With the T-Birds’ season on the line, backup quarterback Derek Engel was thrust into the starting position. Now, he wants to keep it.
UBC quarterback Garrett Rooker writhed on the turf, clutching his right leg. From the sidelines, backup quarterback Derek Engel thought it might be a cramp. “I was like, ‘oh, he'll be okay,’” Engel, a second-year, recalled. “‘I'll just get in for maybe a couple plays, and then he'll be back in.’”
In actuality, Rooker would not take another snap that season.
It was October 22, marking the penultimate week of the 2022 regular season. UBC was six minutes into a critical game against the Saskatchewan Huskies. With a 3–3 record and the postseason fast approaching, the Thunderbirds needed a win to secure a spot in the playoffs. To do so, they’d have to do what no team had done all season: beat the 6–0 Huskies. And now, they’d have to do it without their star quarterback.
As Rooker was carried off the field, Engel realized the gravity of the situation. Replacing Rooker — the 2021 Canada West (CW) Rookie of the Year — was a tall order, but Engel felt prepared.
Raised in Grapevine, Texas by a Canadian mother and American father, Engel began playing football around the third grade. He was inspired by his dad, a former football player, who pushed him to excel in the sport. Football was a big part of his life and one of the main reasons he chose UBC.
“My senior year, I'd gotten hurt actually, so a lot of the recruitment that I was getting down in the states kind of fizzled out,” Engel explained. After UBC offered his cousin a scholarship for football, Engel reached out to UBC himself. He believed he could be the starting quarterback at UBC. “I felt like, if I came here, I could play pretty soon.”
When he came to UBC, Engel was surprised to find the coaches favouring another rookie from Texas, Garrett Rooker, for the starting role. Engel understood the decision: Rooker, who had arrived during the pandemic, had been waiting a year to play and was more familiar with the offence. Still, Engel was shocked by the lack of practice reps he was given. “I just thought I would have a bigger role than I did [in] my first year,” he said.
Entering their second season, Rooker remained the first-string quarterback. However, Engel earned a bigger role on the team, receiving — by his estimation — about 40 per cent of the practice reps and some significant in-game snaps.
Now, with Rooker out, Engel had the chance to prove he could start.
“I felt calm, but also a bit antsy, just because I understood the magnitude of the game,” Engel said on stepping in for Rooker. When asked about his mentality, he said, “I knew, obviously, I could do it. So it was more so just proving to myself that I could do it, game by game and throw by throw, just continuing to do what I knew I could do.”
Against all odds, the T-Birds defeated the Huskies 35–29, handing Saskatchewan their only loss of the 2022/23 season. The game-winning play was a touchdown pass from Engel to take the lead with two minutes left; the pass was later a candidate for CW Play of the Year.
Engel, who had completed 11/20 for 160 yards, attributed the win to his team’s passion and camaraderie. “I don't think I did anything too spectacular during the game. I just was doing my job.”
With Engel under centre, the T-Birds headed to the conference semifinals, where they defeated the Regina Rams 28–14, winning their first playoff game since 2017. Engel was “ecstatic, just knowing that we accomplished … something that hadn’t been done in a long time.”
After the semifinals, in an interview with UBC Athletics, head coach Blake Nill said Engel was UBC’s “best offensive player” while going against Regina. When confronted with this quote, Engel deflected the praise.
“I feel like I could have played a lot better that game,” he said.
Advancing to the Hardy Cup Final — the CW conference championship game — the Thunderbirds faced a rematch with the Huskies. “I was feeling very confident,” Engel said. “I felt like our game plan going into the Sask game was good. And then I felt like guys were highly focused.”
If the T-Birds could claim the conference title, they would have their first shot at the Vanier Cup since 2015. “It was one of those things where, if we won that game, we felt like we were going to make it all the way to the [national] championships,” Engel said.
The Hardy Cup meant a lot to the team, but there was even more at stake for Engel: a win would bolster his campaign for the starting position, while a loss could end his stint as the starter. But Engel wasn’t motivated by personal gain. “Just beating them” was what he cared about.
UBC did not beat Saskatchewan, instead losing 23–8 after Engel threw two consecutive interceptions in the fourth quarter.
“In my head, I kind of gave up after that second interception,” said Engel, who had appeared visibly distressed in the final quarter. “I lost that game.”
The loss was sickening for Engel. “I felt like I had let Coach Nill down, like I’d let everybody down,” he said. “I still think about it when I go to sleep sometimes.”
However, Engel is not demoralized. He’s intent on improving over the offseason and plans to watch plenty of film with his offensive coordinator. “Mentally, I need to be better this offseason,” he said. “So that's where I'm going to be spending a lot of my time, watching film, going over plays, stuff like that.”
Engel believes he has proven he can be the starting quarterback. Now, he wants to win the job on his own merit.
“I feel like … I just have to be the starter going into next year, and I feel like I owe it to myself because I kind of just got thrown in because of Garrett's injury,” Engel said. “I just want to know that when I'm the starter, it's because I'm the best player, not because somebody else got hurt.”