CALGARY — Aside from some suspense at quarterback, this season’s Calgary Stampeders look similar to their 14-win team of last year.
It was the best record by a CFL club since 2009, but a great season ended in heartbreak. The Stampeders were upset 35-13 at home in the Western Final by the eventual Grey Cup champion Saskatchewan Roughriders.
“It’s fun being successful all season, but it’s not fun at all when you’re successful all season and lose in the playoffs,” defensive end Charleston Hughes said.
Calgary hosts the Montreal Alouettes on Saturday in their 2014 regular-season opener.
The Stampeders have been a playoff team in each of their six seasons under head coach and general manager John Hufnagel. The Stampeders last won a Grey Cup in 2008 and played in another in 2012.
Hufnagel continues to strike a balance between building positional depth and maintaining stability. His re-signed his principal players as well as offensive coordinator Dave Dickenson in the off-season.
The Ottawa REDBLACKS caused the most upheaval for the Stampeders by taking three quality players in the expansion draft and hiring away defensive coordinator Rick Campbell to be their head coach.
But the Stampeders retain enough experience and talent at key positions to make them a contender again in an ultra-competitive West Division.
“It does make the outlook bright,” said Hughes, whose 18 sacks were the most in the CFL last season.
“When you keep a core group of veterans, who really know the system and how John Hufnagel wants the team to be, then that kind of helps bring along the rest of the guys, the younger guys and the new veterans that came to the team, just to set the standard, know what he expects and how we do operate around here.”
Calgary’s running game is expected to be the calling card of an offence that produced a league-best 549 points in 2013.
Jon Cornish, the CFL’s outstanding player and Canadian last season, is certainly capable of a third straight season over 1,000 rushing yards if he stays healthy. Hufnagel signed former Roughriders running back Jock Sanders as insurance at that position and for return duties.
The running backs will have an experienced, versatile offensive line blocking for them featuring Stanley Bryant, Spencer Wilson, Dan Federkeil and Edwin Harrison.
Jon Gott was traded to Ottawa and Dimitri Tsoumpas retired because of post-concussion symptoms limiting him to a handful of games last season.
Brander Craighead of Belleville, Ont., will work in as Gott’s replacement at guard. Hufnagel traded Gott for the first overall pick in the CFL draft and further bolstered the run protection by selecting Laval offensive lineman Pierre Lavertu of Quebec City.
Offensive line coach Pat DelMonaco can ease Lavertu into the pro game in part because centre Brett Jones is a star after just one CFL season. The 22-year-old became the first offensive lineman to win the CFL’s rookie award last year.
The reliable Rene Paredes earned the league’s special teams award after kicking for over 200 points.
The question is, who is going to hand the ball to Cornish and put Paredes in field-goal range?
Drew Tate and Bo Levi Mitchell both have experience as starters, but less than Kevin Glenn, who was taken in the expansion draft by Ottawa and subsequently traded to the B.C. Lions.
Neither Tate or Mitchell stood out in pre-season games. Hufnagel is going with Mitchell as his opening-day starter against the Als. Expect Calgary’s quarterback watch to continue into the regular season.
Hufnagel likes Tate’s ability to scramble and create offence under pressure, but injuries have limited the six-foot, 190-pound pivot to 153 completions over the past two seasons.
The 24-year-old Mitchell works more from the pocket. The six-foot-two, 196-pound Texan won his three starts and came off the bench to lead Calgary to victory against Montreal when Glenn was injured last year.
Calgary’s passing game will be effective if receivers Maurice Price, Joe West, Marquay McDaniel, Jabari Arthur and Nik Lewis can all be healthy at the same time, which didn’t happen last season due to various injuries.
“I think for the most part our offence will be great,” Cornish said. “Kevin Glenn played some games for us but we also had Bo Levi and Drew Tate playing games for us too. Those two guys got work.
“With Brander Craighead sliding in for Jon Gott on the offence, I think quite honestly our offence may be even more dangerous with the inclusion of Jock Sanders. I think Matt Walters has really worked on his game. Our wide receivers have come a long way developing as athletes.”
The Stampeders defence was often overlooked because of Calgary’s gaudy offensive numbers, but only Saskatchewan gave up fewer points in 2013. Hughes and linebackers Juwan Simpson and Keon Raymond are the stalwarts on defence.
This is an important season for defensive tackle Corey Mace of Port Moody, B.C., to establish himself as a regular starter. He suffered season-ending injuries in Week 1 of both the 2011 and 2013 seasons.
Calgary’s backfield is somewhat unsettled as new halfbacks Lin-J Shell and Josh Bell try to find their place in it. Both men have experience working with new Stampeder defensive co-ordinator Rich Stubler in Vancouver.
In addition to taking Glenn in the expansion draft, the Redblacks also swiped safety Eric Fraser, so Hufnagel is looking for a starter there.
Dickenson signed a three-year contract extension in November and was given the awkward new title of assistant head coach. But it’s another indicator that Dickenson will take over coaching the Stampeders at some point in the future.
The face of the team and arguably the CFL will be Cornish as the 29-year-old New Westminster, B.C., is poised to break more CFL records. Cornish added meditation and the Chinese martial art tai chi to his off-season regimen. The reason requires a dictionary.
“I really consider proprioception as a sixth sense, of where you are in space,” Cornish says. “Having knowledge of that, having knowledge of whose hand is coming towards you, it’s something I’ve always been cognizant of, but I really didn’t have a word for it.
“After doing six months of it, I understand that a lot of my movement patterns were not as efficient as they could be. A lot of the things I could do on the field, could be optimized. That’s what I’m trying to focus on this year.
“I would say it’s a lot easier to focus on a four-second football play because when I meditate for 20 minutes or 30 minutes, or do a tai chi set which takes about 15 minutes to complete, those things are difficult. To come back to football is suddenly really easy.”