A breakout year from running back Benedict Muhima (left) would help the Valley Huskers immensely

Huskers coach believes in reloaded roster

New Valley Huskers coach Adam Smith sees potential in his 2014 roster, though he knows his team has an uphill climb to respectability.

It’s easy to feel optimistic the first week of July.

The grass is green.

The sun is out and all things are possible.

Adam Smith has a smile on his face as he preps for the start of his first BC Football Conference training camp as football boss of the Valley Huskers.

Always enthusiastic, the new coach feels he’s done some good work on the recruiting trail.

He’ll have some good talent in camp and feels his team will take its first baby steps back towards respectability.

But he doesn’t expect you to believe it.

Yet.

The rebuilding process starts at the most basic level. The first week of training camp will be a time for football fundamentals.

“We’ll probably have a lot of hitting to get them going,” Smith said.

Then, he’ll roll into playbook, installing new schemes/formations/plays — building on what his guys started to learn in spring camp.

“Then the competition starts and we see who fits in,” he said. “We have about 52 players signed up, and they have to compete for spots.”

The third week of camp will be spent getting ready for the July 26 home and season opener.

The Huskers don’t play any preseason games this year, then play the mighty Okanagan Sun in week one. Smith couldn’t ask for a tougher test.

“The Sun and Langley Rams are probably the class of BC junior football right now, with the Sun hosting the national championship this year,” Smith said. “A lot of people look at that as a negative starting the season against a powerhouse like that. I like it. It’s nice for all our young guys to look at the Sun and know that this is the goal. We want to win a championship eventually, and this is what it looks like.”

The offence is Smith’s baby, and he’ll be calling the shots this year.

Smith came to Chilliwack three summers ago as the offensive coordinator for the new high school program at GW Graham, installing a full-throttle attack that carried the Grizzlies junior team to a provincial title last fall.

Having spent several summers with the NCAA’s Texas Tech Red Raiders — pass-happy spread-offence innovators — Smith loves chuckling the ball around the field.

But his GWG offences have been well-balanced, with a healthy dose of run-game mixed in.

“We’ll look to establish the run every game, and if it’s working we won’t shy away from it,” he said. “The pass will be there too, but I think we’ll have to run at least 35-40 per cent of the time.”

It starts under center with quarterbacks Braden Churly and Dylan La Prairie.

Churly was Chilliwack’s offensive MVP in 2012 and returns after a year off.

“He had a good spring camp, dusting off the rust,” Smith said.

La Prairie is interesting.

Before spring camp Smith heard stories about his attitude, and had some concerns.

“But once he got here, we didn’t see any of that. He was respectful and polite,” Smith noted. “He’s fiery, a real competitor, and maybe when he was younger it came across as arrogance. But with us he didn’t come in like he was better than anyone. It was, ‘Yes coach. Yes coach.’ I like the fiery kids, and if we can keep his fire down just a bit he can have a big year.”

If Smith is right, the QB duo will have plenty of people to throw to.

Cody Vinnish is back for a third year after catching 23 balls for 448 yards in 2013. Blake Draper caught 34 passes for 315 yards in a solid rookie year. Both are Alberta natives.

“They’re both big boys and I’m expecting big years from them,” Smith said. “Then we’ve added a couple guys.”

The coach is excited about rookie receivers Kaanon Felix and Gage Berdahl. Smith coached Felix when both were in Winnipeg.

“We went to a provincial championship together, with him starting as a Grade 9 player on our varsity team,” Smith said. “He’s put together quite a pedigree and there was talk about him joining the University of Manitoba Bison or the (junior) Winnipeg Rifles. I was kind of laughing at some of those articles because I knew he was coming here.”

Smith feels Felix has as much potential as BCFC all-star Derek Yachison, a Kamloops Bronco standout who’s drawn attention from the Canadian Football League’s BC Lions.

“Kaanon trains with Derek, and the only question is whether he’ll work as hard as Derek does,” Smith said.

Bergdahl, a Drumheller (Alberta) native, was a highly sought recruit who committed to Chilliwack early. Berdahl was set to visit several teams. But after meeting Smith once, he called everything else off to join the Huskers.

“We kind of snuck him away from the Sun, I know that,” Smith chuckled. “The Calgary Colts were all over him too and he had some CIS interest as well. He’s got the height (six-foot-three). He’s quick and he’s got a great football brain. He’s going to be a big part of our offence.”

Running back Travis Fehr is an intriguing addition. Twice cut from the Saskatchewan Huskies, he’s been working his tail off to get another shot.

He was good at spring camp.

“He really wants to play, a lot,” Smith said. “He’s a lot like Ty Derayos was last year where you won’t get the huge plays from him, but you won’t get the minus plays either. He’ll get the yards and be a solid backup.”

The starter should be Benedict Muhima, a second year back who carried 33 times last year for 148 yards (4.5 average).

“You wouldn’t even recognize him from last year,” Smith said. “The weight he’s put on, he looks like a CFL player. But he’s still got his sprinter’s speed, and he ripped off an 80 yard run in spring camp. I think this could be a breakout year for him.”

Smith is coaching Muhima in the art of picking up tough yards — overriding his instinct to bounce outside.

“He came from a Winnipeg high school provincial championship team, and he was one of those guys who was faster than everyone,” Smith said. “He gets outside at that level and he’s gone. When you get to junior, you get guys who are three years older than you and faster than you. His problem at first was trying to make every play a touchdown.”

With an offensive line that eventually figures to be a strength, Smith sees potential to put up a lot of points.

But again it comes back to theory and reality.

Everything looks great on paper, but until he sees it translate to the field, even Smith will remain skeptical.

He believes his team should have enough to hang with the Kamloops Broncos, Westshore Rebels and even Vancouver Island Raiders right now.

He’s also realistic enough to know the Sun and Rams are a step or five ahead.

“We’ve got to work on winning games we need to be in and taking things out of the games we’re looking to be in in the future,” Smith said. “When you play the Langleys and Okanagans, you can’t count them as write-offs if you want to build to that.”

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