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Up to the Challenge

Ian MacAlpine The Whig-Standard

Queen's Golden Gaels quarterback Justin Chapdelaine works out at practice on Monday at Queen's West Campus. Ian MacAlpine The Whig-Standard

Queen’s Golden Gaels quarterback Justin Chapdelaine doesn’t have to look far to find someone who has been in his shoes.

Chapdelaine’s position coach — former Gaels quarterback Ryan Sheahan — knows what it’s like to try to replace a star.

Sheahan, who split starting duties following the departure of two-time national player of the year Tommy Denison in 2004, should be a very good mentor for young Chapdelaine, who has the daunting task of trying to follow Danny Brannagan as the Queen’s starter.

“I actually have a little bit of experience with that,” Sheahan, the son of head coach Pat Sheahan, said with a smile after the second day of training camp on Monday.

“All you can really do is focus on the system and what the team requires. (As a coach), you can’t expect a Tom Denison or Danny Brannagan to be at the helm anymore. You’ve got to call the plays and adjust to the quarterback’s strengths rather than just assume you’ll be able to do all the same things.”

That philosophy will loom large this year. The Gaels go from having a drop-back, gunslinging fifth-year veteran to a 19-year-old, second-year player who won’t hesitate to use his legs to make plays.

In short, he’s a very different quarterback than the guy who led the Gaels to the Vanier Cup last year.

“I’m not Danny Brannagan,” said Chapdelaine, who has to beat out three rookies — Billy McPhee, Ryan Mitchell and Kingston’s John Sullivan — for the starting job. “He’s more of a pocket-presence quarterback. I’m trying to work on that right now and I feel like I’ve improved a lot. I think I can be a dual threat kind of guy. If it comes down to it, I’ll run out of the pocket and try to get that first down.”

The Chapdelaine of 2010 looks and sounds a lot different than the Chapdelaine of 2009.

For starters, he has improved his delivery, which was a bit shot-put-like last year.

He definitely had more zip on the ball on Monday at practice, likely the result of off-season strength work that saw him put on 10 pounds.

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“He’s gone home, put weight on, and he’s got a lot of muscle behind the ball now,” Ryan Sheahan said. “Whereas we were questioning the wide-side throw for him last year, we’re not questioning it anymore.”

Talking to Chapdelaine, you also get the sense that he’s looking forward to taking a leadership role as a hopeful starter and a returnee.

He makes eye contact, gives thoughtful answers and even remembers names of reporters.

“A lot of people say it’s big shoes to fill and it is,” said Chapdelaine, the son of B.C. Lions offensive co-ordinator Jacques Chapdelaine.

“There is pressure added. But you know what, you’ve got to look past it. (Brannagan has) moved on to a better thing, (as a practice roster player) for the Toronto Argonauts now. … His legacy lives on. But you’ve got to put in the work and hopefully be as good or better than him.”

Over the years, Chapdelaine has had teachers with solid credentials — his dad (who had him throwing to B.C. Lions receivers earlier this summer), Ryan Sheahan, who did a nice job fine-tuning Brannagan’s game in his final year, and, of course, Brannagan himself.

“It was awesome (playing with Brannagan) last year,” Chapdelaine said. “I learned a lot from him, just about being poised and having composure in the pocket.”

When Brannagan suffered a head injury last year, Chapdelaine was handed the reins for most of a big win against the Ottawa Gee-Gees.

While he struggled at times, he also showed good poise down the stretch to finish out a game dominated by the Queen’s defence.

When Pat Sheahan looks at Chapdelaine, he sees a player who reminds him of a quarterback who caused him fits when he was the head coach of the Concordia Stingers — the elusive Phil Cote, who led the Ottawa Gee-Gees to a Vanier Cup in 2000.

“You ask me what Phil Cote’s redeeming features were. Was he a big guy? No. Did he have a strong arm? No,” Sheahan said. “What did he do. He won. He knew how to win.

“Justin,” Sheahan added, “is extremely competitive. He has lots of football acumen for a young quarterback. He’s probably talked more football sitting around the kitchen table than most (players) have (in their lives).”

With the Gaels losing 13 starters, they won’t be anybody’s pre-season pick to win the Vanier Cup again.

But that doesn’t bother Chapdelaine.

“My goal for this year is to win games and try to go back to the Vanier Cup,” Chapdelaine said. “A lot of people say this is a rebuilding year, but I think of it as a repeating year. We’ve got a lot of talent on the team, so I feel we can go do it again.”

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