With the start of the CIS football regular season just around the corner, the University of Manitoba Bisons are primed and ready to begin their defence of the Hardy Cup.
With a few key players now graduated, including perennial all-stars Jordan Yantz, Evan Gill, and Nic Demski, the 2015 edition will have some big shoes to fill. Thankfully, Manitoba boasts significant depth at every position, and with a number of playmakers returning, the herd should be Vanier Cup contenders again this year.
Below are a few Bison players to look for when the regular season begins on Friday, Sept. 4, in Saskatchewan.
Draft-eligible players will be difference makers
Manitoba will have seven CFL draft-eligible players on their roster for the coming year. Each individual has proven their worth with the Bisons in previous seasons, and will be looked upon for leadership in 2015. Knowing it’s their draft year will also provide additional motivation.
Three of these players (DJ Lalama, Cam Teschuk, and Alex McKay) will likely be captains for the upcoming campaign.
Lalama has stepped up all over the field for the herd. The starting middle linebacker tallied 40 solo tackles in 2014, which was third in the entire Canada West conference. He also recorded a sack, fumble recovery, and 26-yard interception return for a touchdown.
The previous year, he was a Football Reporters of Canada Conference All-Star as a specialist, after totalling 27 special teams tackles, three fumble recoveries, two blocked punts, and two touchdowns.
Lalama is one of the conference’s most well-rounded players, and his athleticism places him in a category almost all on his own. He’s already shown he can be a difference maker, and he’ll be the vocal leader Manitoba needs.
Teschuk was a captain last year, and will likely pick up right where he left off in terms of experience and guidance. The St.Paul’s High School grad doesn’t have the size of a lockdown cornerback, at just five-foot-eight, but makes up for his stature by simply playing smart, technical ball.
He had three pass knockdowns in 2014, and alongside Tremaine Apperley, the duo become two of the toughest players to go deep against. His ability to read the field and help his teammates adjust as the season goes along will be instrumental.
McKay will anchor an offensive line that will be one of the biggest strengths for the herd in 2015, with three returning hoggies.
The veteran left tackle is a no-brainer to assume leadership responsibilities for a now-graduated Robert Smith. He’s been a CJFL All-Canadian, Canada West All-Star, and most recently, East-West Bowl participant.
McKay has also had two of his former running backs get drafted into the CFL (Anthony Coombs and Kienan LaFrance). With a track record like that, it’s hard not to lean on the big man.
Along with the three aforementioned athletes, Manitoba’s other four draft-eligible players should also factor in big this season.
Stalwart defensive tackle David Onyemata, left guard Nevin Gamblin, and receivers Alex Vitt and Dustin Pedersen were all starters in 2014, and that won’t change in 2015.
Onyemata and Pedersen joined Lalama and McKay at the East West-Bowl this past May. Onyemata specifically will be one to watch this season. He’s ranked as one of, if not the, best defensive tackle prospects in all of Canada, and rightfully so.
The native of Lagos, Nigeria has played the game for less than five years, and in that time, has become a mainstay in the front four with the Bisons. He’s recorded 44.5 tackles over the past two seasons, and his hulking frame forces teams to double him on almost every snap. This frees up other players to go in unblocked, effectively stuffing most opponents run games entirely.
The last time the Bisons had a defensive tackle this highly touted was when a guy named Israel Idonije strapped on the pads, and with Onyemata’s progression, he could ultimately end up in the NFL one day, much like his predecessor.
Pedersen and Vitt will anchor this year’s receiving corps. The former was hampered by nagging injuries last season, but showed what he’s capable of midway through 2014, after a season-high seven-reception, 103-yard performance against a stingy Calgary Dinos team, in game four.
After an invite to the East-West Bowl, and the graduation of his former Vancouver Island counterpart, Matt Sawyer, Pedersen should be able to take over the versatility role at wideout in 2015.
Vitt is a legitimate Canada West All-Star contender at slotback for Manitoba. He started in seven of the team’s eight regular season games in 2014, before being sidelined with a leg injury. In that time, he put up 489 receiving yards, which was good for second overall with the Bisons.
With Nic Demski now with the Roughriders, and Vitt back to 100 per cent, the future looks bright for the 205-pounder.
Gamblin will return to the left guard spot, which he patrolled for all of 2014. The Brandon native is capable of playing guard as well, which is invaluable for this team. He’ll be playing alongside McKay, who he also played junior football with. The duo’s chemistry makes the Bisons left side one of the most feared in all of the CIS, without a doubt.
The future of Bison football
Jayden McKoy, Tyler Fong, Theo Deezar, and Alex Christie, have made their names known for various reasons with Manitoba. They’ll all be expected to step up in 2015, and beyond this year as well.
McKoy and Fong were both part of a stalwart Bisons secondary in 2014, and will lead the way again this year, along with Teschuk.
Fong has racked up five interceptions over his first two seasons with the herd, and is simply a hard working, intelligent player. He’s consistently in the right place at the right time, and the 21-year-old safety has quickly become a necessity for Manitoba in the deep third.
McKoy made a name for himself at halfback in quick fashion in 2014. After redshirting the year prior, he amassed five interceptions in his first full year of eligibility, good for second in the conference. He’s yet another smart, sound player who rarely makes a big mistake, and his poise will be valuable yet again as a starter.
While Fong and McKoy will be instrumental on defence, Deezar and Christie will provide a powerful punch on offence.
Both players are stepping in as starters for the first time, but have already shown they can get the job done.
Christie was a punt-blocking machine in 2014, totalling four, and demonstrating his impressive acceleration, while Deezar stepped up when Yantz was injured last year, and now has full control of the helm.
With a fierce offensive line, both of these players’ jobs will likely be made easier, giving them a chance to contribute in a big way.