Mustangs Football 2019 Season Preview
Western Mustangs FootballGreg Bowman
As students slowly begin their preparation for the upcoming school year, the Western Mustangs football team is preparing for their first game of the season. On Sunday, August 25th, the Stangs will kick off the 2019 OUA football season in Waterloo, Ontario, taking on the Laurier Golden Hawks.
Last season, the Mustangs were the powerhouse their season-long No. 1 national ranking would have suggested. They were statistically the best team in the conference on both sides of the ball, outscoring their opponents by an average of 39 points. They ran away with the regular season awards, occupying 14 spots on the OUA all-star teams.
Western cruised its way to its second consecutive Yates Cup Championship, and advanced past the Saskatchewan Huskies in the Mitchell Bowl with relative ease to set up a rematch with the Laval Rouge et Or in the Vanier Cup. This time, Laval had the privilege of hosting, and they used home-field advantage to hand the Mustangs their first loss in an OUA-record 23 games.
With a couple of positional fixtures now graduated, the Mustangs have a handful of positions in their starting lineup that are up for grabs. Western has been among the top programs in the nation, so having access to depth is no issue.
Two out of four starters from last year’s defensive line will be returning to the Mustangs. Deionte Knight will be a starter after a solid rookie season where he recorded 1.5 sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss, playing in all 12 games last year. Andrew Thurston will be entering his fifth year, earning OUA second-team all-star honours with 6.5 sacks and two forced fumbles, while averaging 2.8 tackles per game last season.
Thurston will be the one who will step into a leadership role, which is something he’s prepared for: “I played with Jim [Hawley] and Mitch [Stadnyk] for quite a while and I really enjoyed my time with them and I know they’d be pretty fired up to see the kind of group we have,” said the lineman. “There’s a lot of veteran presence already so I think we’ll be pretty good.”
If there is an area to be concerned about on the Mustangs, it would be with the linebackers. All three of Western’s linebackers last season are now graduated, with last year’s OUA and U Sports Defensive Player of the Year, Fraser Sopik, now playing with the Calgary Stampeders in the CFL. The Mustangs gave up just 11 points per game last regular season, recording the second-most sacks in the OUA. If those numbers are going to stay, a few of last year’s second-stringers will need to be ready to perform.
The depth at the position isn’t a cause for concern for the Mustangs though. Myles Manalo got some significant reps in his rookie season in 2017. He participated in seven regular-season games, but injured his knee in the Vanier Cup, sidelining him for all of 2018. Chris Ellis was got some solid minutes as a backup linebacker last season, recording three sacks and a forced fumble.
“Everyone’s gone, so now we’re looking at a whole new group,” said Head Coach Greg Marshall on his linebacking core. “We’ve got guys who have played for a little bit…but it’s wide open for that SAM linebacker spot. There’s honestly three or four guys who could take that spot.”
Aside from losing last year’s Russ Jackson award-winner, Mackenzie Ferguson, the Mustangs secondary is mostly unchanged. Daniel Valente Jr. will be entering his third year as the starting safety. The London-native has been an OUA all-star for the past two seasons, and is looking forward to taking more of a leadership role on the defence: “In our defence, I’m the quarterback so the boys have to look to me and just being an old guy – a vet – it’s easy for them,” said Valente, who was an OUA all-rookie in 2017. “I’m not scared either. I know the guys… I got the confidence; the boys are flying around and it’s going to be good out there.”
Along with Valente, Bleska Kambamba will be another force in the secondary, collecting two interceptions and four breakups last year. Alex Salytchev rounds out a trio of defensive backs that are all looking to make a splash now that they are older. Robert Panabaker will be looking to make a jump, getting significant minutes as a rookie last year. The former Jr. Mustang appeared in all eight regular-season games, recording an interception and a breakup. He will likely fill in the gap left by Mackenzie Ferguson.
Something that Western has no shortage of is talented offensive linemen. They are a key reason why the Mustangs have led the OUA in rushing yards the past two seasons, and why Chris Merchant has yet to have a significant injury in a purple and white jersey. Three out of the five starters on the Mustangs offensive line were OUA all-stars last year. Just one of those three will be returning this year – Dylan Giffen. He will be surrounded by a couple of last year’s backups who are prepared for starting jobs. While David Brown – who is now a member of the Calgary Stampeders – was injured for the first half of last season, Spencer Hood played well in his place and will likely start this year. The only other starter from last year’s O-line will be Zack Fry, who will join Giffen as the only experienced linemen. It hasn’t yet been decided who will be the centre.
The Mustangs receiving core is similar to their secondary, in that they only lost one player. Harry McMaster – who was a first-team all-star last season – is now with the Edmonton Eskimos. Brett Ellerman, Cole Majoros, Malik Besseghieur and Griffin Campbell will all be returning, and are hoping to collectively pick up where McMaster left off. Majoros was the second-most targeted receiver in the playoffs last year, catching 17 passes for 278 yards and a touchdown in four postseason games. Malik Besseghieur had a down year compared to 2017, collecting 313 receiving yards and no touchdowns. He is hopeful that he can move into the deep threat that Harry McMaster once was.
Brett Ellerman will likely use his height in the slot, also looking to rebound from a postseason that saw him nab just six passes in four games. As a veteran, he has a unique goal for potentially his last season: “Just enjoying and cherishing every moment. Sometimes we’ll come out here and it’s hot – it’s tough,” Ellerman explained. “I think, especially as you get older, into our final years here you really just want to take in everything and just enjoy being around the guys and the coaches and improve day in and day out.”
The two-headed monster of Cedric Joseph and Alex Taylor is no more. The two Mustangs studs have been the heartbeat of the offence, running their opponents into the ground when given the slightest bit of room.
Both are now graduated, meaning that Trey Humes now has an opportunity to shine: “It started in the offseason. Sitting down with Cedric while he was still here, watching film, going over our reads… it was one thing I wanted to make emphasis on – just knowing my assignments, the mental part,” Humes said. Last year’s third-string running back still put up great numbers, running for 298 yards and two touchdowns, often playing the second half of most games.
Humes will be joined by a newcomer to the Mustangs, who is joining the team from the NCAA. Jonathan Femi-Cole is doing a postgraduate program at Western for his fifth year of eligibility, after spending his undergrad at the University of Minnesota. He was used sparsely for the Golden Gophers, given only 15 rushing attempts in the two seasons he dressed. “I think it’s going to be great,” said Humes on working with Femi-Cole. “Our styles compliment each other very well. He’s a really cool guy. He doesn’t talk a lot but once you do get to know him, he’s actually a pretty funny guy.”
Chris Merchant is already a legend at Western University. He was the MVP of the first Vanier Cup the school has one since 1993 and has been the leader of the team for the past three seasons. Merchant enters his fifth and final year of eligibility hoping to be picked in the CFL draft this spring. He’s attended CFL training camps the past three off-seasons, and by multiple accounts, is looking better than ever this training camp.
“I feel great going into camp, I’ve been training all summer,” the quarterback said. “I was at camp with the Alouettes which was a great experience learning from those guys…I came in very confident in my skill set, and very confident in the guys around me so going into camp I feel really good.” Merchant was the 2017 Uteck Bowl and Vanier Cup MVP, adding a Yates Cup and Mitchell Bowl MVP to his resumé last year. He posted career highs in passing yards and touchdowns, with 2109 yards through the air, 17 of them being caught in the endzone.
Marc Liegghio will remain the starting kicker this year, building off an 86% field goal percentage and 42.5 yards per punt last year, earning him all-star honours in both positions. The Mustangs also have a new offensive coordinator, Gaétan Richard, who joined the team in the spring from Mount Allison University out East. Richard is one of many new members of the Mustangs coaching staff, with two of last years, coaches now in Head Coaching roles.
The Western Mustangs should have no issue getting through the OUA this season. So long as they adopt the same mentality as they have the past two seasons, the Yates Cup is theirs to lose. Trouble may arise in the Mitchell Bowl, as the OUA travels out West. The last time the Mustangs did that, the Calgary Dinos blew them out of the water. Of course, if the Mustangs meet Laval in the Vanier Cup again, it’s anyone’s guess as to who will come out on top.
The biggest question mark is the linebacking core. There are plenty of formidable options in the position, but it’s a matter of who is willing to take control of the unit. There is plenty of potential for an incoming linebacker to have a breakout season in the shadow of a doubt. It’s also worth noting that the last time the Mustangs brought in a new offensive coordinator, they won the Vanier Cup. The change in coaching likely won’t throw anything off, as long as everyone is on the same page.
The 2019 OUA football season begins on Sunday, August 25th, with a 1 pm kickoff between Western and Laurier. You can catch the game LIVE on our airwaves at 94.9 FM, or just listen here!