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August 30, 2017

Bisons | 2017 Season Preview

Winnipeg, Manitoba - Manitoba Bisons Football vs UofS Huskies CIS regular season action September 24. Jeff Miller Bison Sports ©2016

It was a season everyone involved with the University of Manitoba Bisons football program would just as soon forget. Scratch that: They’d love to have it removed from the record books and permanently erased from memory banks.

In fact, if there was one word that might best describe the 2016 Bisons season – a campaign riddled with injuries and punctuated by a serious case of the mumps as the team stumbled to a 3-5 record and missed the playoffs – it would be this:

Yuck.

And so when several members of the Bisons gathered in their dressing room for a season-preview press conference this week, there was a sense of anticipation as to what this year will bring, but also a sense of relief that, finally, last year’s nightmare will be forgotten when the ball is put on the tee Friday in the 2017 Canada West opener against the Saskatchewan Huskies at Investors Group Field.

With all that as a backdrop, here is our Bisons 2017 primer as they complete final preparations for Friday’s curtain raiser…

THE RANKINGS

The U Sports Top 10 football rankings were released this week, and the Bisons, despite last year’s disappointment, round out the list at the No. 10 spot.

Laval tops the list followed by Montreal, Western, Calgary, Regina, Laurier, UBC, McMaster and Ottawa.

“Despite being a 3-5 team last year, this program, for a very long time, has had a lot of national respect and maybe that got us in the Top 10,” said head coach Brian Dobie. “Regardless, if you’re a Top 10 team you’d better go out and prove it. So… here we go.”

It also says something that four Canada West programs are in the Top 10 in Calgary, Regina, UBC and the Bisons.

“CanWest is the toughest conference in the country. Not even close” Dobie added. “I have no qualms about saying that.”

THE LEADERSHIP GROUP

The Bisons announced their eight captains for 2017, four from offence and four from defence. They are:

  • QB Theo Deezar – a captain for the third time; 4th in the nation last year with 2,543 passing yards.
  • RB Alex Christie – also a captain for the third time; was 12th in U Sports in rushing in 2016.
  • Receiver Trysten Dyce – first-time captain; finished third on the club with 30 receptions for 331 yards.
  • OL Anthony Daley – first-time captain; Winnipeg native, started seven of eight conference games at three different positions last year.
  • Safety Tyler Fong – third time as a captain; had his season limited to three games last year because of injury.
  • DL Derek Dufault – Winnipeg product and first-time captain; became a starter last year.
  • LB Houston Rennie – First-time captain made the transition from the secondary to the linebacker position. Finished with 37 tackles last year and played in the 2017 East-West Bowl.
  • DB Jayden McKoy – Another first-time captain; played both defensive back and safety last year was second in Canada West with four interceptions; also appeared in the 2017 East-West Bowl.

 

A BIG HOLE ON THE O-LINE

Bison product Geoff Gray, a first-round draft pick of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, is still in camp with the Green Bay Packers after signing with them in the spring as an undrafted free agent. The 6-6, 310-pounder leaves a size-large hole in the trenches, both literally and figuratively, and will be replaced by Tom Clarkson, who joined the club last year after playing for UNLV.

“That’s a big one,” said Dobie of the loss. “Geoff Gray is the best lineman in the nation and you don’t replace an NFL player. Geoff had it all – extremely intelligent, physical, the list goes on. He helped us in so many ways, he was such a great player, but it was almost like having a coach on the offensive line with all the experience and knowledge he had.”

A WORKHORSE RETURNS

Running back/returner Jamel Lyles was the Canada West Rookie of the Year in 2015, but then left after one season for academic reasons. He’s back in 2017 and the Bisons get a big boost from a man who led the country with 1,564 all-purpose yards in 2015 and last year was the CJFL’s Outstanding Offensive Player while with the Westshore Rebels.

“What can I say? He’s as good as it gets in the nation,” said Dobie. “I’ve likened it to the locker room right across the hall… is there a better running back in the nation than Andrew Harris? I think Jamel Lyles is in that category as one of the two or three absolute elite running backs in the nation who is not currently a professional football player. I really mean it and I think he’s a can’t-miss pro who will have a great pro career eventually.

“We’d be crazy not to use him in a variety of ways. We want him to get touches, for sure.”

STRENGTHS

Dobie listed his QB depth as one of the real strengths of the team. In addition to Deezar, the club will dress Des Catellier, a second-year Calgary product, and Julian Wytinck, entering his third year and a product of Lord Selkirk Regional High School and the Winnipeg Rifles.

Dobie also mentioned his two tailbacks – Lyles and Alex Christie – as strengths along with a receiving corps that features Dyce, Riley Harrison, Shai Ross and former Sisler and Calgary Colts product Dylan Schrot.

A QUESTION MARK

The Bisons return 11 of 12 starters on offence and eight of 12 on defence. He knows his club will score points, but can they stop the opposition?

“The defence is going to be interesting,” Dobie said. “We’ve lost a lot of people in our front seven. That’s our question mark. I like our defensive secondary, I think it’s a great group of athletes. I’ll go out on a limb and say it’s the best group of athletes we’ve had since the ’07 Vanier team. Putting it all together is another issue, of course.”

THE OPENER

The Bisons will meet the Saskatchewan Huskies Friday, and the dogs are a bit of an unknown. They went 5-3 last season, but underwent a massive makeover in the offseason with long-time coach Brian Towriss stepping down and being replaced by Scott Flory, the former Montreal Alouettes O-lineman. His coaching staff features Huskies legend Warren Muzika as the defensive coordinator and former CFL QB Marcus Crandell – who led the Calgary Stampeders to victory over the Bombers in the 2001 Grey Cup – as the offensive boss.

“Game 1 is always a big question mark. You just don’t know how you’re going to come out of the gate,” said Dobie. “We really don’t know what to expect. That’s a big unknown and it’s tough to prepare for that. Our preparation has to be about us. We have to be true to our rules, our systems. We really don’t know what Marcus Crandell and Warren Muzika are going to bring to the table after the ball’s kicked off on Friday night.”

EXPECTATIONS

Tough conference, yes. But the goals are always high in Bison football country.

“My opinion, it’s Vanier Cup or nothing,” said running back Alex Christie. “That’s our goal. It’s my last year, my last year of playing football ever and I’ve been playing for 18 years. There’s nothing more I want than to end my career with a Vanier Cup. It would be incredible.”