We’re heading west for today’s CIS preview. All the way to Edmonton, where University of Alberta head coach Jeff Stead has the Golden Bears looking to rebound from a winless 2011 season (they officially finished 2-6 after victories were vacated by UBC for use of an ineligible player.) Stead recruited in his town over the winter and his young roster is buying in to his team concept.
Stead and his staff focused on recruiting the prospects on his doorstep.
“Our goal and the direction we want to go in is to keep the best kids from Alberta in Alberta,” said Stead. “We have two junior teams in our city so we put a big focus on that.”
In the past, other CIS teams had signed the best players from Edmonton. This year’s Golden Bears recruiting class is different, featuring nine of the top 12 local players targeted by Stead’s staff.
A big recruit not from Edmonton, but tiny Caroline, Alberta, is Stephen Fabian. It’s rare that a kicker is a major recruit, but the Bears played last season without a true kicker and Fabian will help immediately. Stead has seen him hit a FG from 72 yards and his booming punts will help the Bears in the field position game.
That will only help an Alberta defence that struggled last season. Playing with only one true lineman with post-secondary experience, Stead is excited to add DL Steve Giang for the 2012 season.
“We’re really excited about him,” said the coach about the 6’2”, 300 pound Edmontonian. “He’s going to be a dominant kid inside.”
Joining Giang on the revamped defensive line are home-grown recruits Troy Weissbach from Bev Facey High (pictured above) and the 6’6”, 310 pound Cole McCartney from Westminster.
The secondary has even bigger holes to fill. Alberta loses its all-time leader in interceptions, Jason Hetherington, to graduation and may lose Brent Krawchuk to the CFL. Defensive back Brandon Foster performed admirably as a freshman last season when he was, as Stead puts it, “thrown to the wolves.” He should be significantly better in 2012 with a full CIS campaign already under his belt.
The linebacking corps has no such problems. It represents the strength of the defense, even if Tyler Greenslade plays in the CFL this year. Duncan Morris and Ryan Dean are two returnees who excel at getting to the ball carrier and Connor Ralph has shown marked improvement in the spring after representing Team World in the International Bowl in February.
When Alberta has the ball, it will be either Curtis Dell or Ryan Schwartz at the helm. Incumbent Julian Marchand has graduated and the two third-year QBs will battle all camp for the starting nod.
“They know it’s their job to take,” says the head coach, “and they’ve really jumped at that opportunity. Both had very good off-seasons for us.”
Either one will give the Bears a different dynamic at the quarterback position. Dell and Schwartz can each make plays with their arms and use their speed to make things happen carrying the ball if needed.
Protection shouldn’t be an issue. Stead has been impressed with the offensive line’s off-season conditioning. Linemen Eric Perman, Stefane Kreiner, and Trevor Fiell have all become bigger and more athletic in the gym.
In the offensive backfield, Stead is eager to see the competition for carries. Olukayode Sonuga and Tyler Lewis return and have both had great off-seasons. Joining them will be new recruit Andre Webster.
“He’ll be the guy to play the slot, play tailback. He’s so dynamic,” enthused Stead. “In our mind, he was the top tailback coming out of Alberta. We’re really excited about him coming in.”
Last season, Alberta played 12 athletes fresh out of high school and will graduate only three this season. That youth will be served with playing time and be allowed to grow. Stead and his staff have all the players doing things off the field together and have fostered an atmosphere urging the players to have confidence in themselves and each other. He’s looking for a transformation this season for his players to win with the concept of “One Bear.”