CIS Countdown 2011: York Lions

QB Nick Coutu returns this fall to lead Lions football this season. Photo courtesy York Sport. 

In 52 words or less: When a coach with an impressive pedigree becomes coach of the worst football program in the country, and has limited time to make an impact, wide-sweeping changes are inevitable. Head Coach Warren Craney has plenty of work to do to stop the bleeding of a three-season losing streak.

Burning questions:

1) HOW will the coaching staff be able to rally a very young group of football players?

2) WHAT is the York Lions’ football identity?

3) WHO will emerge as the de facto leader of the defense?

2010 recap: 0–8, ninth place (last in the OUA).

As a rookie, Craney’s Lions were not a pretty sight in the boxscores. At home, the squad lost 26–2 to the Guelph Gryphons, 45–3 to the Ottawa Gee-Gees, 64–6 to the McMaster Marauders, and 76–0 to the Western Mustangs. They also lost to the Laurier Golden Hawks, Windsor Lancers, and Queen’s Golden Gaels on the road.

Speaking to Craney this week, he recognized that there may be growing pains and expected some losses. But, he was particularly stung by the loss to the Toronto Varsity Blues: 24–19 on Sept. 18. “We were a couple clicks on the clock away from winning that game,” said Craney.

“We completely took the game over in the fourth quarter, and it just ran out of time. The guys couldn’t believe they could win, the coaches rallied and rallied them, and by the time we got them to believe they could win it was just too late.”

Statistically, they were not so good. They were 25th in scoring, 25th in total yards per game, 25th in rushing offense, and 25th in third down conversions. Yikes!

Departures: After the end of last season, the team had more questions than answers, so the coaches made plenty of changes. Craney kept only 38 players over the winter. “You know what, we had to. I had to make my mark, that this was my team, and we had to change things,” he said. Craney expects 18 new starters this fall. Most players were not highly sought by the CFL, and players like OL Boris Radulovic, WR Micheal Boyd and S Jason Marshall have graduated.

The most significant departure was their leading tackler, LB Andre Clarke. We'll see if someone can make up for his absense.

Arrivals: The coaches have been recruiting since last December. Some key arrivals, most of them native Ontarians, include DE Michael Livingston (Northern Secondary School, Toronto, ON), WR Dylan Belair (Don Bosco Catholic High School, Toronto, ON), and DB Robinson Akintade (Turner Fenton Secondary School, Brampton, ON).

Linebacker Richard Evans (J.M. Wright Technical High School, Robersonville, North Carolina), and WR Mitchell Murphy (Kinkora Regional High School, Augustine Cove, PEI) are good gets for the coaching staff.

The staff has also attracted some transferred players, including RB Eric King (Acadia transfer, Aurora, ON), and OL Tyler Carly (SMU transfer, Bobcaygeon, ON).

Keep an eye on: The staff is particularly excited about Marcus Grandison, from Chaminade College School in Toronto. He played for Team World against Team USA in February. Grandison is considered a blue chip recruit who could have significant playing time with the departure of Marshall.

What about the quarterback, right? Nick Coutu and DJ Frank saw most of the snaps last year, but in a changing football culture, they could see reduced snaps. Watch out for Lashane Oldacre and Dimitar Sevdin, who may just start a game.

Coach & coordinators: Entering his second season, Craney coached in the 2009, 2010, and 2011 East West Bowls, worked as defensive co-ordinator for the Concordia Stingers, and helped guide Team Canada to a silver medal at the 2009 Junior World Championship.

Craney’s co-ordinators are no chumps either. Michael Faulds, the offensive co-ordinator, was the quarterbacks coach for the Western Mustangs and a bonafide legend, and defensive co-ordinator Henry Laflamme, who helped revive the Université de Montréal Carabins from a winless squad to undefeated in 2004.

Faulds and Laflamme have the difficult task of organizing their units with new faces, but Craney believes they are more than capable of handling themselves. “I knew I had winners on my coaching staff … we had all come from successful programs. We still had to sell ourselves [to recruits] because the school sells itself, but the football program doesn’t. We really had to work hard, and we think we had some great success.”

Off-the-field factors: Even though they are a year into their project, this summer was Craney’s first chance to mould this team with solid recruiting. The fate of the Lions this season rests on those decisions. “I truly believe that [the pressure to succeed] comes from the coaching staff. I truly believe that no matter what your product is, it’s the relationship that the coach develops with the recruit” that attracts the best players, says Craney.

From last season's preview: Brian’s take on the Lions 2010 season was an interesting one: he focused on a new beginning for Craney and his staff. He warned of the presence of the talented quarterback Lashane Oldacre, but the young man only threw three passes last season—he could get some more snaps this time around.

While Brian noted that LB Shane Peru could shine, he wasn’t as successful on paper as former teammate Andre Clarke.

2011 outlook: Schematically, the coaches want to simplify the playbooks, and steadily add more dimensions to their formations. With a number of new recruits on the defensive and offensive lines, I think the Lions want to focus on, first of all, protecting their pivot in the passing game; and two, increase pocket pressure for opposing offenses.

The Lions are also hungry to get that win against the Varsity Blues. “It’s our backyard, some of the best football in the country is being played in the GTA, and we need to own our backyard,” said Craney.

The success of this team is not necessarily measured by wins and losses. It should be interesting to see—especially in the early games when the team is still relatively injury-free—how close they can keep their games. If their defense holds up, their chances to win should skyrocket.

Swing games: The team has two games in five days to begin the season, including a match against the Hawks on Labour Day. Their season could be moulded on how they perform, and stay fit for both squads. They also have one home game in October. Let’s see how well they can fare on the road for three weeks.

Stock up or stock down: Up. From the bottom, there’s only one direction this team can go. This is the first true recruiting class Craney is fielding, so let’s see how the talent responds to the pressure.
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