The Western Mustang football team lived a storybook season in 2021.
Now as a new season stands set to unfold in 2022, the ‘Stangs are staring at a script for the ages.
They are defending Vanier Cup champions.
They return a roster worthy of a repeat.
And their home stadium will host the 2022 Vanier Cup game on Saturday, Nov. 26.
Their goal is simple: Get there.
Evan Hillock returns as the starter after leading Western to the ultimate championship in university football as a first-year starter. Hillock was second in the OUA in completion percentage (65.7 per cent) and touchdown passes (nine) and he threw just four interceptions. He has a rocket for an arm and the swagger that winning teams are always trying to find.
Jackson White is back as well after throwing for 631 yards and four touchdowns in 2021 so depth is a strength for the Mustangs under centre. Lucas grad Matthew Jacquith is entering his first season at Western.
Keon Edwards led the OUA in rushing with an incredible 1,146 yards in just nine games. Edwards averaged 7.1 yards per carry and broke more than a few runs for massive gains. The biggest went for 97 yards against Waterloo as part of a 237-yard day and a 48-14 drubbing of the Warriors in October.
The scariest part of all of those stats is that Edwards is not alone in the Western backfield. Saint-Jerome, Que., native Edouard Wanadi got better and better as the season went along and had his monster day in the Mitchell Bowl when he rushed for 238 yards and three touchdowns. He will move into more of a feature role with the departure of Trey Humes to graduation.
The future also looks bright with second-year backs Keanu Yazbeck and Troy Thompson and with the addition of Ethan Dolby from Parkside Collegiate in St. Thomas, Ont. Dolby was one of the top-ranked running back recruits in the country.
Brett Ellerman has graduated but the Mustang stable returns both of its top pass catchers from 2021 in Savaughn Magnaye-Jones and Griffin Campbell. Magnaye-Jones ranked fourth in the OUA receiving last season with 656 yards and four touchdowns. Campbell found the end zone five times and ranked 11th among OUA receivers and contributes to the game in a number of ways. Campbell is a very underrated blocker.
Justin Nickson will see a larger role this year, as will second-year man Seth Robertson, who had to replace Magnaye-Jones in the Vanier Cup and looked great doing it. Robertson can do a little bit of everything. Mohsen Jamal and Reid Matthew are looking for opportunities to contribute. Rashon Blake and Brayden Massery could also chip in.
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This looks to be a strength once again for Western. There is both skill and experience among the starters. Londoners Zach Fry and Matt Adams are joined by two other veteran standouts in Elliot Beamer at centre and Phillip Grahovac at right guard. Second-year linemen Alex Berwick and Keegan O’Neil will also be counted on.
Western has long been recognized for their skill in the trenches. If there are question marks anywhere on the roster heading into 2022 they come along the defensive line. You cannot replace Deointe Knight with a “next man up” strategy. There isn’t another Deointe Knight. He dominated last year and earned himself a pair of NFL tryouts in the process. Knight is currently with the Toronto Argonauts in the CFL. The Mustangs are hopeful that they see something develop similar to 2017 when the team may have lacked superstar power but made up for it with effort and depth along the line.
Western has experimented a bit with a three-man front but it remains to be seen if that idea will be used in a game.
Conner Fransizi spent last season playing NCAA football with Alabama A & M and has now arrived in London, Ont. Nate Gonzalez is a transfer from Simon Fraser University. Both were heavily recruited by the Mustangs coming out of high school and could have big impacts. Max Von Muehldorfer showed great flashes in 2021 and Zach Dahlberg of CCH may get to contribute as a rookie as well. So might Jordan Beland from Levis, Que.
This unit lost Zach Lindley, who is now playing as a safety with the Montreal Alouettes, but Lourens Bowers-Kane comes into his second season with the Mustangs, as does Riley McLeod. Brendan Murphy could team with McLeod at the inside positions. Both stepped into those spots with little experience last year and performed well. The linebacking corps is very young. No starter will have more than a year under his belt in the OUA, therefore the biggest question at linebacker could very well be depth.
Depth is not an issue at defensive back. The return of Danny Valente from the Ottawa Redblacks was a pleasant surprise for Western. Valente led the Mustangs with four interceptions. The amount of depth at DB will also allow Western to return Rob Panabaker to halfback. This unit lost Rory Kelly but Kojo Odoom made some big plays and is back. So are Aron Massaquoi and Jordan Murphy. Richard Aduboffour also returns for his second season. He brings great six-foot-three-inch height and a nose for the football.
Brian Garrity and Creechan Cameron both return for kicking and punting duties. Both have big legs. Creechan booted a punt 65 yards in 2021. That was the second-longest punt in the OUA behind Chris MacLean of U of T who recorded a 68-yard net.
Western continues to set itself up as a team to beat. They will be tested early by Guelph and Laurier and will be keeping their eye on teams out of Quebec like Laval and Montreal that will stand in the way of this year’s Yates Cup champion as the OUA will host the RSEQ in a national semifinal.
The big question will linger all season: Can the Mustangs make it to the first Vanier Cup played at Western Alumni Field in London, Ont.?
We’re about to find out.