New uniforms. New locker room. New expectations.
It's a strange place for the University of Calgary Dinos football team to be starting the season, ranked third overall in the country and the top team in their conference. But it comes after a surprising surge to the national semi-final last year, their first Hardy Cup as Canada West champions in 15 years and an off-season that included a revamped locker room, a seismic upgrade from the dank shithole it used to be, and a new set of uniforms, brought to you by Under Armour.
Head coach Blake Nill isn't concerned about the high expectations.
"I know that if we play well and we work hard that everything will fall into place eventually, right?" he says.
It seems to be a mantra that's been working out so far for Nill in his short stay at the U of C. When he first picked up the clipboard for the Dinos in 2006, the team hadn't won a playoff game since they claimed the Vanier Cup in 1995 and had missed the playoffs in two of the last three seasons. His team went 2-6 that year and missed the playoffs again, but showed signs of promise when quarterback Dalin Tollestrup was named Canadian Interuniversity Sport rookie of the year.
Tollestrup left to go on a mission for his church the following year and despite dealing with a rotating cast of characters calling plays, Nill guided the Dinos to a surprising playoff berth and a loss to the University of Manitoba Bisons, that year's Vanier Cup winner as national champions.
Last year, it was another carousel of quarterbacks, until the steadying hand of Deke Junior led the Dinos to a Canada West championship and a spot in the national semi-final. They weren't quite ready for the spotlight. The Laval Universite Rouge et Or humbled them 59-10 and went on to win the Vanier Cup, but the Dinos gained valuable experience.
"Anything we did last year, it was great, but that was last year, right?" says third-year running back Matt Walter. "We start off this year on a clean slate and get going from there."
A clean slate that unfortunately will be missing key players in offensive lineman Dylan Steenbergen and safety James Green. Though both had another year of eligibility, Green was drafted by the Toronto Argonauts and joined them in the off-season while Steenbergen signed on with the Montreal Alouettes. Both played big roles last year, but Nill accepts that these kind of losses are part of the reality of university football.
"It's going to be difficult, but that's what the good programs do," he says. "They're able to recycle, able to backfill losses and so we're attempting to get like that also."
Even with those two players gone, the Dinos still have Walter, who won Canada West's most outstanding player award last year after leading the conference in rushing, and Canada West defensive player of the year, linebacker Andrea Bonaventura. They also added former national MVP Erik Glavic from St. Mary's University in January to play quarterback.
This is not a team lacking in talent and they're saying the right things about taking it one step and one game at a time. However, there's no doubt a national championship is on the team's mind. Nill admits the team's goal is to be national champions, but is still not sure what to make of this year's squad.
"I'll be honest, I'm a little undecided what this team's about right now," he says. "I know that we've got great athletes here. I know the kids are terrific in terms of wanting to get it done. I think they've improved and they've matured a lot, but we still got a lot of youth here and we're playing a lot of youth."
School may start next week for most students, but if the young Dinos aren't careful, they could be getting an early lesson. Their campaign starts Friday against the University of Saskatchewan Huskies, the fourth-ranked team in the nation who handed them a 25-0 loss in last season's opener.
"We still have a really bad taste in our mouths," says defensive lineman Deji Oduwole. "No matter that we won the conference championship or anything, we still lost 25-0. These guys are still the best in our conference, we believe. Once we take them down, then we'll be the best."
There's nothing but positive vibes emanating from the newly decorated Dinos and their swanky locker room. But vibes are one thing and results are another.
"It's going to be a good year for us," says Nill. "It's time to get going though. We'll see how it goes."