Our team-by-team previews for the 2011 football season begin today. First up, the Western Mustangs.
In 50 words or less: Just when the Mustangs figure things out on one side of the ball, they lose a whole bunch of talent on the other. This year, they have to offset the loss of stars on defence. Yet, thanks to a superb coaching staff, this team should remain a threat in the OUA despite a big target on their back as defending champs.
Burning questions: WILL Donnie Marshall continue to grow in coach Greg Marshall’s offence, or will he be removed from his starting position by second-year quarterback Ben Rossong?
HOW will the Mustangs recover from the losses of defensive leaders John Surla, Adrian Kaiser and Craig Butler?
WILL second-year receiver Andrew Thibaudeau build on his strong rookie season and actually bring some life back into the Mustang return game?
CAN injured starters, such as DL Scott Fournier, return to their 2010 form?
2010 recap: (9-2, 7-1) The Mustangs dropped a 20-19 squeaker in Ottawa in their second game of the season. After that, they never really looked back, thanks to a stellar second-ranked defence and running back Jerimy Hipperson, who emerged from a deep backfield to lead the nation’s best rushing attack with 11 touchdowns. The Mustangs avenged their sole loss against Ottawa with a one-point victory in the Yates Cup thanks to a last-second field goal by kicker Lirim Hajrullahu. Hajrullahu’s boot ran out of magic in the Uteck Bowl when his last second kick fell short, leaving the Mustangs two points behind the eventual champions from Laval.
Key Departures: OL Brendan Dunn (Winnipeg Blue Bombers), DE Alexander Robinson (Toronto Argonauts), LB Adrian Kaiser, LB John Surla (Montreal Alouettes), DB Craig Butler (Saskatchewan Roughriders)
Key Arrivals: RB Tyler Varga, RB James Sifakis, DL Daryl Waud, DL Winston Miles, LB Peter Gray, LB Byron Perez-Archambault, DB Trevor Lass
Keep an eye on: While QB Donnie Marshall enters 2011 as the entrenched starter, watch out for back-up Ben Rossong if Marshall slips up. He was deemed a special player in practice during his rookie season, and is expected to perform at a high level when he gets a chance. Hipperson should continue to ram the ball down the throat of every Mustang opponent thanks to a deep offensive line led by Team Canada guard Matt Norman.
Despite losing Robinson, the defensive line should be just fine with DT Mike Van Praet plugging the running lanes. The interesting battle in training camp is for the starting linebacker positions. Pawel Kruba and Marcus Babic saw a lot of playing time off the bench last year, but prized recruits Gray and Perez-Archambault should push for the job immediately.
Coach & coordinators: Greg Marshall is now in his fifth year as the head coach of his alma mater and already looking to win his fourth Yates Cup with the Mustangs. Former defensive coordinator Paul Gleason stepped down in the offseason. Special teams and recruiting guru Mickey Donovan steps in with big shoes to fill. [Thanks Superfun Happy Slide for the tip]
Off-the-field factors: Any defending champion has to deal with loss of focus and drive, as well as the rest of the league trying to tear them down. This could be a huge hurdle for a team without a lot of veteran leadership. Several teams are also built for this upcoming season, particularly McMaster, while teams such as Toronto and Queen’s are improving rapidly.
From last season's preview: “But with some key returning pieces and a proven coaching staff, the Western Mustangs are a threat to offset the loss of Michael Faulds and return to the Yates Cup.” – Brian Decker
Thanks to the best running game and the second-best defence, the Mustangs were able to take back the Yates Cup, coming within a field goal of a trip to the Vanier Cup.
2011 outlook: The offence will only get better from last season. That is scary for the rest of the OUA, especially teams that don’t defend well against the run. The defence will take a large step back. Several teams will be gunning for the Mustangs, especially the McMaster Marauders, who were left with a sour taste in their mouth after two defeats in London. I’m no good with predictions, but I see Western coming up second-best in the OUA title game.
Swing games: The schedule promises to be a tough one for the Mustangs as they have to deal with the prospect of four difficult road games. Trips to Toronto and Queen’s could derail the Mustangs season late if they aren’t careful. A second game in Hamilton against the Marauders could be a battle for first place when all is said and done.
Stock up or stock down: It should be down if the team doesn’t figure out a way to plug the holes on defence. That being said, they should be among the favourites to take home the OUA crown in November.