Helping hands: Five Fredericton players leave Monday for the Acadia University Axemen’s football boot camp. They include front row, from left, Jake Thomas and John Morse and back row, from left, A.J. Durling, Bobby McIntyre and Erik Watson. The Axemen are looking for a turnaround season after winning just one of eight games in 2008.
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Locals |Five Fredericton players want to help rebuilding Axemen turn fortunes around

By Robert Touchie

Boot camp for the Acadia University Axemen football team starts Monday morning, and head coach Jeff Cummins is looking for a few good men to help turn the fortunes around for his Atlantic University Sport team. The Axemen are coming off a disappointing 1-7 campaign.

Cummins thinks he's off to a pretty good start in his search, with five capable young men from Fredericton.

Returning veterans Jake Thomas and Bobby McIntyre, along with freshman additions A.J. Durling and John Morse, join seasoned Bishop's University Gaiter graduate Erik Watson to bring Cummins a foundation from which he hopes to build a winner immediately.

"First and foremost, these five guys are just great kids, really good people," said Cummins, who spent his summer months as an assistant coach for Canada's silver medallist entry in the World Junior Football Championship in Canton, Ohio.

"They all play different positions and bring different attributes to the mix, but they all possess what we want from players in our program, which is a great work ethic, toughness and an attitude that team success comes before anything else."

Nothing for these five, however, is guaranteed. Not in Cummins' program. Every position is open for competition and with 85-90 players slated to come into camp, with only 40 spots open, each Saturday training camp will most definitely get intense, possibly even nasty.

"From my experience you have to be ready to go to war when you head to training camp," said fourth-year cornerback McIntyre, entering his fourth such camp and fighting for a roster spot, just like the rookies. "It decides the depth chart and sets the tone for the rest of the season, so I know I have to make plays because I want a starting spot."

For first-year players Durling and Morse, both 18 years old, they are not sure what to expect on the field, talent-wise, but come in with their eyes wide open, as far as the dog-eat-dog world of university football goes.

"(Fellow CIS veterans and Fredericton residents) Andrew Hickey and Dave Skillen really took me under their wing this summer, training six days a week and I've gained 25 pounds since April," said the six-foot-four, 200-pound wide receiver Durling, who graduated with an 80 per cent average in June from FHS, garnering the Athlete of the Year award along the way. "I have a pretty good idea what to expect, but I will wait and see how it goes ... all I can do is work hard and follow what the coaches tell me to do."

Durling's close friend, former football and basketball Black Kat teammate and future roommate at Acadia, fullback Morse agrees that giving 100 per cent is the best approach to a successful beginning, but also cites something he recently heard Jake Thomas say that has stuck with him.

"Jake was talking to someone else the other day and I overheard him say about his training 'I love to workout. I want to prepare to be the best at whatever I am doing' and it hit me that it's a real battle to get a spot on a CIS team," said Morse, who won FHS sportsman of the year in football and the Black Kat Pride award in basketball.

"I know I'm in tough to get a spot, but all I can do is my best and work hard at it."

Cummins feels the two freshmen have more than enough talent and toughness to make it at the next level.

"A.J. Durling is a great student and just fantastic athletically, and the thing about Morse - who's also a good student and a real good athlete - is his toughness "¦ the kid is tough," said Cummins. "I went down to watch the two of them play basketball at the Mike Fitz tribute game and John's shoulder popped out of place during the game.

"He didn't miss a beat, they took him off the court and into a training room, popped the shoulder back in place and he comes out about two minutes later laughing and raring to get back in the game.

"I really liked that"¦he showed grit, reminded me of Jake Thomas, in that respect."

Ah yes, Jake Thomas, he of the second team defensive line all-star nod at the aforementioned World Junior Football Championships. The 18-year-old Thomas heads into his second year with two clear goals: win the AUS banner and start on the defensive line. An AUS all-star trip would be good too, he says.

"Having some of the best coaching in the world this past summer really improved my game and I think this year I should see improvement, along with the team," said Thomas, who, like Durling, was an Athlete of the Year, only at Leo Hayes High, while also winning MVP honours in hockey, rugby and football. "But I really think the additions of A.J. Morse and especially Erik Watson will bring us immediate gains on the field.

"With Watson's addition, it is not every day that you can add a guy who was a three-year starter and all-star offensive lineman in the best conference in the country (the QUFL). He can only help us these next two years, for sure. I'm excited to get on the field with him."

Watson, 23, comes to Acadia with two years of CIS eligibility remaining after sitting out last season while completing his undergraduate degree in arts (history) at the Lennoxville campus. He did so with an eye to catching on with an AUS team while he works toward a BEd degree and a career as an elementary teacher.

"A month ago I thought I was going to X but that fell through because of problems with the educational component (the BEd)," said the six-foot-four, 260-pound Watson. "Through a friend I was able to gauge interest from other AUS teams and Acadia really came through at the last hour "¦ just last week, in fact.

"It's been great because I had more or less resigned myself to work away at my marks at UNB for the year, so this was just truly a blessing and I cannot wait to get to camp. It couldn't have worked out any better."

Better for Acadia and Watson, but what about X? How will they feel about having to face a guy coach Cummins knew from coaching in Watson's East-West all-star game appearance (a game between the OUA and QUFL all-stars) and a man he called a 'mauler' on the offensive line, a man X thought they had signed, sealed and delivered for the 2009 season?

"Dave Skillen and I are like brothers and he is not too happy with me," said Watson, who noted there have been some 'competitive' Facebook messages exchanged between the two of late, given that Watson's tackle position will directly match up with Skillen's defensive end position. "We go head to head for two games this year for the first time in our lives

"It's something we've always talked about, wished for and I'm looking forward to it, but one of our egos is definitely going to get hurt."