Newly-signed Ottawa REDBLACK Diontae Spencer will feel right at home when he reports to training camp this spring.
He and four others who used to don the double blue will reunite in the nation’s capital when the season gets under way.
Quarterback Trevor Harris and former Toronto Argonauts receivers coach, Jaime Elizondo, were both a part of Spencer’s first season with the Argos in 2015 – he caught passes from Harris and took instruction from Elizondo.
Harris will be starting under centre this year for the REDBLACKS while Elizondo has transitioned to Ottawa’s offensive coordinator so once again, Spencer will be catching passes from one and taking instruction from the other.
He’s also headed to Ottawa with fellow receiver Kenny Shaw and defensive back A.J. Jefferson. All three former Argos signed with the REDBLACKS when they became free agents in February.
In Spencer’s rookie season in 2015, Elizondo took the speedy wideout under his wing, helping to ease him into the Canadian game.
The 25-year-old played in 10 games that year and went on to catch 36 passes for 502 yards and three touchdowns.
The TSN shoot at Mark’s CFL Week was the first time Spencer put on his REDBLACKS jersey since signing with the team (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)
“Coach Jaime as my receivers coach my first year in Toronto, he kind of just pushed me,” Spencer said of his relationship with his new offensive coordinator. “It was kind of something I felt I needed coming into the CFL. I wasn’t scared of going back to that. I felt I needed that. I know he’s going to be on me, he gets the best out of me and he’s kind of just been somebody that helped me my first year developing my game.
“Teaming back up with him is going to be big, playing receiver and being in that system.”
That offensive system will be centred around Harris, who will assume the starting role after veteran pivot Henry Burris decided to hang up his cleats for good, ending his career on a high by winning the 104th Grey Cup presented by Shaw.
The chemistry between Spencer and Harris had already begun to brew – the two were teammates back in 2015 – and their personal relationship carried on even after Harris left Toronto and joined the REDBLACKS.
“When I first got there (Toronto) he was somebody that I just became friends with instantly,” Spencer said, smiling at the first mention of Harris’ name. “And throughout the whole process he was right there letting me know what was going on and what type of team they (Ottawa) had over there. It was a good situation for me.”
When the CFL free agency period hit in February, Spencer hit the open market. He said his decision to sign on the dotted line with the REDBLACKS was an easy one, especially with his familiarity with the offensive coordinator and quarterback.
“It feels good,” Spencer grinned when asked about how it feels to be a REDBLACK. “It feels good to be part of a great organization and I’m looking forward to it.”
Since they both joined the Argonauts in 2015, Shaw and Spencer became instant friends and now, as luck would have it, they’re both headed to a new team together.
“We’re blessed to play with each other for two years and now we’ll continue to play with each other and that’s like a brother to me,” he said. “We were kind of looking at the market, seeing who was going to leave. Ernest (Jackson) and Chris (Williams) ended up leaving. They needed two receivers and what better way to go there, me and him.”
Both Williams and Jackson didn’t re-sign with Ottawa after becoming free agents this year. Instead, they signed with the BC Lions and Montreal Alouettes, respectively. Williams and Jackson along with Greg Ellingson and Brad Sinopoli were the first-ever quartet of receivers to catch 1000 yards in back-to-back seasons.
With two of those 1000-yard receivers out of the picture, Spencer and Shaw saw an opportunity that they couldn’t pass up although they both know they’ll have big shoes to fill.
“It’s expectations coming with that,” Spencer said of replacing Williams and Jackson. “Those guys put up big numbers and won a Grey Cup. I feel like it’s going to be a challenge but that’s me and Kenny’s mentality – we look forward to challenging ourselves. The opportunity is going to be there for us. It’s pretty good.”
Spencer began to see regular playing time in his second season with the Argos in 2016. He and Shaw were relied heavily upon after Toronto released three of their receivers, Tori Gurley, Kevin Elliott and Vidal Hazelton near the end of the season.
Despite being limited to 12 games last season, Spencer caught 706 yards, a career high, on 71 receptions and had three major scores. He also returned 33 punts for 341 yards. Shaw, who played all but one game, caught 1004 yards on 77 receptions and five touchdowns.
If Spencer had played all 18 games last season, he was on pace to surpass the 1000-yard mark. That means having four 1000-yard receivers in the REDBLACKS locker room once again is a possibility.
But, as many team players note, individual success isn’t what Spencer is focusing on this season – helping to bring another championship to the city of Ottawa is.
“Hopefully I can stay healthy and just put up the numbers I know I can put up,” said Spencer. “Like I said, it’s not about the individual success but once that comes then comes team success. I’m looking forward to it and looking forward to contributing to the team.”