Coming off an undefeated season that resulted in Dalhousie University’s first football championship since 1954, their coaching staff is getting the team prepared for another run this fall.
The Tigers went 8-0 under rookie head coach Mark Haggett. They capped off the season with a victory over Holland College in the Atlantic Football League (AFL) championship game back in November.
Since then, the club football team has lost some notable starters. But, with a new recruiting class that’s larger than any they’ve had in the past, a whole new group of talented players are being added to the mix.
“It’s every program’s goal to be better than the year previous,” Haggett said. “That’s what a program does, it evolves. The Tigers will be better in 2017. That is my mission.”
Star quarterback and AFL MVP Nick Hunsley is no longer playing and is transitioning to quarterback coach. However, along with new recruits, there are some key starters returning as well.
One of the returning players is Zack Leger. Leger is a running back who earned offensive MVP honours this past season and routinely carved out big runs when the Tigers needed it the most.
“When you have young quarterbacks and you want them to get their legs underneath themselves, Zack is the guy to rely on as kind of a workhorse,” Hunsley said. “There’s so many times when you’re on your own five-yard line and he’s the guy who’s going to get you out to midfield with only a couple carries. He was definitely a saviour for us.”
Haggett sees a bright future for Leger and is looking forward to seeing him add on to his success.
“He’s aiming his guns for the CFL combine next year,” Haggett said. “He had some interest this year and a partial invite that he turned down because he wants to concentrate on his academics. But next year he is going to be ready for that.”
All of the Tigers starting offensive lineman are also returning next season.
One notable returnee at the receiver position is Spencer Muise. Muise will look to step into the No. 1 receiver role after the departure of Guillaume Bernier and Louis Gauvin. Muise received rookie of the year honours at the team’s award ceremony this year.
Pass-rusher Jesse Legeault is returning to the defensive line after earning the most valuable lineman award for his efforts this past season. Tegin Davis is another returning player to look out for on defence. The tall and athletic defensive back grew a lot as a player this season and received the most improved player award.
The coaching staff has assembled a recruiting class of around 30 players from around Nova Scotia and across Canada.
Two new quarterbacks are Chris Duplisea from the Sir John A. MacDonald Flames and Ian Oyler from the Charles P. Allen Cheetahs. The coaches know that replacing Hunsley won’t be easy, but they hope these recruits are up to task.
“We are very fortunate to have Chris Duplisea and Ian Oyler,” Haggett said. “These are two local guys from extremely well-coached high school programs coming in and working hard in the off-season.”
Haggett says it will be an open competition to see who ends up as starter next season.
“That’s going to be something to watch, the way those two guys battle it out in camp,” Haggett said. “I’m excited to see how that shapes up. Both of them possess unbelievable leadership attributes.”
Another recruit expected to make an impact is defensive lineman Michael Aloisi, a high school All-Star from the Halifax West Warriors.
“We’re really looking forward to getting him in and seeing what he can do in the trenches,” Haggett said. “He wants to play d-line and the AUS programs wanted him to come in as an offensive lineman, so ultimately that was my recruiting tool with him. I told him if that’s what’s gonna get you to come in and play for us, by all means you can play defensive line.”
Along with Oyler, the Tigers have brought in a number of other players from CPA’s program.
“These guys from CPA are lifting weights like a second year AUS player,” Haggett said. “These guys are in there benching reps of 225 pounds and doing deadlifts and power cleans. They are being trained very well.”
Daniel Spilman and Ben Lowther are two new running backs from CPA who are expected to share some of the offensive load.
“(Spilman and Lowther) are going to be beasts,” Haggett said. “Those guys lift like grown ass men.”
Returning offensive lineman Casey Jones is confident that Leger can set the new runners up for future success.
“With this being potentially Zack’s last year, it’s going to pave the way to teach these new guys how to run the ball,” Jones said.
Helping the Tigers get over the loss of receivers Bernier and Gauvin will be the additions of Brennan Ciona and Jack Underhill. Ciona was recruited from Lethbridge, Alta., and Underhill is a multi-sport athlete from J.L. Ilsley high school with formidable size at six foot five.
The Tigers also have a lot of holes to fill in the defensive backfield, with the departure of several players.
Mitch Broussard is a defensive back from CPA, and Haggett says he’s a very well polished player who should make an immediate impact.
Two major additions to the linebacking corps are Nicolas Desveaux and Majd Ibrahim. Desveaux just finished playing in the NCAA for Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama. Ibrahim is from London, Ont.
Another new addition, Wyatt Noel is coming over from the Mount Allison Mounties. Haggett said the six foot three, 240-pound defensive end will bring a lot more than size.
“He’s the type of guy that any coach would love,” Haggett said. “He’s the type of guy that will walk through walls for you.”
Along with the changes on the Tigers roster, there are also some adjustments being made with the coaching staff.
Chico Francis will serve as the team’s new defensive coordinator after the departure of Steve Majury. Francis coached the defensive backs this past season, but that role will now be served by former player Rob Wilson.
“Chico was great last year,” Jones said. “He’s the one who would watch a lot of the film and he would come super prepared to practice, so I have tons of faith in him.”
Two other new coaching additions are linebackers coach Patrick Mpuanga and defensive line coach Spencer Boyd.
One of the biggest coaching changes will be Hunsley’s transition from starting quarterback to quarterback coach.
“It’s my role to get the quarterbacks ready and completely prepped to play to their best ability,” Hunsley said.
Hunsley said he is looking forward to helping the new recruits with his knowledge of the offence.
“Instead of being a guy who has to focus on being 80 per cent mental and 20 per cent physical, you’re kind of all in on the mental side,” he said. “You’re trying to pass on everything you’ve learned to the younger guys.”
Evan Brown will return as offensive coordinator once again next season. His offensive game plans were instrumental in the team’s success. Hunsley said he and Brown will work closely together on the offence.
One of the reasons the Tigers are where they are today is because of their head coach. From Haggett’s recruiting prowess to the way players respond to him, it’s no secret why he found so much success as a rookie head coach this past season.
“He’s a born leader,” Jones said. “Guys will respect him and follow him and he’s not an unreasonable guy whatsoever. I think he’s very good at gaining players respect. He keeps a super positive attitude and I think that’s what causes him to be a really good head coach.”
With many of the new recruits having the kind of talent to excel in bigger football programs, being a good recruiter is one of the main assets Haggett brings.
“It’s definitely not an easy sell trying to get people to play for a club football team where they don’t get scholarship funding, especially where a lot of our recruits have U Sports potential,” Jones said. “He tells people that we can give them a really good education while giving them a fun football experience. I think he’s really good at managing those expectations with players and parents.”
Hunsley agrees that something special is being built under Haggett’s leadership.
“He’s very passionate about it and he’s very personable,” Hunsley said. “He’s someone you can always approach. He’s been around the league and he played at StFX. He’s very knowledgeable in that regard, and I don’t think there’s anyone better to lead the team.”