Training camp 2014 for the Saskatchewan Roughriders has a different feel than it did a year ago, when they began their championship journey at Griffith’s Stadium in Saskatoon.
In 2013, the depth chart was almost etched in stone when they came out of the gates for camp with the veteran additions brought in to make a run at the Grey Cup.
This year is very different. And that means a much more intense and exciting camp with so many jobs to be won.
Departures on offence of Kory Sheets, Weston Dressler and Geroy Simon definitely lead to the intrigue at the skilled positions of running back and receiver.
Every catch, drop, fumble, and big run is met with the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from those in Rider Nation able to make out to the University of Saskatchewan campus for the morning and afternoon practices.
Through the first five days of camp we haven’t seen any of the running backs take a strong hold of the starting position left vacant by Sheets departure to the Oakland Raiders, but that’s not to say General Manager Brendan Taman and his crew didn’t find the talent.
Jermaine Thomas has shown flashes of brilliance, while Keith Toston has showed he can take and deliver a pounding at the same time. He flattened linebacker Mortty Ivy on day three of camp and learned in his NFL days it’s either hit or be.
“I was taught by Steven Jackson in my rookie year that any time you get an opportunity to hit a defensive player you might as well hit ‘em because if it comes on the flip side and you have the ball, they’re going to try to take you out as well.”
What we do know is we will have to wait until the pre-season games are played before one of the four running backs in camp takes that strangle hold as the Riders primary ball carrier.
“I’ve learned my lesson in the first couple of years since I’ve been here is you can try to tell some things in practice but you can tell a lot in games,” explains Head Coach Corey Chamblin.
The receiving openings are very much appealing because the Riders have brought a tonne of athletes from every corner of North America to try to win the jobs alongside Chris Getzlaf, Taj Smith and Rob Bagg.
Getzlaf has missed the majority of camp so far with a quad injury but the silver lining for Coach Chamblin is it has allowed him to move receivers up the depth chart to see a look at what they have and he hasn’t been disappointed.
Florida mini-camp stars of Chaz Schilens, Brett Swain and Ryan Smith continue to grow and get acclimatized to Offensive Coordinator George Cortez’ playbook and terminology. While, second year Rider Eron Riley has been able to carry over from what he had learned with the team last year and get a bit of a head start on those other first year Riders.
On the defensive side of the ball there is also plenty of intrigue. Gone are veteran tackles Keith Shologan and Jermaine McElveen. Linebackers Craig Butler and Diamond Ferri have left out East, while Rey Williams and Mike McCullough have held their retirement news conferences.
And just like Eron Riley the Riders who have been through Saskatchewan are getting a quick jump on the competition.
Defensive tackle Richard Sumlin is getting a long look in the middle of the defensive line and is loving every minute of the increase in reps from what he was getting in practice last year.
“Just sitting back and learning the Canadian game, learn the different ins and outs of how to play the interior of this game helped me a tonne.”
Sumlin thinks back to his first CFL camp in Saskatoon last year and believes it’s night and day the distance he’s come just understanding where he needed to be.
“I remember my first few days of camp last year, my head is just swimming, making sure I’m a yard off the ball, getting used to that wide field. This year I’m a little bit more calm but still get to run around a little bit.”
And to win a job on the defensive line, means impressing the coaches against one of the best offensive lines in the league.
Behind Sumlin is a great battle for two vacant linebacker spots. Mortty Ivy, Sam Hurl and Chad Kilgore are fighting out for reps at middle linebacker, while Brian Peters and vet Brandon Isaac look to replace the spot held by Craig Butler last season.
It’s only been five days and there is a long way to go until they step on the field against Ottawa on June 14th but the start to Riders training camp is loaded with great battles.
Jamie Nye lives and breathes the CFL and is the host of 'The Green Zone' on 980 CJME in Regina and 650 CKOM in Saskatoon. You can find his podcasts and blogs at greenzonefootball.com and follow him on twitter @jamienye