Another great year of gridiron is almost upon us, and it’s a joy to once again present where I see your team sitting in the grand scheme of the league. Feel free to agree or disagree with my thoughts at my Twitter page (@Chris_Guscott).
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It’s hard to argue against a team which hasn’t lost in two years. However, this year should be much tougher.
For starters, club legend and former Head Coach Dwayne Merritt takes a perfect record from two years and retires, leaving the reins to new Head Coach Tom Etherton. They reshuffle some more coaches, bring in a new club president in retired former player Sam Boras, and now also have plenty of youth come into the squad.
You think that this much unsettled activity would leave me sceptical of their ring chances. The big reason I’m not deterred from picking the Hogs to make it a three-peat? This side continues to produce freakish talent disguised as their ‘youth’, as well having the biggest and deepest roster in the league.
In 2013 the league was introduced to Jos Builder, who is now not only a top 3 wide receiver in this league, but good enough to have train with the 83-man national trial squad. Players like him, alongside pure athletes who have recently entered this team like Andrew Riley, Jake Sutcliffe, Julian Rech and Ben Young, have made life hell for opposing defences. Who’s to say that if these players return, that these other stars-in-waiting that Adelaide Uni seems to find would even get a game?
Furthermore, last year was a great example of how outstanding this team’s depth is. On a few instances Adelaide Uni fielded sides without key players, and it didn’t seem to make any difference in terms of the club’s results.
Not to mention the understated defence which continues to be miserly without much recognition (at least from me anyway since I’m usually gushing over the break-neck speed of their offensive talent). Players like Jon Papastamatis, Taylor Berrington and Nick Budzynski-Lawrence led the Hogs to the league’s best points against total, and gave their offence ample amounts of time on the field.
The experience of Josh Welbourn under centre is still there to guide this squad, and their offensive line led by Gavin Jones (All-Pro and starting left tackle for Australia) and Tom Rose (All-Pro) is still the best in the business. So it seems pretty obvious who deserves to be favourite.
They won’t go undefeated this year though, because the Eagles and Chiefs are closing the gap. Yet it’s hard to imagine the Hogs not hoisting the Great Southern Bowl trophy once again.
- UniSA Eagles (Last Year: 5-3-2)
Last year I made the case that with quarterback Jesse Wyten healthy, the Eagles had the pieces to be a genuine favourite. There’s no reason for me not to say the same thing this year.
Having him go down tragically in Round 2 last season derailed their campaign. Nathan Halman, and finally Timani Seve, valiantly attempted to carry the Eagles but simply didn’t have the execution to get them over the hump. Halman has the arm power to be successful but is a much better lineman, whilst Seve (a tremendous defensive player) was a project at best when he was thrust into action in the semi-final.
The best example of how close they were was their Round 9 match against the Razorbacks, which finished in a 0-7 loss. UniSA’s defence was simply outstanding and gave Eastside (now Adelaide Uni) their biggest scare of the season by dismantling what was a formidable offence. They simply didn’t have the passing attack to get over the line.
Now they do if Wyten can stay healthy. Couple that with a forceful defence which made opposition rushing attacks almost obsolete, and a rushing attack of their own which was also overpowering (remember Ian Naulty’s 302 rushing yards against the Chiefs?), and this season is once again filled with high promise. Let’s not also forget about this offensive line, which competes with Adelaide Uni as the best front five in the league.
So now a high-powered machine rests in the hands of new coach John Wreghitt, who comes in to replace club legend Martyn Carlton. This offence has been heavily reliant on the speed option in years past, as well as the deep ball, so it will be interesting to see what Wreghitt changes and tweaks with the offence, if anything at all. The defence doesn’t need to be touched, and if they keep last year’s style of defensive play, it could make him look fantastic.
The biggest question of how far the Eagles can go rests in the capable hands of Wyten, but also in the capable hands of Adelaide Uni and how they counteract their newest threat. A highly intriguing battle indeed which I see the Hogs sneaking ahead in.
- South City Chiefs (Last Year: 4-4-2)
Replacement seems to be the key word here when referring to the Chiefs.
Their former quarterback, 2014 Gridiron SA MVP Simon Whitehead, is now playing at Portland State. One of the main wide receiving targets and punters, tight end/receiver Dominic Panazzolo is now at Snow College. Two big losses which could leave a monstrous hole in what was a terrific offence.
The question is how you manage to stay moving forward after a very promising first season under the eccentric offensive mind of Heath Thomas. They have two guys who can help them do it.
Quarterback Mark Rusby returns to run the offence after taking last season off due to the calamitous 2013 season under Head Coach Hasimedic. His athletic and upright style of play makes him a dual threat, similar to what Whitehead produced last season. However, a year removed will leave some rust to be shaken off, so it may pay to be patient with his production early in the season.
He also will have to deal with the Chiefs’ Achilles heel: their offensive line. Whitehead was mercurial at times purely because of how the offensive line broke down on pass protection, and it may be a real confidence shaker if Rusby doesn’t have the time to get into rhythm. Star players like international representative Hugh Stevens will help guide a young group of offensive linemen, but time will tell whether they can fix their biggest problem.
The second replacement may be their biggest however. Andre Benjamin comes into the wide receiving core with a short but highly impressive resume after spending his only season at the Sydney University Lions in Gridiron NSW (which didn’t lose a game for 9 years at one point). His experience and gameplay will not only help Rusby, but also take the pressure of a remarkably under-experienced WR group which struggled to help Whitehead on plenty of occasions last season.
The defence, which was a middle-league unit, remains mostly unchanged. Like most teams there’s a pivotal out or two (DE David Edmonds is most notable), but with their veteran safety group and players like James Brasser leading the way, expect this defence to be similar in terms of its production.
So can they take another step this season? Unlikely, but after watching last season, the Chiefs are capable of a lot more than what I can give them credit for. Me having them 5th in last year’s infamous Power Chart is a nice reminder of that.
- Port Adelaide Spartans (Last Year: 2-6-2)
The Spartans are the perfect example of something being very close to good, but keeps getting knocked down and then subsequently being built back to the same spot.
Star player Andrew Stevens often laments at how much turnover there is on the Spartans roster each season, and whilst there’s a lot of new faces around the club this preseason, they’ve lost a lot of veteran presence.
Losing Ryan Ottens to injury is the biggest of all, and arguably more of a loss as Simon Whitehead was to the Chiefs. A star for Australia at linebacker, Ottens’ experience and athletic ability not only makes him one of the most feared players in the league defensively, but also a huge threat whenever he’s used as a running back or wide receiver. The Chiefs might be able to somewhat Whitehead’s role with Rusby, but there’s no one who can replace Ottens. Maybe even nationwide.
As a result, this will be a team which will have to gain its bearings quickly. Stevens is easily one of the league’s top 5 players, but he’ll have limited help this season.
There is a potential bright spot however which is the sole reason why I’ve placed the Spartans fourth above the Oilers, and it’s their new quarterback. Ryan Hassall last year got the starter’s job midway through the season due to Steven Novice’s absence, and looked impressive in patches as a much more mobile and athletic quarterback. And whilst it’s tentative to suggest that he’ll be the saving grace of what was a very poor offence, he should have a substantial impact which could help kick this offence into life. This rushing offence is still very good, and I often said many times last year that I’d have little hesitation placing the Spartans’ defence in the discussion for best in the league. So there’s hope.
If you watch a Spartans team late in the season, it’s obvious that this team has the potential to be something more than a fourth place lock. But with so much youth and inexperience, they could find themselves yet again trying to climb out of a hole which is too big.
- Southern District Oilers (Last Year: 1-8-1)
In the preseason Power Chart last year, I got a bit carried away with how far I thought the Oilers would progress because I saw plenty of youth and key positional talent which made me excited.
I can see the same thing this year, but I’ve learned my lesson. The top three is out of their reach, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they managed to conjure more upsets, like their stunning win over the Eagles in Round 10 last season.
Players like Rob West-McInnes, Ben Stevens, Andrew Procter and Michael Tedmanson continue to be reliable both-way stars (offence and defence) for Southern District. They can all be great receivers, and they can even all be good quarterbacks as well, which gives this passing offence plenty of credibility once again. Tedmanson and Procter are very handy in the secondary, whilst West-McInnes and Stevens lead the charge in the front seven.
There are plenty of positive things being said about some of the rookies who are earning their stripes in preseason work, especially on the offensive line. This team unearthed a great talent in outside linebacker Nicholas Prohoroff last season, and hopefully we’ll get to see some more players emerge as stars to help develop the squad.
For now however, there’s still far too many holes in anything to do with rushing. Offensively, they struggled to get any form of yardage to help their very decent passing attack, and in turn the power-game mentality in which the Oilers want to stand behind proved to be their downfall. Defensively, they got bullied almost weekly against strong offensive lines and good running backs (at least one element is present at all other clubs) and didn’t get a chance to exercise their decent pass defence because they were so busy chasing running backs on the ground.
The now retired Matthew Waites is their biggest loss. He was a pretty decent running back who got most of their carries last season, and was one of the best linebackers in the league. The Oilers will need to fill those gaps first before anything else.
Hopefully Southern District makes a few teams nervous late in games, but there’s still so much more development that’s needed here before they become a force. Hopefully it’s sooner rather than later.
Written by Chris Guscott – @Chris_Guscott