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Gridiron Bisons have lengthy to-do list for '14

Dobie has glaring needs he hopes to fill via recruiting

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The final word on the Manitoba Bisons football squad's spirited 2013 campaign was written on Saturday, when the team's Vanier Cup dreams fizzled on a playoff field in Calgary.

After dropping a 43-28 decision to the Dinos in the Canada West final, the team is ready to turn its attentions to the chapters that lie ahead.

This season was a vital one as the Bisons rode a revitalized offence and a knack for scrappy comebacks to the Canada West final. They settled into spacious new digs at Investors Group Field, where the players often brought their homework just to soak it all in. And they turned some heads in the stands, where record crowds came out to watch their four home games.

Most importantly for head coach Brian Dobie, the team clicked some puzzle pieces into place. It wasn't a perfect squad, by any means: The defensive secondary was often porous, the offensive line battered. But quarterback Jordan Yantz surpassed all expectations in his first year of CIS play, throwing for 2,474 yards and 25 touchdowns, and finding some wicked chemistry with slotback Nic Demski, among others.

Now, Dobie will start trying to replace what he will lose -- and build the team for 2014, and beyond. Shortly, he will head east on a recruiting trip. Many more will come after that. So now's a good time to take a look at what the Bisons have in the cupboard for 2014, and what will be on their shopping list.

WHO IS GONE

Among the key Bisons graduating this year are kicker Nick Boyd, slotback Andrew Smith, and defensive lineman Ranji Atwall. Losing those three will sting. Not only does Boyd have a good leg -- his 42-yard punting average was second in Canada West -- but he was awfully good at booting the ball to an advantageous place. Smith was one of the Bisons' top three targets, and Dobie said that Atwall "brought a lot of swagger" to a defensive squad that sometimes struggled.

There are question marks, too, around star running back and Canada West all-purpose yards leader Anthony Coombs, and ferocious defensive lineman Evan Gill. After a jostling of CFL draft rules, both can petition to be eligible for the 2014 CFL draft. If they do, there's a chance they could stick with a CFL roster next year.

Suffice to say, the Bisons would rather not say goodbye just yet. "Certainly, whatever choice they make, I'm going to respect," Dobie said. "They will get drafted, and they will be tough guys to replace if and when they do make the CFL."

WHO MUST STEP UP

If Coombs goes -- or even if he stays -- former Winnipeg Rifles running back Kienan LaFrance will be gunning for his chance. He's been working hard and came up big for the Bisons in Calgary, with 136 combined yards and a touchdown on 16 touches. "He really stepped up," Dobie said. "We didn't miss a beat in that position, and I say that's great leadership."

The Bisons will also look to see other recruits take a step forward in their development. Among them, defensive lineman David Onyemata, who just wrapped his second year of CIS eligibility, and rookie defensive lineman Kent Hicks, who played third fiddle in a rotation with Onyemata and Gill this season. The Bisons think the teen could shoulder a bigger load if Gill doesn't come back.

"We feel that we're close," Dobie said. "We're going to have a really good football team, but for that to happen some of those young guys have to realize very soon, like in the month of December, their potential roles."

THE SHOPPING LIST

If the Bisons are to compete for the Vanier Cup next season, they'll need a more smothering defence. Dobie would especially like to see a battle for rush end, defensive tackle and strong-side linebacker at the 2014 training camp. Then there's the matter of the secondary.

"We've just given up so many yards passing in the last couple of years," he said. "That group is definitely getting better, but we capital N need for it to get better."

Dobie must also lock down a kicker -- with Boyd gone, they don't have any on the roster. Some more targets for Yantz would be nice. On that end, the coach made no secret of the fact he'd love to secure a commitment from Winnipeg Rifles receiver Kurt Goodrich. There are others he's working on, too.

There is also the matter of succession. Manitoba backup quarterback Marc Paquette is also going into his fifth year of eligibility and the only other pivot in the system is first-year Foster Martens. Dobie is hungry to get some new arms into the fold, to be ready to take over when Yantz does go.

"You can't lose sight that it's not just about next year," Dobie said. "We have a double-pronged attack... we have to look long-term, too."

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 13, 2013 C8

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