The Notre Dame Cougars are in somewhat of a rebuilding mode this fall, undergoing extensive facelifts at the skill positions.
Gone from the team that posted a 6-2 regular-season record and fell to the Stettler Wildcats in a Central Alberta High School Football League semifinal, are running backs Connor Toyata, Chad Maximchuk and Bryce Cox.
Toyata scored 11 touchdowns while rushing for 1,066 yards on 134 carries, Maximchuk picked up 467 yards on 71 carries and contributed six majors, and Cox touched the ball on 23 occasions and ran for 148 yards.
Meanwhile, quarterback Andrew James passed for 958 yards in 2008 before graduating this year.
“So we have lots of holes to fill,” Cougars head coach Gino Castellan said this week.
The long-time Notre Dame sideline boss is confident that returnee Kyle Devine, who completed 10 of 21 passes for 150 yards last year, and former receiver Nathan Stearns can carry the load at quarterback, and will be capably protected by the likes of veteran linemen Connor McLachlan and Logan Morrical.
“The offensive line will be one our strengths. It’s where we have the most experience,” said Castellan, who has also been impressed with rookie blocker Sam Simonsen in practice.
The running game might suffer this season with the loss of Toyata and Maximchuk.
“Right now that’s a position that’s up in the air,” said Castellan, who plans to fill one of the spots with former defensive player Dale MacDonald and also employ returning running back/fullback Logan Sabourin and Grade 11 fullback Chase Knibb.
Castellan does like the potential of the Cougars’ passing game, despite the loss of the club’s top three 2008 receivers in Patrick Dolan, Chad King and Cox.
“Right now we’re looking pretty good at the receiver position,” said Castellan, who has experienced catchers in Parker Aubin, Tyler Hildebrandt and Glen Ritchie and a prospective rookie standout in former Notre Dame bantam star Dario Viveros.
“Dario will probably play defence as well,” said the Cougars head man. “He’s a smooth player; he could be the real deal.”
Defensively, the line will be anchored by returnees Tyler Kovacs and Jordan Willms and the backfield will feature veterans Tyler LaGrange and Conner Borle. Brett Maximchuk and Braden Fordyce are returning linebackers and will be joined by impressive rookie Chris Roberts.
“This is his (Roberts) first year of football and he looks good,” said Castellan. “He’s keen and he’s a pretty good player.”
Overall, Castellan likes the skill level of his returning players and is hopeful that they can continue to progress.
“We have some good kids coming back,” he said. “A lot of them played quite a bit last year and they’ll have to step up this year. As coaches we’ll just have to push them to get the most out of them and we’ll see what happens.
“We’re going to be young in certain areas and more experienced in others. What hurt us is we lost our key players at the key positions. We’re going to see how the new kids step up and we won’t know more until we play our first game.”
The Cougars open their 2009 season next Thursday against the visiting Rocky Mountain House Rebels at 4:30 p.m. at Great Chief Park.
The Cougars should be ready for their opener; with a first-week bye and no exhibition games on their schedule, they have the benefit of an extra week of practice.