There was a different vibe around the University of Regina campus earlier this month.
With the Rams football training camp underway, one big exception not in pads for the first time since 2013 was quarterback Noah Picton.
Regina starts its U Sports campaign Saturday in Vancouver against the UBC Thunderbirds with some fresh faces looking to lead the team behind centre. For head coach Steve Bryce, it’s a new chapter for the school.
“We do miss Noah, he’s an outstanding player, an outstanding kid and person. But it’s a refreshing atmosphere, actually,” Bryce said in a phone interview.
“We were relying a little bit in the last year on Noah Picton and Atlee Simon. Right now, it’s totally a new chapter and it’s really refreshing.”
Picton finished his five-year collegiate career as U Sports’s all-time leading passer, second in career pass completions and seventh in touchdown passes. He also earned the Hec Crighton Trophy in 2016 as the top U Sports football player, but missed most of last season while recovering from septic arthritis in his big toe.
He was cut by the Toronto Argonauts in June and is now pursuing his chartered financial analyst certification.
With Picton’s graduation and fellow QB Seb Britton recovering from a torn labrum, the door has opened for rookie quarterback Josh Donnelly.
Donnelly is a 19-year-old who appeared in Week 7 last year against Calgary with both Picton and Britton injured. The six-foot-three, 185-pound Donnelly wasn’t able to lead the Rams to victory, but he did gain some valuable help from Picton throughout the game.
Donnelly said Picton sat him down before the game and was the first person he talked to after reaching the sidelines following each possession.
“That was a big moment for me,” Donnelly said.
Donnelly completed 8-of-13 passes for 86 yards in a pre-season loss to Manitoba last week. Regina has two new quarterbacks also joining its ranks in Bryden O’Flaherty of Calgary and Thomas Hyett from Vernon, B.C.
Bryce says he was impressed with his Donnelly’s performance throughout training camp.
“His decision making is outstanding, his reads are very good. His check downs are (good),” Bryce said. “He’s elusive in the backfield and he’s got really good leadership abilities as well.”
Changes at quarterback aren’t the only obstacle the Rams have had to face in the past year.
An academically ineligible player forced Regina to forfeit three wins in 2018, virtually ending any hope of playing in the post-season. They would finish the year with a 1-7 record.
Meanwhile, Kyle Borsa, a running back who was a standout last season, was suspended for 16 months in March for an anti-doping rule violation.
Bryce said his players have had great resolve despite the setbacks.
“They don’t want to dwell on last year,” he said. “We just want to keep that in the back of the mind and use it for future fuel. They don’t want to talk about last year, and even when it happened, they’re like, ‘OK, let’s move on, what’s next?’”
Two players who should help Donnelly’s transition are offensive linemen Andrew Becker and Theren Churchill. Both of them got high praise from their head coach, who expects the duo to be drafted this year.
“He (Becker) looks as good of an offensive lineman as this team has seen since Brett Jones,” Bryce said.
As for Donnelly, he believes getting the playing experience last season, even if it was just for one game, is giving him the boost he needs to play at the university level.
“Going against the top team in the conference and completing some passes, marching the ball, moving the ball a bit, I think it’s a big difference-maker for my confidence level going into this season as a potential starter.”