The York University Lions football team is ready to make a statement in the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) league.
The sense of optimism among players is higher than it has been in years for the program, which has been trending upwards since the arrival of head coach Warren Craney.
The Lions continued their upward movement in the OUA standings last year – finishing in seventh place with a 2-6 record – but many associated with the program remember the year more for what was missed than what was accomplished. The squad lost three games by a combined nine points.
“As much as we wanted to be 5-3 last year, we’ll be a better football team in 2013 from being 2-6. We learned a lot and it made our guys and our coaches a lot hungrier to come out and compete this year,” said Craney.
“In previous years we’ve set what we call achievable goals. You always want to reach for the stars but you also want the players to be able to attain something,” said Craney. “This season, with our first recruiting class going into its third year, it’s time to step up to the plate. We are shooting to become a playoff team, and I believe we have a football team that can compete with anyone in the OUA.”
At the conclusion of last year, Craney and his staff immediately got to work in recruiting and were rewarded for their efforts with the best class in his three years at York. Those players join a group of talented student-athletes who have learned a lot over the past two seasons, and the squad is now finally becoming more of a veteran one.
“Our offence will be very dynamic this year and we will be looking to build off the success the group had last season. Myles [Gibbon] is a tremendous quarterback, we are very excited about our receivers, we are going to be strong in the running game and I think it’s about time to say our offensive line is a top-four line in the OUA,” said Craney.
The offence will run through the capable hands Gibbon, a three-year National Collegiate Athletics Association veteran who is coming off a tremendous first season with the Lions last year, in which he finished third in the OUA in passing yardage (1992 yards). “Myles is the emotional leader of this team and, in my opinion, the best quarterback in the country. He is going to carry this football team on his back, and he is going to lead us,” said Craney.
He will have his choice of players to throw the ball to as York’s receiving corps is the team’s most talented unit. OUA all-star William Austin was the top wide out last year with 587 yards – the seventh-best total in the conference – while Devante Hobbs was third on the team with 317 yards, nearly triple the amount he put up in his rookie season.
The group will get an immediate boost of veteran talent with the addition of transfer Damone Williams, a dynamic receiver from St. Francis Xavier University who will be a wildcard for the team with his play-making abilities, both on offence and in the return game.
They are joined by a trio of young receivers who have the talent to make an immediate splash in the OUA. Ryan Dunaway was with the team last year and appeared in just one game, but he has blossomed into a deep threat with great hands. Topping six feet, he is a big target and his speed will make him difficult to guard. Jarrett Carson and Jason Charland both came to York from CEGEP programs in Quebec and, while still freshmen, bring a mature attitude to the position.
The young receivers weren’t the only players to impress early in training camp. Rookie offensive linemen Trevor King and Jon Ravn proved immediately why they were two of the most sought-after recruits this year, and they join a maturing line that includes third-year players Max Sullivan and Jordyn Moore.
The team’s biggest loss came in the backfield with the departure of Kyle Exume, but Craney and his staff feel they have filled the void with a tremendous talent in Connor Anderson. A transfer from West Virginia Wesleyan College, he enrolled at York in the winter semester to get an early start on preparations for this season, and turned plenty of heads at the team’s annual spring scrimmage with his aggressive style and tackle-breaking runs. He will be paired with Errol Brooks, a speed demon who provides the running game with a great change of pace.
While the offence is well positioned to be a juggernaut, the defence remains young and less experienced but still on the verge of a breakthrough. Last year, the Lions allowed 130 yards less per game than the previous season and they will be looking to lower that number even further this year.
At defensive back, the leaders will be Josh Small, a shutdown cornerback who tied for fifth in the OUA with three interceptions and was the team’s rookie of the year last season, and fourth-year player Cory Bellerdine. The depth of the unit has been enhanced with the addition of newcomers Connor Pritty and Samir Boulazreg.
On the defensive line, the coaching staff is expecting big things from Jamal Campbell, a strong second-year player who has worked hard on his body, and rookie Cole Austen, who walked onto campus and immediately into the starting lineup with his solid play.
The biggest surprise of last season was the play of defensive end James Tuck, who was moved to the position after two years as a linebacker. He took to his new spot immediately, finishing seventh in the OUA with 6.5 sacks and ranking second on the team with 33 tackles to earn the team’s defensive MVP trophy.
The linebackers are also a talented group, led by middle linebacker and defensive captain Hussein Hazime, Emerson Morassutti and Michael Runowski, who will be called upon to make all of the adjustments on defence.
Where the team has made the biggest strides is on special teams, with the addition of kickers Nick Naylor and Kevin Kitamura. Both of them will be called upon to improve the area in which the team struggled most last year.
“Our biggest weakness last year was our special teams, and we had a sense of urgency to upgrade in that area in the off season,” said Craney. “We recruited a lot and got the guys we wanted, and based on what I’ve seen in training camp our kicking game has gone from a weakness to strength.”
Above all else, the coaching staff are starting to see the fruits of their labour from the past few years and are looking forward to what lies ahead.
“It means a lot to York to have a strong football program,” said Craney. “The athletic department made a commitment to the team when they hired me and it is time. We’re going into our third real season with our players, and there is a sense of pride among our student-athletes. They know how important it is to the University and we want it as bad as anyone. This university has waited a long time for a successful program, and I can’t wait to bring it to them.”