As the Riders headed into training camp five months ago, I wrote in this space that the biggest questions surrounding the Roughriders revolved around three individuals; Darian Durant, Corey Chamblin and Brendan Taman.
And with just three games remaining in the regular season, it’s fair to say that all three have been impressive, which is why the Riders are looking at a nine or 10-win season after falling to dead last in the league in 2011.
Durant, while he hasn’t quite returned to the All-Star form like he was in 2009 and 2010, has shown that last season was indeed the exception.
In fact, Durant’s numbers are at career highs outside of yardage and touchdowns. His completion percentage (65.0) is four points higher and his QB rating (94.5) is over seven points higher, as he reaches the 90s for the first time in his career.
Durant has even stepped forward as a leader. Although he was a team captain in 2011, he’s likely more fitted for that role and might even be more comfortable as he leads his team every practice and before every game.
With Durant under contract for the next three years, it’s safe to say the Riders are also feeling confortable.
Chamblin, meanwhile, has brought a new energy to the Roughriders and new philosophies as well.
The rookie head coach has pressed all the right buttons this season, and at the lowest point of the five-game losing streak, he never accepted that his team was as bad as their record. He said over and over that if they keep coming to work with the right attitude, things will turn around.
They are now 5-2 in their last seven games and despite last week’s blowout loss to the Eskimos, the Riders are a team I don’t think anybody would want to play in the playoffs.
Chamblin is being compared to Kent Austin. And while the record won’t be as good and there may not be a title in year one, there are certainly similarities outside of their youth.
The biggest comparison comes with Chamblin’s faith in the depth of the team. Never has Chamblin conceded that the guy coming in isn’t as good as the guy going out of the lineup.
This week Brent Hawkins and Keith Shologan admitted they were ready to play injured and likely would have if this were last season.
But that won’t fly under Chamblin’s watch.
He is a coach who believes putting a healthy backup in the lineup is the best option, rather than risking further injury to a starter. Chamblin always wants his team to play fast and aggressive and somebody on the limp can’t do that.
Will it pay off come playoff time with some fresher legs? Possibly. That’s a question still waiting to be answered.
Finally, we get to the most unheralded man in the entire organization. It seemed like every week last season General Manager Brendan Taman was trying to put out the next fire.
Taman is kicking back with a smile this season as his phone is a lot quieter with media requests and calls from those at the top of the organization.
The reason Chamblin can have all that faith in his depth is because of not only Taman, but the team that has helped assemble the 2012 Roughriders. That includes not only Chamblin, but Craig Smith and Jeremy O’Day.
Look at the players making an impact for the Riders that weren’t dressed in Green and White last year.
Kory Sheets is among the league leaders in yards from scrimmage and touchdowns.
Dominic Picard and Brendon LaBatte have locked down the Riders offensive line with help from other first-year Riders. Who is questioning the move to draft Ben Heenan first overall after starting most of the season at right guard? No one.
Those moves overshadow the trade of Xavier Fulton from Edmonton. Some analysts consider him the best left tackle in the league.
While, Taman failed to really find a replacement for Andy Fantuz in the receiving corps. Sheets’ ability to catch the ball has helped Taj Smith has quietly gone over 500-yards and a midseason trade for Greg Carr may pay off soon as he gets more comfortable with the offense.
Smith has quietly caught 36 passes for 539 yards and two touchdowns, while a mid-season trade for Greg Carr seems to be turning in Roughriders’ favour.
How about the defence?
The Odell Willis trade was met with critics, but defensive end has been a model citizen an eventful off-season and makes an impact on the majority of the snaps.
Terrelle Maze and Eddie Russ have been impressive in their first season as starters.
The signing of Joe Lobendahn has been gigantic as he’s solidified the middle following the failed attempt at moving Shomari Williams to that position.
Tyron Brackenridge is likely the defensive player of the year for the Riders in his first season as a starter in the all-new linebacking corps.
In the spirit of keeping this short; Sam Hurl, Sandro DeAngelis, Jay Alford, Mick Williams, Jock Sanders, and Drew Willy have also helped the Riders succeed in their freshmen year with the Riders.
To say Taman gets a passing grade would be an understatement.
While there are three games left, it’s not too early to give top marks to the three most pivotal positions in any organization.
Rider fans should be thankful none of the three are free agents this coming off-season, which will come a lot later than it did last year.