[Editor’s note: The St. F.X. X-Men kicked off the AUS regular season (Aug. 25), on the road, against the rival Saint Mary’s Huskies. Results were unavailable as of press time.]
The St. F.X. X-Men will host the Mount Allison Mounties in Atlantic University Sport (AUS) football action Friday night at Oland Stadium.
Opening kick-off is set for 7 p.m.
The match-up will be the regular season home opener for the two-time defending conference champions.
“We have got to play consistently,” X-Men head coach Gary Waterman said in a training camp interview [Aug. 21], when asked about keys to success this season.
He also stressed the importance of protecting the football.
“We can’t turn the football over, we can’t beat ourselves. We got to make sure that when we play games, if we lose, they have taken it from us and we haven’t given it to them,” Waterman said.
“We also have to win the field position battle, which is always a really key thing for us.”
He added “our players have to make plays.”
“I think if our players are given the opportunity to make plays, and we don’t turn the ball over, we have the chance to be in every game,” Waterman said.
This season the X-Men will have a new quarterback, after the departure of fifth-year senior – and conference MVP – Tivon Cook.
At the time of the conversation, Waterman and his coaching staff were “evaluating the tape” from the Summer Showdown – an Aug. 19 exhibition hosted by the X-Men, involving the Guelph Gryphons and Mounties – including the performances of junior Josh Millar and sophomore Dylan Fisher, the front runners for the starting position.
“We like a lot of things about them and now we want to see how they pick up the real stuff as we move forward,” he said.
Waterman said Millar, who is 6’6”, has “great pocket presence.”
“He has command of the offense – he keeps his eyes down field, on the rush, and doesn’t get distracted,” he added.
Waterman noted his staff likes that Millar is “not afraid to throw the ball into tight spaces.”
“It is just a matter of [Millar] getting a good grasp on all the things we are trying to do,” said.
As for Fisher, Waterman noted, he has a “little more familiarity” with the offense because he played junior football under new X-Men co-ordinator Warren Goldie.
“He has a really good grasp on how Warren likes to run and call things, so that has really helped him, and he is really good at hitting check downs and distributing the ball,” he said.
Waterman added both pivots have “unique skills.”
The X-Men head coach agreed the offensive line, and all-star running back Jordan Socholotiuk, will be a key to helping the new quarterbacks make their transition and get comfortable.
“He just conducts himself in such a professional manner – he works hard and is always ready and he is, definitely, a guy we can lean on,” Waterman said of the Fort McMurray, Alberta native, who led the conference last season with 1,056 yards.
“We are very comfortable and confident in what he brings to the table. His ability to, sort of, get those extra yards are important, and to keep drives alive, and just to take the pressure off the quarterback.
“He is certainly going to be a big piece for our team and how we move the ball on offense,” he added.
When asked what makes Socholotiuk special, Waterman described him as “so hard working.”
“He has a really good grasp on systems and is even-keeled, and he is a really competitive person,” he said, noting his pass blocking has “gotten so much better.”
“Jordan is a well-rounded athlete and he is tough, so I think those are all great components to have in your running back.”
As for the offensive line, which returns three starters from last season, Waterman said “we are going to be OK.”
“We like what we have – we have some young kids who are pushing [for playing time], right away, and we really like the group,” he added.
Newcomers on the offensive line are Logan Murphy and Liam McConville.
“Both of those kids have really impressed us with their play so far,” Waterman said.
He credited O-line coach – and Antigonish native – Dave Van Den Heuvel for his work.
“He does a great job and I think those kids are going to be a strong unit once again,” he said.
Dejuan Martin, who led the AUS last season with 52 catches, and Kaion Julien-Grant (35) lead a talented receiving corps.
“Both of those guys have explosive play-making ability – get good yards after the catch,” Waterman said.
“They are both threats. You definitely have to account for them, from a defensive perspective, and it really helps loosen up other things in our offensive schemes.”
With a new offensive co-ordinator, Waterman was asked about changes in approach.
“We will run some of the same plays that we did – I think we will window dress some things a little bit more – or differently – than we did in the past. I think you will see a little more movement and moving parts,” he said.
“We are looking at this as, sort of, a journey with our offense because, like with any new co-ordinator, it takes time to evolve, but we see some great progress.”
As for offensive newcomers, Waterman said they have some “outstanding young kids.”
“We really like our young quarterback Michael Beale. We think he is going to be a pretty good player,” he added.
“We definitely like Michael Forsey, a kid out of Halifax. He is going to be a good one as we go along.”
There is also Connor Ross, who played with Team Canada.
“He has shown really strong things as well,” Waterman noted.
On the defensive side, the Blue and White will return their defensive line starters from the 2016 Mitchell Bowl – Jimmy Cunningham, Tyler Cordeiro and Kyle Forde.
“We are also happy with the D-line class we brought in. We wanted to make sure that we added some depth and I thought we did that,” Waterman said.
“We think this group is going to be strong again, with depth and quality players there.”
Behind them will be a “strong crew” of linebackers.
“We have everyone back and we have added some good players,” Waterman said.
One of those is freshman Jeremy Fagnan, a Canadian Junior Football League (CJFL) leading tackler last season.
“He has been a great addition,” Waterman added.
Jacob Morgan, who played at Citadel High in Halifax, “shows a lot of great promise.”
“We really like our linebackers and they are going to contribute – both on defense and special teams,” Waterman said.
He added the secondary is “coming along really well.”
“We lost two starters, but there are some other guys who have just been waiting their turn, and now it is their turn to show us what they have, so we think that it is a good group,” Waterman said.
“I think they will be very competitive and flying around to the football.”
He noted leaders in the secondary will include returnees Nate Fermin, Dylan Bell and Justin Holland.
“They are all experienced, solid football players,” he said.
“Mike Miller is a little banged up but, when he gets back, he will be another guy that has those leadership abilities.”
Waterman added the group has played in “big games” over the past couple seasons.
“I am quite confident that they will lead the rest of the group,” he said.
Freshman Cole Virtanen will also be in the secondary mix.
“He has shown some strong promise,” Waterman said, noting the Nanaimo, B.C. native is a two-time CJFL all-star and former rookie of the year.
Devon Parris, another rookie, will also contribute.
“He has also shown us some things,” Waterman noted.
The defense also has a new co-ordinator – Jon Svec – who takes over for Bob Mullan.
“With new co-ordinators, they have their own individual touches that they put on,” Waterman said.
“We are not going to throw out everything that we did – we were pretty successful defensively – but there will definitely be some nuances that are going to be, sort of, the mark of Jon.
“We have a veteran, experienced group, so those kids know how to run the system and how to play, and Jon will add some other elements that will augment or add to the defense.
“We can expect some of the similar things that we were doing, but with some new wrinkles,” he added.
Jonathan Heidebrecht and Keiran Burnham will return as the kicking tandem on special teams, a unit that will be led, once again, by veteran CFL head coach Jim Daley.
That unit also has dangerous returners in Martin and Julien-Grant.
“We expect our kicking and coverage game to be strong, as usual,” Waterman said, adding Daley continues to do a “fantastic job.”
“The kids really want to play for him and really want to give full effort.
“We have really developed a good philosophy around that and the kids have bought in. We expect them to be a strong unit again this year,” he added.