Sunday, 2 September 2018

McNabb quickly evolves into impact player and leader with CJFL powerhouse Hilltops

Hilltops DT Jesse McNabb (#69) chases down a ball carrier.
    Jesse McNabb was ready to step up on the Saskatoon Hilltops defensive line and his chance arrived a little faster than expected.
    In 2016, McNabb joined the Hilltops as a rookie fresh out of Saskatchewan’s North Battleford Comprehensive High School, and he figured he would have to pay his dues before starting for a club that is always contending for a Canadian Junior Football League title. McNabb was moved up to a starting spot in his sophomore year in 2017 and hasn’t looked back.
    “My rookie year, I kind of knew where my spot was going to be, because I knew we had a good group of older guys ahead of me,” said McNabb, who stands 6-foot-2 and weighs 245 pounds. “I just knew with patience my time would come.
    “I just had to wait until I had my opportunity. Once my opportunity came, I had to seize it.”
     Now in his third year with the team, the 20-year-old has become a cornerstone on the Hilltops defensive line at the inside tackle position. In Saskatoon’s first two regular season games, McNabb has recorded seven total tackles, 1.5 sacks and recovered one fumble.
    On Sunday, the Hilltop improved to 3-0 on the campaign, when they traveled to Winnipeg and downed the Rifles 38-8. Saskatoon led 24-1 at halftime and cruised to their 21st straight victory on the road including action in the regular season and playoffs. The Rifles fell to 1-2.
Hilltops DT Jesse McNabb (#69) enjoys being part of the team’s D-line.
     Normally in football, those that play a defensive tackle position don’t get too much of the limelight. They are often entrusted with trying to occupy a pair of blocks to allow teammates to swarm in and make plays. By taking up a pair of blocks, defensive tackles also help to clog up the opposition’s running game.
    The importance of McNabb’s play and improvement is recognized by Hilltops head coach Tom Sargeant.
    “Jesse (McNabb) is a great kid,” said Sargeant. “Number one, he is a high character player, high motor.
    “He never takes a play off. He is just always competing. Just the growth and mentality from his first year to now in his third year, he has really grown, and he is a two-year starter.
    “He is impactful. Each game he gets better, and he does something impactful and important.”
    Growing up in North Battleford, Sask., McNabb wanted to get into football as soon as he could and started playing in Grade 7. He wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father, Aaron, who played a couple of seasons in the early 1990s for the University of Saskatchewan Huskies.
Hilltops DT Jesse McNabb brings down a Colts running back.
    The younger McNabb took a quick liking to football and admitted he dropped pretty much every other extra-curricular activity he did to play the sport. Playing with the Vikings, McNabb established himself as a trusted standout at the high school level.
    “I got lots of different experiences,” said McNabb. “I’ve pretty much played every position on the field.
    “It is not a big town. You don’t have many guys. You have to play both ways.”
    When he joined the Hilltops, McNabb said the veterans played a big role in helping him adjust to playing for a storied team at the junior level.
    “We had a good group of fifth years to lead us through everything,” said McNabb. “It was a big winning atmosphere and the guys knew what they were doing, and they knew what they wanted to do.
    “They really set your mind straight, when you were coming from a different program.”
    Now, McNabb is the veteran leader who is helping the Hilltops defensive line continue to play at a high level. McNabb and fellow defensive tackle Garth Knittig were the only two returning starters on the Hilltops defensive line from last season.
    Defensive end Tom Schnitzler exhausted his CJFL eligibility after last season and now plays for the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds in the U Sports ranks. Riley Pickett picked up nine quarterback sacks in eight regular season games playing the other defensive end spot last season, and he moved on to join the U of S Huskies.
Hilltops DT Jesse McNabb chases down a Colts quarterback.
    Connor Guillet and Tristan Hering, who are in their fifth and fourth years of eligibility respectively, have filled in admirably as starters at the defensive end spots. Guillet missed almost all of last season due to a torn Achilles tendon. Caleb Haight and Jordan Seipp, who are in their second and first years of eligibility respectively, have rotated in and seen a number of reps at the defensive end positions as well.
    Under defensive line coach Dave Fisher, the Hilltops defensive line consistently stays at a high level.
    “It was not too bad at all,” said McNabb. “We still had returning guys coming back and playing the ends.
    “I think we are just meshing good as a unit. We have a good group of linebackers behind us.
    “We don’t have to worry about much. As long as we do our jobs, everyone else will make the play, if we miss it.”
    Away from the field, Sargeant said McNabb conducts himself like a gentleman.
    “He has a great upbringing and great parents,” said Sargeant. “He is just a super kid.
    “What you see is what you get. He is a great role model for us. We’re proud that he is here, and he makes us better.
    “He does everything right. He is Hilltop proud, and we are expecting him to be one of the leaders now and into the future.”
Hilltops DT Jesse McNabb gets a sack on a Colts quarterback.
    McNabb has helped the Hilltops win the last two of their current run of four straight CJFL championships. While thoughts of winning an unprecedented fifth Canadian Bowl championship game are in the back of everyone’s minds, McNabb said he is going to enjoy each day as it comes as the season progresses.
    “It is always a good time, when you are hanging out with the guys,” said McNabb. “There are no bad days.
    “If you are having a bad day, your guys are always there to help pick you up.”
    The Hilltops now enjoy a bye week. They return to action on Sept. 15, when they travel to Calgary to take on the Colts.

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