U of A Golden Bears preview

The University of Alberta Golden Bears football team opens training camp this week, and head coach Chris Morris will be guiding a team that is looking to capitalize on four years of blue chip recruiting classes by taking the next step towards the Canada West playoffs.  

Alberta is coming off back-to-back seasons in which they missed out on the conference playoffs by a single game. They finished with 3-5 and 2-6 records in 2014 and 2015 respectively and in both seasons were in the playoff hunt as the regular season came to a close. They lost their final regular season games in both years, however, but as the 2016 season draws near, Morris has the Bears primed for a big season. For the first time in his four years as head coach, the team will turn to a stable of fourth-year veterans to lead the way, all of whom Morris recruited in his first season as head coach.

“The leadership group emerging on the team now has all been a part of the program’s culture change from the very onset,” said Morris. “They know what we are trying to accomplish and have been empowered to lead the team in a direction that I am comfortable with and which is consistent with our team’s core values. More importantly, this group now has a clear understanding of these values as they were a huge part of the creation of these values. This fact really empowers them to lead and set a great example of leadership for the younger players on the team.”

Chief among those recruits turned veteran leaders are fourth-years Ed Ilnicki (running back), receivers Tylor Henry and Aundrey Webster, defensive back Tak Landry, defensive lineman Jacob Narbonne.

Ilnicki, Henry and Webster all played in the 2016 CIS East-West all-star bowl earlier this summer, with Henry emerging as the Western MVP after hauling in 123 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Ilnicki, who also serves as team captain, has been a force out of the backfield for the Bears since opening day in his rookie season in 2013. Since then he has improved his yardage total each season, and has now accumulated 1,927 yards in 24 games along with 16 rushing touchdowns. He is also CFL draft eligible in 2017. Henry, also draft eligible next season, is coming off a campaign in which he hauled in 39 passes for 537 yards and three majors, while also collecting 383 yards on kick returns, while Webster was Alberta’s all-purpose yards leader last season, with 1,123, including 251 receiving, 292 punt return and 525 kick return yards.

The receiving corps is filled out by Jon Girma, Rocky Borrelli, Joel Bishop, Colby Miler, Peter Zajdel, Court Boice and Kyle Somerville, all of whom will push for minutes and snaps, while running backs Alex Bradley, who rushed for 129 yards on 12 rushes in his rookie season, and Dryden Kalesnikoff will push for reps behind Ilnicki. Also in the runningback mix are David Adebayo and Tylen Smith, while third-year starter Jon Waters is the incumbent at fullback.

The offence, however, will be guided by sophomore Ben Kopczynski and anchored by a veteran offensive line that could emerge as one of the top units in Canada West. At the QB position, Kopczynski started seven games as a rookie last season, before missing out on the end of the season due to injury. He completed 62% of his passes (122 of 198) for 1,659 yards and seven TDs, while also rushing for 359 yards and one touchdown. Brad Baker, who also saw time in seven games last season, including starter time, will likely miss the 2016 season due to injury. Jordan McCarty, younger brother of Edmonton Eskimo Calvin McCarty, joins the Bears quarterbacking fold and is expected to push for the starting job after earning experience in both Canadian junior football and south of the border. A dual citizen of both Canada and the US, spent time as QB at Reedley College in California before moving to the Langley Rams of the CJFL. In four games as a starter for the Rams, McCarty tossed for 1,021 yards on 62 completions with 10 touchdown passes, helping the Rams to a Canadian Bowl appearance in 2014.

Providing protection and time will be a group of offensive linemen led by Canada West all-star Justin Lawrence. Mark Korte and Logan Trachuk are also both back to start along the line, while returning student-athletes Joe McQuay, Sam Rybiak, Matt Clark and Lincoln Untereiner are all in the starter mix as well. Michael and Peter Kozushka, brothers from Yorkton, Saskatchewan, will also push for OL jobs, as will converted defensive lineman Marshal Klein along with rookie Kemal Kochisarli, former Edmonton Wildcat Andrew MacLean, as well as the 6’7” Myle Ruether, Travis Derksen, who previously played with team Canada, and Carter O’Donnell.

The team will have move on from one significant offensive weapon, however, as Jimmy Ralph won’t be back for the 2016 season. Ralph was a CIS 2nd team all-Canadian last year after finishing third in Canada West with 862 receiving yards on 57 catches. He also caught three TDs for the Bears last season.

Another factor for the Bears to have success in 2016 is on the other side of the ball, starting with the defensive line. Alberta managed just six sacks last season, but features multiple athletes entering the prime of their CIS careers. The line will be led by fourth-year Jacob Narbonne, and fifth-year Greg Severin, while rookie stand-out Lucky Daniels is back for his sophomore season after playing in all eight games last season and recording 11.5 tackles. Former Team Canada member Garrett Meek could also push for a rotation along the line while highly-touted recruit Blake Adams, who spent the past five seasons playing junior football with the Saskatoon Hilltops, and was voted the Prairie Football Conference defensive lineman of the year in his senior year, will provide instant impact as well.

Despite huge hole created by the loss of Connor Ralph, perhaps the deepest position for the Bears on defence is their linebacker core, which includes a solid mix of veterans and youth. Entering his final CIS season, Bears tackle-leader Tom Tsoumpas will anchor the linebackers in 2016, along with senior Brandon Foster, while sophomores Josh Tatinger and Brendan Friesen also factor into the starting group. Levon Hawreliak, who previously served as the second runningback for the Bears, converted to outside linebacker for this season, and could make an impact on the defensive side of the ball as well.

Justice Momoka, a blue chip rookie Fort Saskatchewan, could see significant playing time in 2016 as well, coming off a year in which he earned a spot on Team Alberta for the 2015 Canada Cup, helping the province earn a fourth-place finish.

The Bears will return numerous key players in the secondary that will be looked upon for experience, including the aforementioned Canada West all-star Tak Landry. He was the conference’s tackle-per-game leader last season, and will be joined by third-year starter and former CJFL all-star Ryan Migadel. Reggie Schoeppe, Shaydon Philip, Treyvon Walsh, Emmanuel Vela, Mark Palmarin and Antwan Smith were all red-shirts last season, but should be big contributors due to their pedigree.

And finally, on special teams, the Bears will be transitioning to a new crop of kickers in 2016, as Brent Arthur and Daniel Ellis will fight for the starting job in camp. Ellis, an Edmonton native, joins Alberta after spending his high school career at Harry Ainlay. Arthur, meanwhile, joins the Bears as a transfer from Quincy University in Quincy, Illinois, and is originally from Brights Grove, Ontario.

The Golden Bears will play their first Canada West conference game on September 3 at UBC, while the home opener is September 9 at 7:00 p.m. MST against the Saskatchewan Huskies.

– Golden Bears and Pandas Athletics

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