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Varga, versatile Rams front seven wreaking havoc in 2021

Ryder Varga in action for Regina. Photo by Piper Sports Photography.

The Regina Rams’ defence has made a serious statement through two weeks of Canada West play. They’re well ahead of their competition in sacks, with nine, and are coming off of a 34-21 win over Calgary, the top-ranked team in the nation at the time.

A major reason for Regina’s victory over the Dinos – the first in program history over a No. 1 ranked team – was their ability to pressure fifth-year Calgary pivot Josiah Joseph. He was sacked by three different players, and was under pressure from all angles, thanks in part to timely blitz calls from defensive coordinator Sheldon Gray and proper execution of twist and loop concepts, which displaced Calgary’s linemen at times and allowed for open lanes for the team’s athletic crop of linebackers to flow around. Regina’s pressure also led to multiple turnovers, including a long interception return from Conference Defensive Player of the Week Gowrishan Aravinthan, his first of two on the evening.

The Rams run a base 3-4 front, playing with two true inside pluggers and two hybrids at linebacker. By doing this, they’re able to capitalize on their athleticism and remain flexible against RPOs, which are a huge part of the Canadian game. The increased athleticism with the base package also allows for Gray to send four players, such as the zach or mac, at any given time, while still being able to defend against quick slants and hooks and fill in the run game.

Regina’s smothering defensive gameplay starts with solid execution from their linemen, which includes tried and true starters Garth Knittig and Tanner Schmekel, as well as Matt Moore – one of five Rams to step right into the team’s lineup after high school in 2015 – and the long and athletic Anthony Bennett, a transfer from Florida Atlantic. They’ve combined for 11 tackles and two sacks, and have done an excellent job of getting vertical, keeping opposing linemen off-balance.

Pressure then comes from Regina’s talented linebacking corps. Amongst the group of standouts is 2021 East-West Bowl selection Ryder Varga, 2018 CJFL Defensive Player of the Year Cody Peters, as well as Josh White, a former provincial champ with Campbell Collegiate who stepped into the lineup right after high school in 2018. Chopper Hippe, who had 88 tackles between the 2018 and 2019 seasons with the CJFL's Edmonton Wildcats, has also shown his versatility and football IQ and had his first U SPORTS sack, along with three tackles against the Dinos.

Varga the leader in the middle

While the group all brings something different to the table, it’s Varga that stands out, leading by example with a relentless work ethic and team-first attitude. The heart and soul of the team’s defence at mac linebacker, Varga leads the conference with 13 solo tackles, and is second in CanWest with 15 tackles overall, along with a sack.

He was a three-time provincial champion with the Dr. Martin LeBoldus Golden Suns, and represented Team Canada at the international level, which helped cement a winning mindset when he got to the post-secondary level.

“The culture we had there was a very strong culture. It established a need for winning, not just in football but in life,” recalled Varga on his high school experience. “The coach John Foord, he’s one of my favourite coaches that I’ve ever had. He really cared about developing you as a person as well as developing you as a football player obviously. I won three championships there in three years, so the winning culture we established there was tremendous and it really helped me to have an expectation of winning when I came here.”

Varga also has a decade-long relationship with Gray, which began during the Canada Cup and continued for a year at Dr. Martin LeBoldus, prior to the defensive mastermind joining the U of R’s staff in 2015. By his second season in 2018, Varga was already seeing game action, and in 2019 he led the team with 39 tackles, showcasing his knowledge of Gray’s playbook.

“We have a good level of comfort with each other. I trust him no matter what, he has a great football mind,” Varga noted of his relationship with Gray.

“We have good chalk-work talks before the game or whenever I pop by his office to talk about what I see or to get his opinion, but I try not to call any shots. That’s why he’s getting the big bucks and I just do what he says. I know for a lot of guys it takes that time to build up trust, but when you’ve had him coaching you for nine or ten years, you tend to respect his opinion a lot more.”

Firm roots as a pash rusher

Varga’s ability to rush the passer was a huge reason for his increased role as a true freshman in 2018. He was inserted into the game during certain blitz packages, which allowed him to get used to the speed and physicality of the U SPORTS game. The results were even more evident in 2019, when he filled a key void left by veteran Danny Nesbitt.

“It was huge for me,” he says of his second season with the program. “You can only learn so much in practice, and sometimes you have to make plays, and more importantly make mistakes in games. That’s really where you learn the most. Getting in my second year and knowing I could rush some of the best tackles in CanWest was really important to me going into my third year when I started.”

Varga is a selfless player, who says things only when they need to be said, but isn’t afraid to correct a teammate if they’re not executing a coverage or technique properly. The 6’3”, 225-pound linebacker can step up in the box, drop into coverage and understands his responsibilities, which occasionally includes creating space for his teammates to get free on exotic blitz packages.

“With the blitz packages that Grey has on our defence, we’re bound to get home. He’s kind of a mastermind. If you run the plays the way that they’re designed, the results kind of speak for themselves,” he says.

“Obviously everybody can get home on any blitz, but some blitzes are specifically designed for one guy to get home I’d say. If we have a halfback blitz coming in, and I know that I need to open up the gap wide enough for our halfback to get through, I’m going to do my job and make sure that our halfback has the best chance to get a sack. I’ll still do my pass rush, but you have to understand who’s blitzing around you to sway the offensive line in a way that’s going to let you team get the opportunity for a sack. You have to understand how your gap fits in in the whole picture of the play. That’s pretty important for our defence.”

Getting set for UBC

The Rams are currently in a logjam in the middle of the standings at 1-1, alongside Calgary, Saskatchewan and Alberta. They face 0-2 UBC this weekend, and will need to contain athletic pivot Garrett Rooker, a first-year Texas product who can make plays in a variety of different ways.

The T-Birds have run a number of jumbo packages this year in order to give Rooker time to roll out of the pocket in play action, and that should make for an interesting battle against the versatile Rams linebacking corps. Varga, White and Peters have combined for 33.5 tackles and four sacks already in 2021, and there’s no doubt their performance will have a significant impact on the game’s result.

“I’m really happy with how physical we’ve been as a group. I would say that we are the most physical defence in Canada West for sure,” says Varga.

“I would say Josh White is a very vocal and emotional – but good emotional – player. He just loves the game so much and would do anything for the team. When we need a hype-up speech, he’s the guy I go to. When we’re all just talking we have that respect for each other. We’re all good football players. You look down the line, and Josh White is a Team Canada guy and Canada Cup MVP, Cody Peters is a CJFL Defensive Player of the Year, and there’s myself and there’s other guys who rotate in that are no slouches. We all respect each other and we all care for each other, and when it comes down to it, we can trust the guy beside us to make a play.”

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