MONTREAL -- Don’t call it a rebuild.
After a rather long off-season full of signings and releases, Jim Popp's message is clear.
“Our concern this off-season was in re-signing all of our own guys and they all did re-sign except for one,” explained the longtime Alouettes GM.
“They’re all back in Montreal and that should tell you something.”
Indeed. The Alouettes don’t rebuild, they reload.
Following a rare injury-plagued season, optimism reigns in the Alouettes locker room as the 2014 season nears.
"We’ve got a lot of our injured players back,” added Popp. “A lot of very key guys who will add to the depth of guys who we were playing with and winning with last season. That alone will be a big boost.”
But among the returning Alouettes — from injury, from free agency — are some who are returning home.
“We’ve added some guys who were with our team before — we know what they’re about and we know what they’ve brought to us in the past. We know Jermaine McElveen is a better player now than when he was with us. Diamond [Ferri] is a guy who lives in town and we know what kind of versatility he brings with him — he’s a band-aid type of player who can play five different positions for our team. Dave Stala’s the same way — we know what he can do for our ball club in a pinch."
Plus one who will be returning kicks.
"We expect Larry Taylor to pick up where he left off in Montreal,” revealed Popp of the Alouettes returning return-specialist. “I think Larry has the chance to become our biggest impact signing this season. If we can block for him, Larry could be a game-changer for us on special teams.”
The Alouettes have had trouble in the return game since Taylor left for Calgary in 2011 but bringing the explosive returner back to the fold isn’t the only wrinkle that Montreal could be making on special teams in 2014.
"There are other guys on our team who can return, including Duron Carter who has remarkable return ability,” hinted Popp. “We just haven’t used him that way so far, other than in practice where he's been making everybody ooh and ahh since last season.”
Another personnel change will have to come on defence, where the Alouettes have a hole to fill at the middle linebacker position following the departure of Shea Emry during free agency.
Third-year linebacker Bear Woods impressed enough at mini-camp this past April to pencil himself into the starting spot heading into camp, but Popp and Co. will have some tough decisions to make should the Macclenny, FL native earn the gig which has traditionally been held by a non-import.
“We'll go into camp looking at two, three, or four different scenarios regarding our ratio and see which one gives us the best fit,” admitted Popp.
"Whether or not Shea was coming back, it’s something that we do every year because we can’t predict when an injury will occur and force the ratio to change.”
Fortunately for defensive coordinator Noel Thorpe who will be calling the defensive plays this season, the rest of the Alouettes' league-leading defence from a year ago remains largely intact.
His counterpart on offence meanwhile, OC Rick Worman, should also be well equipped to get the Alouettes attack back on track.
"When you get a Brandon Whitaker back, when you get a Jamel Richardson back — these are high-quality all-star performers in this league who we didn’t have for most of the season last year. Add to that some of the other guys who stepped in and played major roles and became new stars — whether it’s [Tyrell] Sutton or Carter — these guys stepped up.”
Some question marks do remain on offence however, especially surrounding the offensive line after guards Scott Flory and Andrew Woodruff both retired during the off-season and versatile tackle Michael Ola left to sign with the Miami Dolphins, but Popp insists it will be business as usual in the trenches this summer.
"We’ve got Bourke and Perrett playing the tackles. We’ve got LBJ at centre. We’ve got Ryan Bomben playing at right guard. These guys played all of last year. Kristian Matte played most of the season, starting a lot of games and would be slated to step up at left guard. That starting five right there has played a lot of football, and the two who you might call replacements in Matte and Bomben have been starting a lot of games — Matte most of last year and Bomben for the last two years, so it’s not a rebuild. Our starting five are veteran players."
Good news then for pivots Troy Smith and Tanner Marsh, who are heading into camp competing nose to nose for the starting spot at QB.
And even better news for new head coach Tom Higgins, who joins a Montreal team which is seemingly stacked at every position.
“I couldn’t be happier because this is not a rebuild. I was smiling ear-to-ear at mini-camp because the talent and competition on the field was incredible,” acknowledged Higgins. "I also got a pretty good feel of what the locker room will be like because of the quality of people who were there, so I’m extremely pleased with where we’re at.”
But he doesn’t expect to be the only one smiling come June 28, when the regular season kicks off in Calgary.
"I think people will be pleasantly surprised with how good the Montreal Alouettes will be coming out of the gate this year. We are going to surprise people.”