Or might think, Richardson Stadium is not the oldest building at Queen's. That would be Summerhill, the principal's official residence. The long and short of it is that the odds are very good Queen's will likely be the last football-playing school in Ontario to renovate or replace its football facility. That's an offshoot of the university highers-up committing nearly a half-billion dollars to the Queen's Centre, an impressive facility nonetheless, without having all funding commitments in place.

The resulting budget crunch means there will be no new facilities built until the Queen's Centre is completed. The best-case date for that is 2017. That means the school's flagship team is stuck in a facility that is showing its age worse than Rod Stewart's fictional Maggie May in the morning sunlight. It also means the Queen's men's hockey team, one of the oldest in North America, and the women's hockey team which won its first CIS medal last season will still have to schlep off-campus for home games.

The only other perturbance is that while most football teams have two colours of jersey and one nickname, it's vice-versa at Queen's. Wearing gold at home and on the road is awesome, even if the Create-A-School feature in EA Sports' NCAA Football 12 insists you must use a white road jersey. However, it's evident the 2008 re-branding as "Queen's Gaels" never took when you look at which name is used by media who pay attention and which one is used by the drive-byers. The market's clearly shown its preference for the traditional two-word name.

From last season's preview: Let's see. There was, "the law of diminishing returns ... is bound to exert some influence on the Gaels' fortunes," which loosely foretold the slip to 3-5 after averaging a 7-1 record across the previous three seasons. Throw in, "Earning a home playoff game for a fourth consecutive season seems like a reasonable goal, although the margin for error seems slim." Three of the losses were by a combined nine points and 4-4 was good enough to host an OUA quarter-final last season. We also told people to "rein it in" with predicting stardom for Chapdelaine.

2011 outlook: The consensus is Queen's will reverse its outcome and finish 5-3, winning out against the also-rans and knocking off a top-tier team. A Yates Cup is a little much to ask, but they could be a post-season darkhorse.

Their situation with McPhee is very analogous to 2006, Brannagan's second season. There were some trials and tribulations that season, as an offence that included four backs and receivers who would go on to be all-Canadians (Rob Bagg, Brad Smith, Mike Giffin and Scott Valberg) went through a five-week stretch where it failed to score at least 20 points. One would think that experience gave Pat Sheahan and his staff some insight into how to work with a maturing quarterback and a supporting cast.

That '06 crew grew enough by season's end to reach the OUA semifinal. That's a realistic target in 2011.

Swing games: The Gaels' docket is hard at both ends and soft in the middle. They host one Yates Cup contender, McMaster, in the opener and finish off by welcoming in another, Western. There's also a four-week York-Toronto-Windsor-Waterloo stretch. Some would liken that to not having to face Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle and only having to pitch to Costanza right after his dalliance with a Portuguese waitress. Please be aware, though, that includes three consecutive road trips. Going nearly a month without a home game can test a young team's focus.

Like in 2009, Queen's does not visit a conference heavyweight located west of Belleville. That leaves the Week 2 trip to Ottawa and Week 3 home date vs. Laurier as likely swing games. Lansdowne Park was long a house of horrors for Queen's, but they won there in 2009 without virtue of having an able-bodied experienced quarterback as Chapdelaine and Howes rotated during the famous Oil Thigh No Brannagan game (Danny was injured). In '07, they came within two minutes of upsetting the eventual regular-season league champion Gee-Gees.

Stock up or stock down: Up. There's been enough time to stop resting on the laurels of 2009 and work up to contending again. Plus it's always sunny in Kingston, even with the 20-plus days of rain the city gets every October.
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  1. With Blugh going tri-colour, is it possible we are seeing one of Sheahan's last kicks at the OUA can? A couple of years ago, while an assistant for an East-West game, he was asked whether he had pro aspirations. Sheahan made it sound like a virtual lock that he would try the pros out, in some capacity, at some time in the future. Has there been any rumour, whether about Sheahan or Blugh?

  2. Valid question. It has not really come up; you know the situation with Blugh, eh? He's from the area (Napanee) and left the Bishop's head coaching job for family reasons and moved back, then had this opportunity come up, which involves less obligations.

    Let's say that did happen ... I'd expect Pat Tracey, after 11 years as a coordinator, to get consideration for the top job. Blugh would be great to have as the ass't HC/defensive coordinator and Ryan Sheahan could become the OC.