Quarterback Jake Laberge

Quarterback Jake Laberge

V.I. Raiders kick off

Nanaimo’s junior football team plays its B.C. Football Conference home opener on Saturday (July 23) at Caledonia Park.

The V.I. Raiders want to set a tempo right from their very first play.

They have to start fast – a short season demands it.

“It’s a 10-game season, so you can’t afford to start slow,” said Jerome Erdman, Raiders coach. “Especially playing at home first … we’ve got to hit the ground running.”

He’s happy with how the junior football team has progressed and believes it’s further ahead this season than it was at this time last year.

“This is one of the most prepared teams I’ve played with, and that all goes to the coaches, making us get in our playbooks…” said Dustin Rodriguez, Raiders receiver. “We’re looking really good.”

The Raiders are a relatively young group again this year, and although they plan to peak for playoff time, they expect to play at a high level in their home opener Saturday (July 23) against the Kamloops Broncos.

Erdman thinks the football at Caledonia Park this season will be “bigger and better” for fans.

“Our team speed’s increased over last year, we’ve got a few more playmakers, so I think it’s going to be exciting,” he said. “They’ll still see the honest, lunchbucket crowd, blue-collar effort, but with a little bit more skill.”

Here’s a look at some of the Raiders who will take the field to start the 2016 season:

OFFENCE

The Raiders have an all-new quarterbacking group after Liam O’Brien moved up to CIS.

Rookie Jake Laberge emerged as the prospective No. 1 at spring camp and has secured that role.

“He’s smart, he can make the throws, he doesn’t get flustered, reads defences well, puts the ball where it has to be and he’s got good command of the huddle,” Erdman said. “I’m really impressed with the poise and maturity he’s shown in such such a young player.”

He will be backed up by Peter Le Clair and Kevin Chopek. North Rainey could get snaps at QB but is practising as a receiver. Last year’s backup QB Brody Taylor has moved to defensive line.

Nate Berg returns as starting tailback after a strong training camp, and the Raiders anticipate more consistency in the run game this year. V.I. will be able to change its pace in the backfield with faster backs Tristan Muir and Brannon Edgar. Scott Messier and Taylor Becker will both contribute at fullback.

The receiving corps will be led by the vet Rodriguez, and there are two exciting newcomers, Brycen Mayoh and Fabian Jacobson. Returnees Sam Dueck and Trevor Pelland are other primary pass-catchers.

The Raiders believe they’ve solidified the offensive line this season and the unit is creating chemistry, led by its veterans, centre Ryan Dekker and left tackle Terrek Bryant. Braydon Winger is the other tackle with Brock Mould and Lukas Schuster as guards.

Todd Hansen returns as offensive coordinator.

DEFENCE

Up front, Erdman hopes the defensive line can create pressure both from the interior and from the edges. The unit includes three returning starters – tackle Nathan Warawa and ends Matt Hill and Kaelan Botel – and adds stud recruit Trystin Waters. Diego Pineda, another high-profile signing, will get some reps, as will returnees Mason Kelley and Cashton Willson.

The linebacking corps is led by All-Canadian Dexter Shea, though he is recovering from injury and his availability for the home opener wasn’t known at press time. Cory Fletcher, a rookie from Nanaimo, has played really well through camp, said coaches, and earned a starting job, and Nathan Mayers has a great attitude and plays nasty. Matt Cox will be called upon if Shea is unable to go in Week 1.

The Raiders believe their defensive backfield will be a team strength. All-Canadian safety Cole Virtanen leads the unit, along with fellow veteran Josh Paisley at halfback. Rookie cornerback Gevhahn McNally-Hardisty has basically had his position locked down since spring camp, and Alex Eberling returns as the other corner. Jérémie Cheng comes from CIS to join his hometown team and will play defensive halfback.

Doug Hocking, who was defensive coordinator during all three of the Raiders’ national championship seasons, returns in that role to the V.I. sideline.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Another coaching change comes on special teams, where longtime CFL assistant coach Dave Easley becomes the Raiders’ special teams coordinator.

V.I. has two kickers it likes and expects to keep on the roster, Bryce Couture and James Parker; both can handle placekicking and punting.

Muir, Mayoh, Edgar and Paisley will return kickoffs and Paisley and Mayoh will return punts.

Erdman likes the personnel on the various special teams units.

“With the more depth that we have this year, that translates well for special teams,” he said.

GAME ON

The Raiders will be favoured in Week 1 against the Broncos, but the start of any season can be unpredictable. Kamloops has new offensive and defensive coordinators this season.

“There’s going to be a little bit of unknown … There might be a few new wrinkles,” Erdman said. “So we’ve just got to play hard football and figure it out as we go along.”

The Raiders and Broncos kick off at 2 p.m. Saturday at Caledonia Park.

Tickets cost $12 for adults, $10 for seniors, $5 for students and children five and under will be admitted free. There will be face painting, live music and a dunk tank with Mayor Bill McKay.

sports@nanaimobulletin.com