SCOTT TAYLOR, MyToba.ca
Photos by JEFF MILLER, MyToba.ca

It’s almost become a mantra for University of Manitoba Bisons head coach, Brian Dobie: “If you have a quarterback and an offensive line, you have a chance. We have a chance.”

Dobie won’t make guarantees. He knows there are no guarantees. But the head coach is prepared to say that when it comes to winning the Canada West Conference or even the Vanier Cup, the 2014 edition of the University of Manitoba Bisons “has a chance.”

Jordan Yantz works out at Bombers rookie camp earlier this year.

Jordan Yantz works out at Bombers rookie camp earlier this year.

“That’s all any team can ask for,” Dobie said. “If you don’t have a quarterback and you don’t have a good offensive line, your chances to win any game become slimmer and slimmer, but with Jordan Yantz at quarterback and our big, veteran offensive line in front of him, we do have a chance to win every time we go out onto the field. We all know that doesn’t mean we will, but it does mean we have the opportunity. And as a guy who has been around for nearly two decades, I know that’s all any team can ask for.”

Dobie will enter his 18th season at the helm of the Bisons in 2014. He has two visits to the Vanier Cup and one victory (2007) under his belt and while he’s proud of that, he will admit that he hasn’t felt as good about a team since that ’07 national champion until this one.

Last year, the Bisons were whipped in the Hardy Cup Western Final by that University of Calgary juggernaut. This year, Dobie is convinced that every team in Canada West is closer than they’ve been to each other in nearly a decade. It’s not wide open, Calgary is still favoured, but every team is better this season and the Bisons are no exception. The players are older, wiser, more committed and more experienced and this group is on the verge of “doing something special.”

“We have a very good offence and it will lead the way,” Dobie said. “We’ll score a lot of points. It will be hard to replace three-time All-Canadian Anthony Coombs (now with the Toronto Argos) but we feel Kienan LaFrance can step in and play at a high level at tailback. We still have Jordan Yantz at quarterback and Nic Demski at receiver so that will keep us strong while our offensive line is big and athletic.

“In some ways, our defence is still a work in progress. It’s been a struggle the past two seasons but I’m excited to see what happens in training camp, especially with our linebackers and secondary. We’ll see who fits in and who steps up to win the jobs. That’s the part of training camp I’m most concerned about and most excited about.”

There is no telling how good this Bisons team can be this season. But one thing is certain for Coach Dobie: “We have a chance.” And at the CIS level, that’s about as good as it ever gets.

Let’s take a close look at the 2014 University of Manitoba Bisons:

Offensive line

“Our O-line is a veteran group and it’s very, very big,” said Dobie with a smile. It’s anchored by left tackle Alex McKay, a mobile 280-pound blindside blocker who will be back to protect Yantz in the pocket. Nevin Gamblin, at 6-foot-5, 290 pounds, and Shahpour Birjandian, at 6-foot-3, 300 pounds, will play at left guard while veteran Tyler Fabbri at 6-foot-1, 295 pounds, and Winnipeg high school star Jordan Medal, who redshirted last season after a year at McGill, is a 6-foot-3, 300-pound, potential All-Canadian at centre. Medal can also play right guard, but that job will belong to 2013 starter Geoff Gray from the Greendell Falcons, who doubles as an outstanding engineering student and one of Canada’s top powerlifters. He’s 6-foot-5, 310 pounds, and Dobie calls him “a monster.” The right tackle is the leader of the group, Rob Smith, a fifth year player who tips the Toledos at 340 pounds. “It’s a big line,” said Dobie. “And as I’ve said, if you have a big line and a good quarterback, you have a chance to win every game.”

Top recruit: Christian Krause (6-foot-5, 308 pounds) from Mount Douglas High School in Victoria, B.C. His high school coach was former Bomber Bob Molle and he’s ranked as the 17th-best high school player in Canada.

Quarterbacks

As Coach Dobie says, “first and foremost we have an exciting offence,” and that offence starts with Jordan Yantz at quarterback. Last season, the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Yantz was named a Canada West All-star with the Bisons. In 2013 he threw for 2,474 yards and a CIS-best 25 touchdowns and as Dobie said at training camp, “it all starts and ends with Jordan.” Yantz has a great arm, is fearless and can run. He’s clearly the best quarterback in the CIS. Behind him, four players will battle for the No. 2 job. The only returner at QB, Foster Martens; along with former St. Paul’s star Theo Deezar; 6-foot-7 B.C. high school sensation, Ashton McKinnon (who will also play basketball for the Bisons); and first year Team Manitoba star Drenin Busch out of Murdoch MacKay.

KIENAN LAFRANCE

KIENAN LAFRANCE

Top recruits: Theo Deezar, Okanagan Sun; Drenin Busch, Murdoch MacKay Collegiate, Winnipeg; Ashton MacKinnon, Mount Douglas High School, Victoria, B.C.

Running backs

Replacing Anthony Coombs, a three-time All-Canadian will be almost impossible, but the man who will step into Coombs’ position is pretty good. Kienan LaFrance, who also came out of Sturgeon Heights Collegiate, but just ahead of Coombs, has been waiting three seasons for this opportunity and now he gets it. “Nobody has worked harder or been more patient,” Dobie said. Alex Christie, a veteran is the other tailback who will see action while Andrew Barry is back to start at fullback. Bryan Giesbrecht will also get reps at the fullback position. “Andrew Barry is wall-to-wall muscle,” said Dobie. “He’s also a great special teams guy.”

Receivers

“It all starts with Nic Demski,” said Dobie. “He’s a three-time All-Canadian and a lot of what we’ll do will depend on what other teams do to try to shut down Nic.” Demski, the gifted inside receiver out of Oak Park, proved this summer at the CIS East-West Bowl Game that he’s one of the best in the nation and he’ll anchor the Bisons receiving corps this season. The team’s other two inside receivers are both Winnipeg products — Bryden Bone from Oak Park and Alex Vitt from the Rifles. Outside, a trio of veterans will battle for the majority of the playing time — Dustin Petersen, Matt Sawyer and Akeeno Williams. The Bisons have also re-acquired Dan Turek from Maples who was the leading receiver two years ago, but missed last season.

NIC DEMSKI

NIC DEMSKI

Top recruit: Zach Regert from Sturgeon Heights, a 6-foot-5 target who played with B.C. Junior League’s Okanagan Sun last season.

Defensive line

“What we need to run will depend on our opponent,” said Dobie when asked if the team would go 40 or 3-4. “How athletic we are, how we rush the passer and how we defend the pass on the back end will determine what we do, as well.” There might be some question about the linebacking corps and the secondary, but there is no denying the defensive line is solid. Inside, the Bisons will be led by two veteran monsters — Evan Gill (6-foot-4, 300 pounds) and David Onyemata (6-foot-5, 320 pounds). “One is already a first-round CFL pick and the other will be,” Dobie said. “In fact, David has an outside chance at being an NFL draft pick.” Lauren Kroeker, a fifth-year player at 6-foot-5, 270 pounds will be the boundary end while veteran Tyler Lee has the inside shot at being the man on the edge of the rush.

EVAN GILL

EVAN GILL

Top recruit: Evan Foster had an amazing 16 sacks with the B.C. Junior League’s Langley Rams last season. “He can play inside and take reps on the edge,” said Dobie.

Linebackers

“Losing Thomas Miles is a big hit,” said Dobie. “He was like a computer on defence. He knew everything we were doing at every position on every play. But we have some players who can step in.” D.J. Lalama will take Miles’ spot to start training camp while Bami Adewale is expected to be a leader on defence. However, Adewale is recovering from an Achilles tendon injury that didn’t require surgery and there is still some concern as to when he’ll be available. Two players will battle for the Sam linebacker’s job — Mitch Harrison and Jonathan Jones.

Secondary

Dobie admits there are a lot questions surrounding the secondary. “David Ferrier has had surgery and won’t play this year and that will hurt us,” Dobie said. “So it’s likely Tremaine Apperly will step in and play at one corner. Then come the questions. The biggest one is what do we do with Jayden McKoy?” McKoy was Dobie’s big recruit last year and after a season as a red-shirt, the talented two-way player will step in at, well, some position. “He can play safety, boundary half or seal corner,” Dobie said. “So the question will be, do we build the other blocks first and fit Jayden in where we need him or do we give Jayden a position and build around him?” Dobie has options at the other positions. Cam Teschuk will likely be a starting halfback and Tyler Fong, a transfer from Simon Fraser has proven he can play safety. Veteran Brett MacFarland is a physical defensive back who could be a Sam linebacker. “Secondary will be the most interesting and exciting part of training camp,” Dobie said. “And the one I’m most concerned about.”

JAYDEN McKOY

JAYDEN McKOY

Top recruit: Eric Plett, from Dakota Collegiate via the Rifles. “After testing, we found out that Eric is the second-fastest player on the team,” said Dobie.

Kicker/punter

“Losing Nick Boyd to the Montreal Alouettes will really hurt us,” said Dobie. “So in the spring we brought in four players and tested them and found that Matt Riley from Abbotsford, B.C., was our best punter, Ryan Jones from Winnipeg via the B.C. Junior League was our best placekicker, Tanner Pescitelli from River East was our best kickoff specialist and Ben Koot from the Regina Prairie Thunder was second best in all three areas. So we’re going to bring them back at main camp and test them again.” Dobie did concede that DT Evan Gill might be the best kicker and punter on the team but he’s not sure he’s ready to have a 6-foot-4, 300 pound kicker if he can help it. “Well,” said Dobie, “we’d have the biggest kicker in the western hemisphere.” Wideout Zach Regert is a pretty good punter, too. “We have a lot guys,” said Dobie. “We need to know more about them.”

Top recruit: “It depends,” said Dobie, “on which one of these newcomers wins the job.”

— For information on Bison football tickets, contact bison.tickets@umanitoba.ca

Bisons 2014 CIS football schedule

Day Date Visitor Home Location Time (CDT)
Friday Sept. 5 Manitoba Saskatchewan Griffiths Stadium 8 p.m.
Friday Sept. 12 Regina Manitoba Investors Group Field 7 p.m.
Saturday Sept. 20 UBC Manitoba Investors Group Field 2 p.m.
Friday Sept. 26 Manitoba Calgary McMahon Stadium 7 p.m.
Saturday Oct. 4 Manitoba Edmonton Foote Field 6 p.m.
Friday Oct. 17 Saskatchewan Manitoba Investors Group Field 7 p.m.
Saturday Oct. 25 Manitoba Regina Mosaic Stadium 3 p.m.
Saturday Nov. 1 Calgary Manitoba Investors Group Field 2 p.m.