CIS Countdown 2012: AUS Preview, Part Two

Our look at the AUS football season continues with St. F-X and Acadia. See Part 1 (Mount A and SMU) here.

What makes the AUS so difficult to predict is that three out of four teams make the playoffs, so anything can happen. Teams play each other so frequently that the games truly are chess matches. With the loss of the second interlock game, some teams now face each other three times. This year, the three-game matchups are St. Francis Xavier vs. Mount Allison and the reigning champions in Acadia against Saint Mary’s. This scheduling could be the difference-maker in deciding who gets home field advantage in the semifinals.


The strength of schedule, or lack thereof, is not the only reason why I have the X-Men on the rise from last year's 2-6 finish. X is easily the most athletic team in the entire conference and are loaded with studs across the board. They have the talent to compete this year and hopefully their team has matured over the offseason. If they disappoint, the excuse cannot be because of their inexperience. Their coaches also have to step up this season. Last year, word around the AUS was that the X-Men ran some awful schemes. Their failure to adjust to certain formations or the lack of an offensive identity can only be placed on the staff. If they are going to compete for the Jewett Trophy this year, head coach Gary Waterman and his staff will have to improve.

The X offence has the potential to be one of the best in the AUS this year. The strength of their offence is their receiving corps led by 2010 AUS rookie of the year Jordan Catterall. He is joined by former quarterback Andrew Hickey and Devon Bailey. I think Bailey has the ability to break out this season: he is a tremendous player when he uses his 6-5 frame to his advantage and is drawing comparisons to former X standout and current B.C. Lion Akeem Foster. The X-Men also had a pleasant surprise with running back Ashton Dickson, last year's rookie bowling ball out of Ottawa.

The biggest question mark for the X offence is at the quarterback position; no one has stated who the starter will be this year. Last season Jahmari Bennett and Cory Wensley split time and each had marginal success. They have also brought in two quaterbacks from the CJFL. Yannick Rickli spent last season with the Ottawa Sooners, while 6’4 Clayton Masikewich (Calgary Colts) is a former Prairie Football Conference rookie QB of the year. As mentioned earlier, X is extremely athletic at the skill positions. If the offensive line can give their young quarterbacks some time, this team could put up some impressive numbers.

The most exciting part about this X-Men club, though, has to be their defence. If anyone saw what Dylan Hollohan did at the CFL combine they got a glimpse at why regular AUS observers are so high on X’s athleticism (JP Shoiry was impressed, too). He returns this year after missing 2011. The X secondary is going to be without standout Raye Hartmann, a conference all-star who has reportedly transferred to the NCAA. On the defensive line, Nate Annan is expected to continue his dominant play since arriving in 2009. Annan was fifth on the team in tackles in 2011 and will be responsible for keeping two of the best linebackers in the conference clean. Those two linebackers, the best in a strong group, are Brett Hubbeard and Ron Omara, both expected to compete for all-conference spots in 2012. Omara is only entering his second year and is already living up to his Henoc Muamba comparisons. If Omara and Hubbeard can meet or exceed their preseason expectations, this unit could be tops in the AUS.

I may have set the bar high for the X-men this year due to their potential, but as they say: “potential only gets coaches” — or bloggers — “fired.” If X can get one of their quarterbacks to find his inner Steve Snyder and they stay healthy on defence, they could be hosting a semifinal game. For this to happen they would need to sweep their matchups vs. Mount Allison and at least split vs. SMU.

Prediction: 4-4, second place.

Disclosure: I played for Acadia from 2006 to 2010.

The fear in Wolfville this offseason was that the CFL was going to stall their resurgence. Jake Thomas, Kyle Graves, Brett Haenni, and Mike Squires were all in training camps this past June but thankfully for Acadia all but Thomas returned. Reigning CIS coach of the year Jeff Cummins boasts one of the most talented offences in the country as they return most of their key players. The goal for Acadia this season is Vanier or bust, and it looks like they will have all the tools to get another shot to play in the Uteck Bowl.

On offense, it all starts with Hec Crighton candidate Kyle Graves. Graves had an exceptional season in 2011, securing the conference MVP, and also garnered an invitation to the CFL combine last March. Graves and Kyle Quinlan were both signed to contracts by the Montreal Alouettes, in Graves' case largely due to his impressive combine performance. Back with the Axemen, he should be able to surpass his 2011 totals and finish out his career with another shot at the Vanier. Another CFL hopeful was Haenni, now making the move to fullback after his brief stint with the Edmonton Eskimos. Lining up behind him is running back Zack Skibin, who looked to be unstoppable once he secured the starting spot midway through last season with 502 yards on 75 carries in AUS play from October 15 on. With those two in the backfield, Acadia should be difficult to stop in short-yardage situations.

The Axemen, as hinted above, also return most of their talented receivers, led by Squires and Taylor Renaud, two big physical receivers who put up dominating numbers last season. Not returning are two graduates: slotback A.J. Durling, who had a productive season, and the dependable receiver Stu Clow. The offensive line had no significant losses aside from the graduation of Travis Miller and will hope to build on last year’s success when they gave up only 10 sacks all season, half as many as the second-best team. The biggest loss for the Axemen was co-offensive coordinator Tom Flaxman, who is now the OC for the University of Toronto.

Acadia will need their offence to continue to build on last year to overcome some of the losses on the other side. Going into last year, much of the hype around Acadia was that they returned 10 defensive starters. This year, Acadia only returns six. Losing defensive tackles Andrew Frazer and Jacob Thomas (a current Blue Bomber, and fan of the blog) will be the most difficult for the Axemen. Linebacker Drew Morris will be expected to replace President’s Trophy nominee Tom Labenski, who graduated in 2011. The strength of the Axemen defence will be at the defensive end positions, where John Wilson should have another big year, and in the secondary, where they return All-Canadian Cam Wade, cornerback Chris Cull and halfback Alex Graham. Dual-sport athlete Sean Stoqua, also the point guard for the basketball Axemen, will be competing for the starting field corner position with a host of rookies. Acadia will hope to reload like they did after the '05 championship in contrast to the five-year rebuild they went through after. They will have to go through some growing pains this season but I still feel their defence will be as strong as it was in 2011.

If this team wants to make a name for themselves nationally, and have a chance to put the rest of Canada on notice, they are going to have to have a big game right away: in week two they travel to PEPS to take on Laval. Acadia has not fared well vs. teams outside of the AUS (aside from beating McGill in ’07 and ’11, but that's McGill). They have been blown out a few times by Quebec teams in past seasons, and haven't even played Laval since 2008. That match up in Quebec should be a preview of this year's Uteck, as I foresee the Axemen having to make that long trip twice this year.

Many do not respect AUS football and that shows in the first edition of the national rankings released today (where Acadia was ranked 9th). If the Axemen could stun Laval, or come close, look for people to start buying into the hype.

Prediction: 7-1, first place.
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