We start previewing the AUS football season today. Up first: the Mount Allison Mounties and Saint Mary's Huskies.
The Atlantic University Football Conference saw many changes in 2011. For the first time since 2006, the Saint Mary’s Huskies failed to represent the league in the semifinals: their five-year reign ended in Wolfville when the Acadia Axemen un-seated the perennial powerhouse. As opposed to recent years SMU was forced to deal with some instability when they decided not to retain three-time AUS coach of the year Steve Sumarah.
Mount Allison faced a similar obstacle in 2011 as it was the first year without star receiver/returner and former league MVP Gary Ross. That loss compounded with injuries led to a disappointing season while St. Francis Xavier took advantage and moved into third place. The young and exciting X-men could be a sleeper team this season as they return the most athletic squad in the AUS.
The Acadia Axemen know all too well about being a surprising club and hope that their wealth of talent on offence will be able to carry them to another conference title and a chance at redemption. The AUS this season has no shortage of storylines and in this two-part preview, I will break down each team in the conference and, at the risk of being completely wrong, I will offer up some predictions for the 2012 season.
MOUNT ALLISON MOUNTIES
Life after Gary Ross has been rough for the Mounties, much like their Pre-Gary ways. After they finished the 2010 season with a .500 record and hosted a playoff game, they found themselves winless in 2011. A large reason for that disappointing season was the loss of linebacker and defensive leader Ben Halpern. Halpern played a pivotal role in the Mounties' resurgence but losing him in week one last year crushed an already inexperienced defence. Return him and first-year standout Jacob LeBlanc, who was the AUS rookie of the year and a member of the Canadian team that recently took home a World Junior title, and the Mounties should have some stability in their front seven. And even if Halpern is the glue of the defence, the star has to be defensive end Ryan Downe. Downe is my pick for the AUS sack leader and has a legitimate shot at becoming the Metras award nominee for lineman of the year.
The defence does have talent, but some question marks have to be brought up about the secondary which had struggles when stretched deep or when facing physical receivers. Furthermore, I do question their depth across the board. Last season no one could replace Halpern, and I wonder if they could recover if any of their stars were to miss a significant period of time.
On offence, the Mounties struggled when no one could replace Ross’ production. Jake Hotchkiss, the talented lefty struggled immensely as he tied for the CIS lead with 15 interceptions, roughly one pick for every seven completions. Word out of Sackville in the spring was that Hotchkiss was not returning, which would have been devastating for the program, (à la Kelly Hughes’ surprise departure in 2009), but he is on the team in 2012. Hotchkiss is only two years removed from his conference all-star season in 2010 but needs to prove that he was not a product of Gary Ross.
Gone is dependable All-Canadian wide out Adam Molnar, but added is Jordan Botel of the junior Vancouver Island Raiders. Botel was a 1000-yard rusher for the Raiders, and he looks to be sharing the backfield with former Acadia running back Nick Lauder. Lauder finished second in voting for rookie of the year in 2008 with nearly 500 yards on 99 carries, then after another year in CIS played with the Raiders as well last year.
The biggest issue for the Mounties will be their losses on the offensive line. They lost Mike Filer to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats’ practice roster (via Calgary in the draft), as well as Aaron Harper and Chris Munn. Mount Allison’s o-line only gave up 20 sacks despite having the second most pass attempts in the conference (albeit just two ahead of Acadia's 216). If the Mounties cannot protect Hotchkiss as well in 2012, they will be in for another long season.
The goal of head coach Kelly Jeffery this season will be to compete for a playoff spot and win a playoff game. To do so they will have have to continue their success vs. X. They face St. Francis Xavier three times this season, a team that they have played tough in the past so that experience could prove to be beneficial. More importantly, two of those meetings are on the treacherous turf at MacAuley Field (those who think that is hyperbole obviously haven’t seen that field after some heavy rain) Even so, I just don’t see the Mounties taking that next step this season because of instability on the o-line, the lack of a true playmaker on offence for Hotchkiss, and the lack of depth on defence. If this team stays healthy and gets some breaks, they could steal a few, but I think that may be asking too much.
Prediction: 1-7, fourth place.
SAINT MARY'S HUSKIES
First off, if my prediction comes to fruition and they do finish third with a 3-5 record or worse, it will be interesting to compare what would happen to newly-minted head coach Perry Marchese, seeing as former Huskies and current Carleton Ravens head coach Steve Sumarah was fired after a 6-2 season and a spot in the AUS championship. The botched “worldwide" coaching search conducted by the Huskies' front office is the largest reason why I see them taking a step back. They fired Sumarah on December 5th, and after a host of candidates were rumored to be the next leader of Huskie Football, they finally got their man on February 23rd, right in the heart of recruiting season (not something you can blame on Marchese). The excellent Monty Mosher reported that former Bishop's head coach Leroy Blugh was supposedly picked by the SMU selection committee but obviously he did not get the job. So even more pressure was put on Marchese, and I think that's especially true if he doesn't win the AUS this year.
The Huskies' defence has been the strength of the ball club for the past six years. Their ability to get teams into 2nd and long situations and force the opposition into turnovers is a combination of their excellent front seven and disciplined secondary. A large part of this success has been thanks to All-Canadian defensive tackle Dan Schutte. Schutte’s mix of athleticism, strength, smarts, and correct guessing forced opposing offensive linemen to be on their heels every play, keeping his linebacker brethren clean. With the loss of Schutte (and Mark Holden, a former All Canadian who was limited in 2011), the Huskies will rely heavily on Rob Jubenville to create havoc in the offensive backfield. Jubenville was in camp with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and will be expected to build on his record-breaking-season where he recorded a team record, 10 sacks in 2011.
In the defensive backfield, the Huskies play a sophisticated match coverage which has allowed their ball-hawking defensive backs to excel. Their secondary this year is led by free safety Neil King, who quarterbacked the defence in 2011. His ability to cover centre field yet remain a threat as the eighth man in the box made him extremely valuable to the defence. Also returning is second year standout Kayin Marchand-Wright, who went All-Canadian in his rookie season, and will be expected to build on that excellent year.
Overall, though, I believe Saint Mary’s may have a letdown year on the defensive side.
On offence, coach Marchese is reunited with his former student: quarterback Jack Creighton who returns for his 4th season. Former quarterback Jesse Mills transferred to Carleton and fumed all over Saint Mary’s as he exited: "I don’t know if they still want to be known for the football part of Saint Mary’s or if they want to go for being more of an academic kind of school. I’m not sure but what I committed to isn’t there right now. That’s basically how I stand on it.” (And here I figured all universities were “academic kind of schools.”)
Creighton, who himself had a little bit of transfer drama recently, will have the keys to the penthouse this season (Western transfer and former Sackville High standout Ben Rossong has to sit out a year after transferring). He has all the tools to be a star quarterback in CIS, and can make all the throws when he has time, but sometimes he makes costly errors when under duress. The one that immediately comes to mind is in the 2011 Loney Bowl when he was pressured from the backside, fumbled on the rollout, picked up the fumble, then proceeded to throw an underhanded interception to Graeme Richardson (7:17 of the video).
The biggest question I have about the Huskies' offence goes back to my belief about offences in general: What will their identity be? Standout running backs Craig Leger and Devon Jones have both graduated leaving doubt at the tail position. Under Sumarah, the Huskies were unapologetic in how they played offence — sometimes rushing over 60% on 1st and 10 and sometimes over 90% on 2nd and less than 5. Having never seen a Perry Marchese-coached offence, I can only speculate on what their style will be, but I think it will be more pass-oriented than in the past. For Saint Mary’s to be successful on offence they also need former Hec Crighton nominee Jahmeek Taylor to have a big year outside of special teams. Last year, he did not have much of an impact in the passing game with only 13 receptions, fourth on the team. In 2010, Taylor was the most exciting player in AUS football and a worthy MVP. If he can duplicate that season, the Huskies could be going to Quebec in Novemeber.
This should be a rebuilding year for the Huskies. Their recruiting season was cut down out of Halifax say the team is going away from scouting the junior ranks for talent due to the ‘seven years to play five’ rule. Developing talent from high schools is successful in the OUA but there can be growing pains when programs decide to switch over. While I do not believe SMU will be down for long, they do have a tough schedule. They face Acadia three times this year, and I think they will split the season series with X. Acadia hasn’t had much success at Huskies Stadium, scoring just 28 points in their last four games in Halifax (all losses), but I think that will change in 2012 and because of that I see the Huskies on the road in November.
Prediction: 3-5, third place.