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TORONTO — From a dramatic turnaround in the nation’s capital to a record low for the Saskatchewan Roughriders, the 2015 CFL season didn’t always go according to script.
That of course is what makes professional sports and the Canadian Football League in particular so exciting – that the unexpected tends to happen so often that sometimes something outrageous can be expected on a week to week basis.
From the start of pre-season to the end of the 103rd Grey Cup Championship, 2015 saw plenty of unscripted excitement during 26 weeks of action this year. Some of those great moments came in the form of unexpected debuts.
In a sport where sometimes you only get one shot and some players wait a whole career just to get a chance to show what they can do, first impressions mean everything. We look at eight players in the CFL who made the most of their first opportunities to make an impression right away, putting out debut performances that will always be remembered.
8. Naaman Roosevelt
After not making his debut until late August, Naaman Roosevelt put in a productive first season with the Riders and may have earned a role on the team’s receiving corps in the future. The recently-turned 28-year-old caught four passes for 46 yards and a touchdown in his first start against the Ottawa REDBLACKS on Aug. 30, including a 17-yard touchdown grab from rookie Brett Smith.
Roosevelt finished his first CFL season with 488 yards and five touchdowns on 25 receptions.
7. Bob Dyce
He’s not a player but the chance to put on the headset and become a head coach for the first time in 2015 was a big deal for Bob Dyce, and out of the gate the Riders’ then-interim head coach made the most of the opportunity.
Dyce became the man in Regina after the dismissal of Corey Chamblin and Brendan Taman from the Riders, and with the team still looking for its first win on Labour Day, the Riders delivered in Dyce’s first ever game as a head coach.
In front of an amped up Riderville home crowd, Jerome Messam ran all over the Bombers while Nic Demski scored his first career touchdown as Dyce and the Riders rolled to a 37-19 win over Winnipeg – a memorable moment in an otherwise forgettable season for the Green and White.
6. Jonathon Jennings
After throwing three interceptions in his first hint of playing time in a relief effort the previous week, Jonathon Jennings’ debut as a CFL starting quarterback came on Sept. 26 at Commonwealth Stadium against the defending Grey Cup Champion Edmonton Eskimos.
Jennings, making his first start at just 23 years old, didn’t end up getting his team a victory against Edmonton at the end of the game, but put in a strong effort and had the Lions ahead through most of a tough road contest.
An 18-for-30, 281-yard effort with two touchdowns and one interception against the league’s top-ranked defence was a solid stepping stone for a stellar rookie season for Jennings, who now appears to settle in as the Lions’ future franchise quarterback.
5. Diontae Spencer
The diminutive speedster had a hard time getting in the Argos’ lineup with the likes of Tori Gurley, Vidal Hazelton, Kevin Elliott and Chad Owens all ahead on the depth chart, but all Diontae Spencer needed was a chance.
Spencer finally made his first career start on Aug. 8 against Saskatchewan and took no time at all to turn heads at the first game at the Rogers Centre in 2015, catching five passes for 94 yards and a touchdown in a tight Argo victory.
The 23-year-old showed in that game why he’s a keeper for Scott Milanovich and the Argo defence despite his 5-foot-8, 163-pound frame.
4. Shakir Bell
The Eskimos had a running back by committee approach all season with many different runners filling the void in the team’s backfield – but one player that stuck out going into next year has to be Shakir Bell.
The rookie Bell was dominant for the Esks and most impressive was his debut, in which he rushed for 144 yards on 18 rushing attempts to lead Edmonton to a 23-12 win over Ottawa despite three interceptions by then-quarterback Matt Nichols.
Bell’s running style impressed just as much as his numbers, warranting some quiet comparisons to Pinball Clemons the way he bounced off defenders and somehow kept plays alive despite his smaller stature.
3. Derel Walker
Once he hit the field, Derel Walker made an impact in no time. Walker didn’t play his first CFL game until nearly the midway point of the CFL season, but from his debut forward he was a CFL superstar.
Walker caught 10 passes for 125 yards in his first game against the Alouettes on Aug. 13 and his dominant debut was only the start, eventually leading him to Most Outstanding Rookie honours and also playing a key contributing role in helping the Eskimos win the Grey Cup.
At only 24 years old, Walker is the brightest young receiver in the CFL.
2. James Franklin
After starting the season third on the depth chart behind Matt Nichols and Mike Reilly, it didn’t take James Franklin much time to get his first opportunity to shine.
Franklin threw for three touchdown passes off the bench in a win over the Bombers on July 25 and continued to increase his playing time each week in relief for Matt Nichols. More than a month later, the 24-year-old finally made his first career start against Toronto and the rest is history.
Against a surging Argos team at Commonwealth Stadium, Franklin completed 29 of 38 passes for 335 yards and no interceptions while rushing for 51 yards and a touchdown on four carries, providing one of the best debuts by a quarterback in recent memory.
1. Rakeem Cato
No debut in 2015 brought greater shock value than Rakeem Cato’s. The season was young when the Als faced the Stampeders, looking to overcome the 1-0 defending Grey Cup Champions without the help of the first two quarterbacks on their depth chart.
Jonathan Crompton and Dan LeFevour had been injured in a Week 1 loss and while the focus was on national quarterback Brandon Bridge, it was Cato stealing the thunder to unexpectedly make his first career start.
In a game almost no one gave Montreal a chance of winning, Cato shocked all of Canada. He put the Als ahead early on a perfect first drive, and ultimately completed 20 of 25 passes for 241 yards and three touchdowns, leading the Alouettes to a stunning one-sided upset victory over Calgary.
The 23-year-old put on a spectacular performance in his first career start and while his first CFL season didn’t entirely play out how he’d have hoped, Cato appears to be a big part of the team’s future plans under centre.