College football coaches are used to losing players. Every year student-athletes graduate or transfer and coaches are left to replace them as best they can.
But few coaches have likely ever had to take on the kind of rebuilding job head coach Dave Johnson has done at Simon Fraser University.
On Saturday, the Clan will become the first Canadian university to play football in the NCAA. And if the rule changes weren’t a big enough obstacle, the team lost 60 players from last year’s squad due to the different eligibility rules.
“We’ve had to replace all our leaders with high school kids,” Johnson said. “We’re in tough but this all part of a process.”
The team also begins the season with heavy hearts. Last year’s starting quarterback, Bernd Dittrich, died in the offseason due to an undetected heart condition.
The NCAA has a four-year eligibility limit, while Canadian Interuniversity Sport allows five years. Seasons spent playing at a lower college level do not count against the five-year limit in CIS but do in the NCAA.
With the switch this year, the majority of the Simon Fraser team had their eligibility cut in half and forced them off the roster.
The on-field differences between ‘Canadian football’ and American football’ are mostly subtle but can be complex enough to warrant major changes in game plans and strategies.
Once upon a time, Simon Fraser did play the American version while in the NAIA, but have been back in CIS for the last eight years.
“It’s a different world. The size, speed and discipline of the players is amazing,” Johnson said.
Johnson grew up in Florida and played football in California, but the majority of his coaching experience is in the Canadian game. To prepare for the Clan’s first season playing the American version – in the NCAA’s Division II – he brought on two new coordinators from American schools.
Simon Fraser made headlines a year ago when it became the first ever non-American member of the NCAA. As the team prepares for its opening game against Western Oregon, Johnson can sense a buzz, not just in B.C. but across the country. And it has also helped with recruiting – both in Canada and the United States. The Clan had 19 U.S.-born players come to training camp this year.
“It has dramatically changed our [recruiting] strategy and response. Our phone has been ringing off the hook,” Johnson said. “To date, we already have 15 players committed for 2011. If I’d made 10 more calls I’d probably have 10 more [players].”
One of those recruits is Ben Allen, a quarterback from Winnipeg. Although Allen has family in B.C., having the opportunity to play in the NCAA was part of his decision to head West.
“It was definitely one of the biggest aspects. We get to play against better competition in a higher level. It’s a transition and it will take a while to get used to it,” Allen said.
While Johnson and his new coordinators worked on fine-tuning a new playbook, the players were working just as hard to prepare.
Adam Johnson, a senior running back from Calgary, said his only previous experience playing the four-down game was when he travelled to St. Louis for a tournament as a 14-year old.
“It was a weird off-season. We lost so many guys. All our captains are gone,” Johnson said. “As a group we worked harder than ever. We have more guys running the 40 [yard dash] in under 4.5 [seconds] than ever.”
“We’re going to be playing under a brand new system, we have a new play book. It’s different because it’s at a quicker pace on a narrow field.”
The competition will be tough as well. The Clan’s home opener on Saturday is against the Western Oregon Wolves, who went 3-3 in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference last year. Three weeks later, they will face the Central Washington Wildcats. Central Washington went 6-0 in the division last year and made a run at the national championship before losing to the eventual winners, Northwest Missouri State.
“I definitely think we can compete,” Adam Johnson said. “We have a lot of new guys and it can be intimidating to compete along side [NCAA teams]. But once we get going I think we can surprise them.”
Coach Johnson, however, understands the Clansmen will take their lumps in the beginning.
“We’re going to take it on the chin,” he said. “But if our freshmen play and gain experience by their third years, we’ll be better.”