Last season didn’t turn out the way the Concordia Stingers football team hoped it would.
Head coach Brad Collinson was hired last June to replace Mickey Donovan who left the school to join the Montreal Alouettes. With the season starting only two months later, Collinson barely had time to recruit players or effectively implement his system. The 2018-19 season saw the team finish 2-6, losing their last five games and at one point only managing five points over a three game stretch.
Despite this, last season showed some bright spots. Quarterback Adam Vance made some nice progressions under centre despite an overall difficult season. Maurice Simba delivered on his potential and developed into a top prospect, garnered interest on both sides of the border and was eventually picked 29th overall in the CFL draft by the Toronto Argonauts. Michael Sanelli was one of the division’s premier pass rushers, and was selected 39th overall by the Montreal Alouettes.
Going into his second season as head coach, Collinson is finally ready to make his mark on the program. He’s recruited 40 players for this season, with a focus on re-establishing Concordia as an option for top CEGEP players. Collinson also brought in a whole new cast of coaches, including hiring Alex Suprenant as offensive coordinator and former CFL teammate Ed Philion as defensive coordinator, both of whom are coaches with NFL and CFL experience.
Some of the other changes Collinson has made going into this season include introducing strength and conditioning for players during the off-season.
“It’s going to be different. We’re not going to reinvent the wheel, but we are going to do things a little different,” said Collinson. “We met with some high performance people at Concordia to see what we can do differently in the way we practice, and we think we’ve come to a formula that could be beneficial and make us healthier come game day, and also be ready to perform at a high level.”
There are holes to fill, especially on both sides of the line, but Collinson will have a number of core players returning this year.
“It was fun to be able to pick my people and bring them in, and we’re fortunate to have this opportunity to start over,” Collinson told The Concordian. “It wasn’t easy, but it’s what needed to be done.”
This year, with new coaches, a full year to prepare and a number of talented veterans and young talent, Collinson is hoping to field a team that can challenge the usual order of power in the RSEQ division.
Players to watch
The Stingers’ receiving corp is going to look a little different this season. Jarryd Taylor, the team’s most targeted receiver last season, has left the Stingers to join the Langley Rams of the Canadian Junior Football League. This means that Vance will have to look elsewhere as his top receiver from last season leaves the program. Lucky for Vance, he’ll have plenty of high end options as receiver, including fourth year Vince Alessandrini. Last season, Alessandrini missed seven games with an injury. The absence of the 6’2 receiver allowed defenses to focus on covering the rest of the receiving corps that includes guys like James Tyrell, Taylor and Yanic Lessard. Now, fully healthy and ready to play, Alessandrini is ready to step back up and show why he was considered one of the division’s top receivers before his injury.
Alessandrini collected 36 catches for 474 yards and a touchdown in his last full season with the Stingers back in 2017. The way he’s able to change directions after a catch is a tool in his arsenal that can often turn shortcut back routes into long gains (in most of the clips you watch, Alessandrini actually does this on almost all of the short catches he makes).
Watch this catch here from a 2017 game. Alessandrini quickly cuts towards the middle back and causes two defenders to miss him completely. Without even having a chance to look upfield, Alessandrini gains control of the ball and shakes the linebacker covering him, as well as forces a missed tackle from the second defender by planting himself and taking off in the opposite direction. He then turns what could have just been a short six-yard gain into a first down right outside the red zone.
Adding to the impact he can have, Alessandrini also put in time as a blocker, often coming in from the slot to help the line with the pass protection. Alongside Nadon, Tyrrell, Salvail and the rest of the receiving corps, Alessandrini is likely to be given the chance to step up as the top target on this team.
“He’s a top receiver in this division,” said Collinson. “We have to make sure that we use him to his full potential.”
Adam Vance, QB
Vance didn’t have the best season among RSEQ QB’s, but he showed that he’s got the talent to make game-changing plays in clutch situations (see his game-winning corner touchdown pass to James Tyrell against Sherbrooke.)
For the positives, Vance was pretty accurate on a team that had difficulties scoring all of last year. Over eight games, he averaged 204 yards a game, completed 56 per cent of his passes (114/202) and rushed for 116 yards. Those all rank above-average in terms of RSEQ quarterbacks.
While Vance is probably better known for his arm and his ability to push the ball downfield, he was also given the chance to show off his vision last season.
In this play, Vance makes a solid adjustment after his first read is covered. He is looking to hit his running back in the flat but that pass got covered by the defending corner who is playing shallow. So instead, Vance shifts his read towards receiver Sam Nadon who is running a pick corner. Nadon breaks away from his defender and finds space going towards the corner of the endzone. Vance strings a perfectly placed pass to the corner past the double coverage, into the hands of Nadon for a touchdown that won the Stingers last year’s Shaughnessy Cup.
Vance finished second in the RSEQ in passing yards with 1635, trailing only Laval’s Hugo Richard. On the flip side, Vance only connected with his receivers for five touchdowns, second to last among RSEQ starters, while throwing a RSEQ-worst 10 interceptions. Are those stats indications of Vance’s vision, or were they systematic of an offense that couldn’t seem to finish off drives last year? Either way, he’ll be looking to improve his decision making and accuracy as he becomes one of the more experienced players on the team.
It’s a safe bet that the team’s new offensive coordinator will continue to focus on the pass, which means that Vance will have more opportunities than ever to showcase his arm – especially with a deep threat like Taylor as a target.
“He’s a fifth year guy, this could be it. It could be his last year playing football. He wants to prove to everyone that last year was just a hiccup in his career.” said Collinson. “He can throw the football, with a new offense. Starting fresh is only going to be helpful for him.”
Samuel Brodrique, LB
Brodrique has started every game since debuting with the Stingers in 2016, and he’s averaged 28 tackles a year over that span. In his fourth year, the Stingers will look to Brodrique to continue his consistent play down the middle, now as a veteran player looking to prove himself in his draft year. Recently selected to the U Sports East-West Bowl, the annual week-long event that’s a who’s-who of CFL draft eligible players, Brodrique has the chance to impress CFL scouts with another strong year.
“He’s an extremely bright football player,” said Collinson. “He’s maybe not the most athletic guy, but he makes up for it with his football IQ.”
Brodrique is a solid linebacker, with a nose for getting the right spots. Take this play from last season against McGill. The beginning of the play is a mess of players diving into the line on a full blitz. Brodrique jumps up and over the line to try to make the initial tackle on the quarterback (gets pretty close too). He then quickly gets up, snatches the fumble, and explodes down the field for a 70-yard touchdown.
Brodrique has the ability to maintain that steady presence down the middle, but is always on the edge waiting for the offence to make a mistake so that he can take advantage.
Jersey Henry, LB
Henry is coming off a solid individual season where he collected 41.5 tackles, finishing third in the RSEQ in that category. He joined fellow linebacker Brodrique at U Sports’ East-West Bowl earlier this summer as one of the country’s top prospects.
“He’s a quiet leader on the team,” said Collinson. “He lets his play do the talking, it’s almost kind of old-school. He’s a guy you build a program around, and he bought into what we’re doing here. He turned a lot of heads at the East-West Bowl.”
In his draft year, Henry seems poised to continue to pile on tackles and cause trouble for offenses. His best moments last year came when he used his decision-making and speed to split the line and rush the backfield, resulting in all kinds of chaos for opposing offenses. Look at this play where he breaks through the line without even being touched and reaches the running back immediately after the handoff.
Henry’s got a great eye, is an explosive tackler and rarely loses his man while looking through the line, often ending plays before they start. Add that to his ability to effectively shutdown receivers in man coverage when needed, and Henry is one of the most important players on the Stingers’ defense.
“When you’re in your fifth year, you’ve seen it all. The game slows down out there, and I’m hoping [Henry and Brodrique] can be the generals out there for us,” said Collinson.
What’s next for Adam Vance?
Despite the results, Vance put up numbers that show the American QB could be about to take a big step forward in terms of production this year. Vance loves the deep pass, and he’s got the arm to sail the ball past defensive backs and safeties.
His completion rate was good at 56 per cent, and he racked up enough passing yards to finish second in the division in the category. That being said, Vance has a tendency to wait too long for his receivers to get open, and will too often try to force passes into tight coverage.
The receiving corps struggled to stay healthy last season, with key players like Vince Alessandrini (1 GP) and Yannick Lessard (5 GP) missing significant time. If Vance has healthy receivers and some more time in the pocket, it’s not far fetched to see him filling the QB void in the RSEQ left by Hugo Richard who’s now with the Alouettes.
Who will step up in the trenches?
After developing talented linemen over the past couple of seasons, the Stingers now find themselves missing key players on both sides of the line.
Offensive lineman Maurice Simba is gone, drafted by the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL. Defensive linemen Michael Sanelli joins him in the CFL after being chosen by the Alouettes. Fellow defensive linemen Lukas Redguard was picked up as an undrafted free agent by the BC Lions before being released by the team in early June.
Those three were some of the most influential players on both sides of the line for the Stingers last season. With them moving on to the next level, Concordia will have to find new leaders in the trenches. New defensive coordinator Ed Philion played in the CFL and NFL as a defensive tackle, is a Grey Cup winner and was the defensive line coach with the Argonauts, Eskimos and Roughriders for the past six years. Count on lots of players getting reps on both sides of the ball as the team tries to find the right chemistry with a mix of veterans and young players. From a coaching standpoint, Philion has got the experience to help plug those holes.
For Collinson, the only way to see who will replace Simba, Sanelli and Redguard will be to see who steps up during training camp and in the early parts of the season. “It’s hard to fill those holes. We’re going to have to compete, make more substitutions, we’re gonna have to be fresh. I’m excited to see what these young guys can do.”
Who are the rookies to look for?
Around 40 recruits have been brought in by Collinson for this season. The class of highly touted CEGEP recruits is led by allstar running back Kevin Foster Verdier from Vanier College, who led Division 1 with 971 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 159 carries. Collinson described him as “electric, extremely fast, a good competitor.”
When Verdier’s commitment to Concordia was announced in November 2018, he said that he wanted to “shock the world” with the Stingers. For a coach who’s worked to establish his culture with the team through style of play, coaching changes, and heavy recruiting, those words from Verdier probably sound like music to Collinson’s ears.
Some of the other recruits for this year include quarterback Olivier Roy from Division 3 Cégep La Pocatière who threw for 1763 yards, 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions on 57 per cent passing. Collinson also recruited defensive backs Edwin Tawiah from Collège Valleyfield (“Smaller guy, but has a hard-nose for the football,” said Collinson.) and Louis-Philippe Leclerc from Cégep du Vieux Montréal. He also recruited the receiver duo of Jeremy Murphy and Tristan Mancini from Division 3 Champlain College Saint-Lambert, where they both racked up 527 and 524 receiving yards respectively. Murphy won the 2018 RSEQ Division 3 Offensive Player of the Year.
“We’re going to be young at certain positions,” said Collinson. “It’s exciting.”
How does the team reduce turnovers?
Concordia just couldn’t seem to hold on to the ball last season. They led the league in terms of turnover margin, with a -15. Vance fumbled four times, but he was also sacked 24 times, more times than any other QB in the division, so you can probably chalk those fumbles up to a lack of time in the pocket. That being said, no other team in the division held a negative turnover margin. If the Stingers want to reduce their turnovers, they’re going to have to give Vance as much time as possible. Unlucky bounces, dropped passes, and tipped balls were a part of the problem, but limited the number of times Vance has to rush a throw is sure to make an impact. Unless things really go wrong, don’t expect Concordia to turn the ball over nearly as often as they did last season.
Can they beat Laval?
The question on every RSEQ team’s mind, although predicting the answer isn’t easy. Laval goes into this season without previous star players quarterback Hugo Richard (Alouettes) and lineman Mathieu Betts (Chicago Bears, NFL). Regardless of who’s under centre or rushing the quarterback, there’s a reason head coach Glen Constantine’s squad just won another Vanier Cup, and that’s their unrelenting play and power to collect an obscene amount of high-end talent.
“There’s some big pieces that have left. That being said, there’s other pieces still around, some other pieces still coming up,” said Collinson. “Yeah, on paper we look at it as an opportunity to compete each and every week and I hope that we do, but we’re going to take it day-by-day. Whoever we’re playing that week, we’re going to compete at the highest level and see what happens. At the end of the year, our goal is to be in the playoffs.”
For Concordia to stand a chance, a lot of things need to go right. Vance needs to continue his development as a quarterback, the receiving corps headlined by Taylor, Tyrrell and Lessard will need to be stellar and the defense will have to make important stops after the departure of a couple key players. Wouldn’t hurt to have a bit of luck and a couple of favourable bounces either.
The 2019 season will be one of the most important in recent Stingers memory. Do they manage to bounce back and challenge for a spot at the top of the standings? To do so, there’s no doubt the team will have to improve, especially in the red zone, where they only converted on 52.9 per cent of their chances and allowed opponents to score on 86 per cent of their red zone opportunities.
If Collinson’s team can continue to develop, there are pieces in place that could at least start to shift the balance of power in the RSEQ. He’s done just about everything needed to complete a rebuild; Good recruiting and a new set of coaches with impressive pedigrees to accompany a strong class of veterans. If it comes together, the Stingers could emerge as a force in the RSEQ. If it doesn’t, another season caught behind the usual division powerhouses could be in store.
Stingers football schedule:
August 23 vs Université de Montreal – Home
August 30 @ McGill
September 7 vs Laval – Home
September 21 vs Sherbrooke – Home
September 27 @ Université de Montreal
October 6 @ Laval
October 19 @ Sherbrooke
October 26 vs McGill – Home
Feature photo by Mackenzie Lad