York Lions season preview: “We’ve got a solid foundation and we are looking to make a run at the playoffs”

Source: York University Lions Athletics

This fall York University Lions head football coach Warren Craney enters his seventh season at the helm of the program and expectations have never been higher for his squad.

Craney and his staff reset after a challenging 2014 season and the program took a noticeable step forward last year, posting a victory over Waterloo in Week 5 and finishing the season with a narrow one-point loss to nationally-ranked Queen’s in the finale. The positive results were thanks in large part to a remarkable recruiting class that produced four OUA all-rookie team members. This year’s fortunes will once again rely on those same players and a new crop of rookies who will attempt to make the same impact, and for those reasons a top-six finish is squarely in their sights.

“We’ve got a solid foundation and we are looking to make a run at the playoffs,” said Craney about his team’s outlook for 2016. “The recruiting class we brought in last year is far exceeding their expectations as sophomores and they are ready to carry this program on their backs. We followed up that class with some much needed size and talent on the lines this year, as well as another group of talented skill position players who will bring some much needed depth to the line-up.”

The sophomore who has taken the biggest leap since first coming to York may be quarterback Brett Hunchak, who comes in as the opening day starting pivot and is fresh off a summer spent at the Calgary Stampeders training camp and he already looks like a player with more than just one year of experience under his belt. He will have plenty of weapons at his disposal, with a backfield that is comprised of reigning OUA rookie of the year Jesse Amankwaa and first-year players Khaliel James and Kayden Johnson, all of whom have national team experience, as well as a group of receivers that includes OUA all-rookie team member Colton Hunchak and fellow sophomore Nikola Kalinic, veterans Ryan Dunaway and Jahmari Bennett and redshirt freshman Alex Daley.

“Our offensive skill positions are the strength of this team. I believe we have a top-two quarterback in the OUA, one of the best backfields in the country and a stacked receiving corps. I’d put our running backs up against anybody in the country.”

They will play behind a line that is anchored by Chris Kolankowski, who was selected by his hometown Toronto Argonauts in the CFL Draft this past summer, 6-foot-6, 290-pound left tackle Chris Smith and guard Ryan Farr, who is healthy again after injuries wiped out most of the last two seasons.

In recent years the offence has shown it can move the ball, and this season Craney expects the defence to hold its own when called upon.

“Our offence has been carrying the team for the last couple of seasons and we finally have a defence that can answer the call. At our first defensive meeting this year I told them that we are going to be the best group we’ve ever had and I will stand by that. I’m going to coach my tail off and they are going to play.”

The Lions already had a strong secondary that counts among the group fifth-year veteran Josh Small and third-year players Rees Paterson, Brett Colangelo and Ian Lawrence, who combined for 17 takeaways in 2015. All four of them have returned and will be joined by sophomore Jacob Janke, who lined up at receiver as a rookie but has moved to free safety.

“Mark my words, Jacob is going to be an all-star one day. I’ve coached some all-Canadian safeties in the past and he’s every bit as good as anyone I’ve coached.”

The defensive line was a weakness for the team last year but it got the biggest boost in the off-season with the addition of top recruits Skye King from Calgary and Jamian Rush from Mississippi. King played under Craney on the junior national team that won the gold medal at the world championships in July, while Rush brings his years of experience playing football in the southern United States north to his new home in Toronto.

Behind them is a linebacker group that is led by fifth-year stalwart Nikita Starchenko and will include a trio of supremely talented rookies in Damian Jamieson, Cody Ricottone and Andrew Smith.

The Lions are still young and will rely heavily on first- and second-year players, but with such a balanced roster and talent to burn, 2016 is shaping up to be the best yet for Craney and his program.

“Last year I said before the season that it was the best football team we’d ever had, and I will say right now that this year we are even better. We are older, bigger and stronger and have remarkable talent across all position groups. We have a bunch of winners on this team, they don’t know any better and that’s all they want to do here.”

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