June 23, 2013

Five storylines to follow as the CFL season kicks off



The 2013 CFL regular season kicks off June 27 with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers hosting the Montreal Alouettes.  Here’s a look at five storylines worth watching this season:

Hawkins era in Montreal

Dan Hawkins has a tough act to follow as the Montreal Alouettes head coach. Not only does he have no CFL coaching experience, he replaces Marc Trestman, who led the club to a 59-31 regular-season record and two Grey Cup wins over five seasons before being named head coach of the NFL’s Chicago Bears.

Trestman was regarded as an offensive guru and a quarterback technician. Alouettes veteran passer Anthony Calvillo, 40, flourished under Trestman, throwing for more than 5,000 yards three times and putting up a career-high 43 TD passes in 2008.

Fortunately for Hawkins, Calvillo returns for a 20th CFL season and will have veteran receivers Jamel Richardson and S.J. Green to throw to.

Running back Brandon Whitaker, the CFL rushing leader in 2011, has also resumed practising after suffering a season-ending knee injury last year.

Argos’ quest to repeat

The Toronto Argonauts will attempt to win consecutive Grey Cup titles for the first time since 1996-97. Toronto captured the 100th Grey Cup last year with a new head coach (Scott Milanovich) and quarterback (Ricky Ray), and both return with a year together under their belt.

It took Ray some time to become acclimated to Milanovich’s offence, but down the stretch the veteran quarterback showed the poise and savvy Argos GM Jim Barker had expected when he acquired Ray in a blockbuster deal with the Edmonton Eskimos. Ray showed a definite chemistry with Chad Owens, who was the CFL’s outstanding player.

This off-season Barker acquired controversial defensive tackle Khalif Mitchell from B.C. Mitchell is a former CFL all-star who was suspended twice last season. Despite initially saying he wasn’t heading East, the 28-year-old Mitchell will be the anchor of the club’s defensive line in 2013.

No Ticats in Steeltown

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats will play their home games in Guelph, Ont., as a new venue is built where Ivor Wynne Stadium, once stood.

The Ticats missed the playoffs last year, costing head coach/GM George Cortez his job after just one season. The club hired former CFL quarterback and head coach Kent Austin as its vice-president of football operations, GM and coach.

A priority was revamping a defence that allowed 32 points (league-high) and 409 yards (second-most) per game. Veteran linebacker Rey Williams, defensive backs Bo Smith and Geoff Tisdale were released while linebacker Shomari Williams, defensive lineman Brian Bulke and defensive backs Evan McCullough and James Patrick were signed.

Offensively, quarterback Quinton Porter and running backs Martel Mallett and Avon Cobourne were released while receiver/returner Chris Williams remains embroiled in a contract dispute.

Riders look to keep the streak alive

Serving as Grey Cup host has proven quite beneficial the last two years. In 2011, the B.C. Lions beat Winnipeg at B.C. Place before Toronto dispatched Calgary in last year’s 100th Grey Cup at Rogers Centre. This year’s game will be played at Mosaic Stadium in Regina, which puts the onus on the Saskatchewan Roughriders to keep the home streak alive.

The Riders finished third in the West Division last year with an 8-10 record before losing 36-30 to Calgary at McMahon Stadium in the conference semifinal. Saskatchewan last hosted a home playoff game in 2010, defeating B.C. 41-38 in the West Semi-Final after finishing second with a 10-8 record.

The club last won the Grey Cup in 2007, defeating Winnipeg 23-19 at Rogers Centre. This off-season the Riders bolstered their lineup by signing free-agent defensive linemen Ricky Foley and John Chick and defensive back Dwight Anderson while acquiring veteran slotback Geroy Simon from B.C.

Much change in BC

Change was the operative word in Vancouver this off-season.

GM Wally Buono traded such veterans as Mitchell and backup quarterback Mike Reilly (to Edmonton), released others like receiver Arland Bruce III and cornerback Byron Parker while re-signing free-agent receiver Emmanuel Arceneaux as well as quarterback Travis Lulay, offensive linemen Jovan Oliafoye and Ben Archibald and linebacker Solomon Elimimian.

But most significant was trading Simon — the CFL’s all-time receiving yards leader — to Saskatchewan after 12 seasons in Vancouver. The good news for the Lions is that Buono knows what it takes to succeed in the CFL. He has amassed a league-record 254 career coaching wins and record-tying five Grey Cup titles. He’s been named the league’s coach of the year four times, second only to Don Matthews, who had five.