As a long summer slips away, the Mustangs prepare themselves to avenge last year's tough Vanier Cup loss.
However, the team that dropped a 34-20 decision to the Laval Rouge Et Or is quite different than the squad set to take the field on Sept. 2 for Western's home opener.
This season could define the current era of Western University football as a dynasty. In order to achieve this lofty designation, though, the Mustangs will need to answer a few key questions about the team they are today.
Through back-to-back undefeated regular seasons, Western has largely relied on an old-school mentality: suffocating defence and a dominating running attack.
However, in order to maintain this playing style — and the success it produces — some new faces will need to come forward and take the reins.
Who will replace Alex Taylor and Cedric Joseph, the two-headed rushing monster?
The 2018 season was a career year for Cedric Joseph. The former Mustangs half-back rushed for 965 yards on 119 attempts, while leading the country with 12 rushing touchdowns. The King’s College alum was also lethal in the Ontario University Athletics playoffs, averaging 141.5 rushing yards per game.
Joseph's partner in crime, Alex Taylor, was also a force on the ground. While his numbers weren’t as eye-popping as his partner, the Kinesiology graduate was still able to post 541 yards on 65 attempts and five touchdowns in just seven games.
In total, Western led Canadian University football in total rushing yards by a whopping 710 yard margin. While credit can be spread around for this explosive offensive production, the majority of the praise should be heaped on the former rushing tandem.
The Mustangs will need to find a new pairing to carry them through the 2019 season. Luckily for Western, they have two likely replacements in Trey Humes and Jonathan Femi-Cole (a recent transfer from the University of Minnesota).
Trey Humes sat just behind Taylor and Joseph in the depth chart last year, and will likely get a larger role this year. In limited opportunity last season the Ajax native averaged 6.9 yards per carry.
As well, Femi-Cole was quietly productive in two years with the Golden Gophers — rushing for 67 yards on 15 attempts.
While the departure of Joseph and Taylor may hurt, the Mustangs are in good hands with Humes and Femi-Cole. Time will tell how the pair will split the rushing load, though.
Who will be their defensive leaders in 2019?
In terms of yards allowed per game, Western had the best defence last year. Judging by points allowed per game, the Mustangs were third in the nation. Needless to say, the purple and white dominated other teams on the defensive side of the ball.
However, with losses across the defensive side — to graduation and the CFL — the team will have to look to new leadership.
Notably, Fraser Sopik, the team’s best player last year, has taken his talents to the Calgary Stampeders. The linebacker was arguably the best defensive player in the OUA and was a major reason why the Western defence was so successful.
After a game in October, Head Coach Greg Marshall pointed to the linebacking corps ability to unlock the defensive potential of the entire team. The veteran coach highlighted the group’s ability to drop into pass coverage as a key facet of Western’s game.
Add in the loss of both Phillipe Dion and fifth year transfer, Michael Moore, and the Mustangs' starting linebackers, formerly its biggest strength, will be composed of new faces this year.
Promisingly for Western, the defensive secondary is young, talented and should be able to compensate for the loss of key players through the middle. Despite a down performance in the Vanier Cup, the unit consistently improved over the regular season and playoffs.
Bleska Kambamba and Daniel Valente are poised for big years in the backfield. Both players hauled in two picks in the regular season and combined for 64.5 total tackles. With a tight secondary, the Mustangs should be able to mitigate the loss of important playmakers behind the line.
How will Greg Marshall handle his new coaching staff?
Much like Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide, Head Coach Greg Marshall will need to find success after the departure of major pieces of his coaching staff. Both offensive coordinator Steve Snyder and offensive line coach Jean-Paul Circelli accepted new positions over the offseason.
Snyder left Western to take on a head coaching position with the Queen’s University Golden Gaels. Hired in January 2017, Snyder helped the Mustangs compile a 23-1 record, two Yates Cups, a Mitchell Bowl, a Uteck Bowl, and a Vanier Cup. With over 380 points scored in both years under Snyder’s direction, Western’s offence set the pace for the OUA.
Circelli accepted a head coaching job with the Windsor Lancers. While difficult to quantify, the offensive line was visually dominant in many games last season. As well, while Joseph and Taylor were fantastic, they relied on the big men up front to create space on the ground.
Both losses will be meaningful to the Mustangs, but Marshall — who currently sits second in all-time coaching wins in U Sports football history — should be able to adjust. As well, the new coaching staff still has plenty of player skill left to play with.
2019 will be a big year for the Mustangs. The true test of any dynasty comes as former star players are slowly replaced. Western will need to overcome these initial challenges if they want to make a third consecutive trip to the game’s final stage.
The team plays its first home game on Sept. 2 against Snyder’s Golden Gaels. Coincidentally placed on move-in day for many incoming freshman, the game could be a good way to familiarize yourself with your new floor-mates. And if you don’t know what to talk about — feel free to resort to these three talking points.