Gridiron T-Birds look to playoffs and beyond

by Don Wells

Thunderbird Athletics

Don't expect any surprises when you ask UBC Thunderbirds football head coach Casey Smith how he feels about his team's chances in 1997. Likely as not, he will respond with the usual guarded optimism and a statement about how the CIAU's Canada West conference is always the toughest.

But just how good is Smith's 1997 squad? And is his statement about the competitiveness of the league an accurate one?

With 16 starters returning from last year's Hardy Cup finalist squad, including stand-out pivot Shawn Olson and all-Canadians Mark Nohra and Bob Beveridge, T-Bird fans have reason to be genuinely enthusiastic about the 1997 campaign. As for the league, let's look at some facts.

There are 24 teams playing football in the Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union (CIAU), yet eight of the last 15 Vanier Cup Championships have gone to teams from the five-member Canada West conference. More specifically, those eight national championships have been shared by just three teams -- UBC, Saskatchewan and Calgary. The statement is accurate -- the West is best. As for the most recent history, last year's Vanier Cup went to Saskatchewan while the 1995 crown went to Calgary.

The 1997 debut for UBC is, appropriately enough, a Sept. 5th date at home with Saskatchewan. UBC won its final three games of last season to finish 5-3 and capture a play-off spot, but was eliminated by Saskatchewan in the Hardy Cup (CWUAA Championship) Nov. 4 in Saskatoon. Saskatchewan returns what could well be the best defense in the country. The Husky defensive unit will see only three new faces on UBC's side of the line of scrimmage as a total of nine starters return to the T-Bird offensive line-up.

Led by Olson, a second-year quarterback who sparked the UBC offense beginning mid-way through last season, the T-Birds should be equally threatening on the ground as in the air. The ground game will revolve around running back Akbal Singh, a second-year speedster who transferred to UBC last year from the Renfrew Trojans, and Nohra, a fifth-year fullback who was UBC's MVP last year and a draft pick of the Hamilton Tiger Cats.

The backfield will be aided in very large measure by an impressive offensive line, led by Bob Beveridge, a 1997 first-round pick by the B.C. Lions and last year's Bobby Gaul Award winner as UBC's Most Outstanding Graduating Male Athlete. At 6-6 and 295 lbs., Beveridge will anchor an offensive line which features three other fifth-year seniors in 1995 CWUAA all-star Jim Cooper (6-1, 246 lbs.), David Pol (6-3, 275 lbs.) and Andrew Plant (5-11, 272 lbs.).

Despite the loss of second-team all-Canadian receiver Simon Beckow, the T-Bird aerial attack will be a source of concern for all opposition secondaries. Expectations are high for fifth-year all-purpose veteran Dino Camparmo and second-year sensation Brad Coutts, who produced 725 yards on 40 receptions last year, as well as Andrew Newton, a third-year player who showed tremendous improvement in the second half of last season. One of the more promising newcomers is freshman Joe Orel, an all-Canadian last year with the Vancouver Island Sharks of the B.C. Junior Football League (BCJFL).

While the Birds clearly have the firepower to put the ball in the end zone, the kicking game remains the biggest concern for T-Bird coaching staff. The loss of both Nathan Ngieng and Jamie Boreham has left coaches looking for both a kicker and a punter.

The defense returns seven starters, but perhaps most significantly it has a new coach. Former Abbotsford Air Force head coach Dave Johnson was named as the UBC defensive co-ordinator during the off-season. With the graduation of 1996 CWUAA all-star linebacker Cory Bymoen and defensive lineman Steve Hansen, Johnson will build a defensive front around fourth-year linemen Alex Charles and Benjie Hutchison as well as sophomore Ryan Attwell.

The linebacking corps sees the return of Canada West all-stars Dan Elliott (6-2, 225 lbs.) and 1995 CWUAA all-star Casey Souter (6, 208 lbs.), however, both Smith and Johnson are enthusiastic about a number of new players, particularly 5-11, 200 lbs. Stuart Scherck, a second-year transfer from Western Montana; 5-11, 229 lbs. BCJFL all-star Tyson St. James from Abbotsford Air Force and 5-11, 192 lbs. B.C. High School all-star Patrick Rogers (Vancouver College).

Look for the secondary to have some great competition with veteran returnees Ryan McWhinney (1995 CWUAA Rookie-of-the-Year); Strachan Hartley, Chris Hoople, Mark Peppin, Dan Rootes, Art Tolhurst and fifth-year seniors Paul Girodo and Curtis Galick, all fighting for starting assignments. Hartley, who sat out last season after a severe leg injury in the 1995 season, made a big impression in spring training. Transfers Shane Sommerfeld, a fourth-year all-American transfer from Dickinson State, and Greg Hallifax from Rocky Mountain College will also push the veterans for starting assignments.

In total, a solid nucleus of 42 players from the 1996 season will return to the Thunderbird locker room this season, and several of the 24 new recruits are expected to step in and contribute right away.

"We feel we have the right mix of youth, experience and personalities to take us through the regular season and beyond," states Smith. "I was very proud of the way our guys turned it around mid-way through last season. The goal for this season is to take the next step and win the playoffs, but a lot of hard work has to be done by everyone to get there."

In addition to head coaching duties, Smith will serve as offensive co-ordinator and quarterback coach. Defensive co-ordinator Johnson will also specialize with the defensive front seven and will be assisted by CFL veteran Chris Tsangaris. Noel Thorpe returns to work with the defensive secondary as well as strength and conditioning. Former T-Bird all-Canadian centre Andrew Butschler is back for a third year on the coaching staff and will oversee the offensive line. The receivers will be coached by Craig Smith and running backs by Brad Driscoll.

T-Bird Football Schedule

All home games (bold) played at Thunderbird Stadium

Fri. Sept. 5 vs University of Saskatchewan, 7 p.m.
Sat. Sept. 13 at University of Alberta
Fri. Sept. 19 vs University of Calgary, 7 p.m.
Sat. Sept. 27 at University of Manitoba
Sat. Oct. 4 Shrum Bowl at Swangard Stadium, 7 p.m.
Sat. Oct. 11 at University of Saskatchewan
Fri. Oct. 17 vs University of Alberta, 7 p.m.
Sat. Oct 25 at University of Calgary
Fri. Oct 31 vs University of Manitoba, 7 p.m.
Sat. Nov. 8 Canada West Final
Sat. Nov. 15 CWUAA at AUAA
Sat. Nov. 22 Vanier Cup, Toronto, Skydome