The UBC Thunderbirds kick off their football season Friday and, to hear coach Blake Nill tell it, there will be NFL teams tracking them along the way.
Nill says that the Pittsburgh Steelers, Los Angeles Chargers, Carolina Panthers, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants and Indianapolis Colts have inquired about either UBC right tackle Theo Benedet, left tackle Giovanni Manu, or both of his offensive line book ends.
He didn’t get into particulars with that.
UBC came in at No. 9 in the season-opening U Sports national rankings this week. They are at the Regina Rams on Friday to begin their eight-game Canada West regular season, and have their home opener Sept. 9, with the Calgary Dinos providing the opposition at Thunderbird Stadium.
The Laval Rouge et Or were No. 1 ranked team nationally, and the top Canada West team was the No. 3 Saskatchewan Huskies. The national ranking, according to the U Sports web page, is a combination of an algorithm that generates a statistical calculation based on customized variables and a media poll. The Canada West preseason coaches poll, meanwhile, had the Huskies and T-Birds tied to finish atop their regular season.
UBC and Saskatchewan’s lone meeting is Sept. 29 in Saskatoon.
The 6-foot-7, 305-pound Benedet, who is from North Vancouver, and the 6-foot-8, 350-pound Manu, who is from Pitt Meadows, both could have gone to play in the CFL this season, but they opted to pull out of the draft and return to school, taking an opportunity brought about by the COVID pandemic. They re both in their fourth year of eligibility but their fifth years of school.
Benedet, who won the J.P. Metras Trophy last year as the U Sports national lineman of the year, was No. 8 on the 2023 CFL Draft rankings that came out last September. Manu was No. 15.
The latest 2024 rankings were released last week and Benedet was slotted at No. 3 and Manu at No. 8. They’re the top two U Sports players on the 20-man list.
Benedet took part in the East-West Shrine Bowl in February in Paradise, Nevada, playing against players from marquee NCAA programs. Benedet is the first UBC player to participate in the event since defensive lineman Nick Johansson in 2005.
Nill added longtime CFL offensive line coach Dan Dorazio to his staff this off-season.
Benedt and Manu are among several players who opted to return to the T-Birds this season, Nill explains.
Manu had said that he and Benedet finalized their decision flying back from Saskatoon last November after UBC fell 23-8 to the Huskies in the Canada West Hardy Cup championship game. UBC finished the regular season at 4-4 and then won 28-14 in Regina in Hardy Cup semifinals.
The Huskies went on to advance to the Vanier Cup, where they lost 30-24 to the Rouge et Or.
“This is a team that knows we have the potential to do some good things,” Nill said of his UBC squad. “We still have to walk the walk. That’s something that they all seemed prepared to do. There’s a different level of urgency then I’ve seen since I’ve been here.
“We have a lot of our athletes who have chosen to come back for this season when they could have moved to the pro ranks or simply moved on with their lives. That ’s starting to say something about the culture.”
Nill had successful runs with both St. Mary’s and Calgary before coming to UBC in 2015. The T-Birds won the Vanier Cup that season, and they’ve been trying to recapture that form ever since.
Nill lauds the depth of this year’s T-Bird crew, and that includes at quarterback, where his team features Garrett Rooker and Derek Engel, both third-year pivots recruited out of the Texas high school ranks.
Rooker suffered a posterior hip dislocation with a fracture in an Oct. 22 home game against Saskatchewan last year and had his season shut down. He’s healthy again and will be the starter, according to Nill.
“He’s shown tremendous effort to come back from the injury,” Nill said.
Nill also said that he’s keen finding ways to use Engel, and that “you’ll start to see him more and more.”
“We’ve got a 1-A and a 1-B at quarterback,” Nill said.