There is no time like the present for the 2017 iteration of the U of M Bisons football team.
The herd is looking to put a disappointing 3-5 record from 2016 in the rear-view mirror, and optimism is high, with 66 players returning from last season.
Offensively, the team returns 11 of 12 starters. However, one of the biggest changes occurring within the coaching staff is receivers coach Blaire Atkinson taking over the reigns from Vaughn Mitchell as offensive co-ordinator.
“In terms of Blaire Atkinson putting his brand on the offence, it’s his brand. Vaughn Mitchell had his brand, and both brands are great brands, they really are,” said head coach Brian Dobie.
“The offence has been productive for years, and we’re always near the top of the country. This [offence] is just different than coach Mitchell’s somewhat.”
Player-wise, the only subtraction from last season’s starting 12 is offensive lineman Geoff Gray, who was signed as a priority free agent with the Green Bay Packers. While his exit will have a profound effect on the offensive line, the team should be just fine on up front with veterans such as Reid McMorris, Anthony Daley, Matt and Tom Clarkson, Zack Williams, Myles Rose-Standish, and Jordan Medal all back for another campaign.
“The plus side is the other four starters and all the other guys [who return],” Dobie said.
“Geoff’s the only offensive lineman that we lost, they’re [the rest of the lineman] all back. You can’t make an excuse for losing Geoff Gray to the NFL is the message there.”
When discussing the offence it is impossible not to mention the return of running back Jamel Lyles, the Canada West Rookie of the Year for 2015 with the Bisons who set a new single-season rushing record last year during his time with the Westshore Rebels of the British Columbia Football Conference .
“He’s a beast, he’s that good. And he’s unquestionably, undoubtedly, one of the absolute elite backs in the nation,” Dobie said. “That’s a long-proven and done deal.”
Manitoba returns eight players on the defensive side of the ball but will need to replace the production of linebackers DJ Lalama and Bami Adewale, as well as defensive end Evan Foster.
“The box [defensive line and linebackers] is going to be an adventure to sort out,” Dobie said. “We have four really good starters that we’ve invested in and we think highly of, but we’ve got to replace three.”
One of the hardest aspects to replace of the three players is simply their knowledge and understanding of the playbook, having been with, and started for, the squad for numerous seasons.
“As soon as you lose fifth year guys you lose all that experience, so there’s going to be a learning curve with whoever wins the MAC [middle linebacker] and WILL [weak side linebacker] spots, but we’ve got some good kids there that we’re excited about,” Dobie said.
“The MAC and WILL battles, I hope, will accelerate the learning and performance curve because they are going to have to compete.
“Nobody’s going to get it handed to them and coast.”
Players to watch for in the battle for the MAC and WILL spots include veterans Donovan Gregoire, James Mau, Caleb Abraham, and Kyle Gordon.
The secondary isn’t as much of a concern for Dobie and his staff. The team loses former captain Cam Teschuk but retains the rest of the unit. Injuries were a huge factor in the defensive backfield a year ago, which resulted in a number of players seeing action at some point, therefore increasing the depth the squad will have in 2017.
The secondary sees a lot of returnees: Jayden McKoy, safety Tyler Fong, and cornerback/halfback Marcel Arruda-Welch – the latter two being back after season-ending injuries in 2016. Cornerbacks Akeeno Williams and Evinn Lyons-Keely, along with halfback Keenan Onyebuchi will provide stability to the group, while Schneider Charles returns after a year’s absence. Impact recruit Shae Weekes out of St. Paul’s is also likely to factor in.
“I think it’s the best overall group we’ve had here at Manitoba since the 2007 Vanier Cup group,” Dobie said.
“It’s going to be very competitive. We’re very deep there and very talented on the top, so that’s a big plus.”
The Bisons kick off their season at Investors Group Field on Friday, Sept. 1, in a battle against the Saskatchewan Huskies. Game time is 7 p.m.