June 25, 2007

Okeke’s release leaves future in limbo

Montreal trades for defensive back Rhinehart

By Herb Zurkowsky,
Montreal Gazette

Uzooma Okeke’s playing days with the Alouettes, in all likelihood, are over. But the 37-year-old veteran offensive tackle could remain part of the organization for years to come.

Okeke, as expected, was released over the weekend as the Als reduced their roster to 46 players. The Gazette reported on Saturday that Okeke had met general manager and head coach Jim Popp the day before and was presented with various options – none of which, apparently, included playing for Montreal. Okeke advised Popp to simply release him.

But as a goodwill gesture, following 10 seasons with the Als and 13 in the Canadian Football League, Popp told Okeke he can move to the front office, working in personnel. Popp has yet to receive an answer and Okeke didn’t return messages left at his home and on his cellphone.

“It was very difficult to do, but he knew, following talks we had during the offseason, of our plan,” Popp explained. “He’s going to have to make a decision. He could retire, work for us in a different capacity, play for another team or return to (his home in) Texas and start a new life. It’s a lot to swallow.”

The Als are expected to begin the season with an all-Canadian offensive line. Dave Mudge replaces Okeke at left tackle, with Luke Fritz playing Mudge’s old position at right tackle. Rookie Jeff Perrett, also Canadian, is the potential sixth lineman, and should a ratio change be required, Skip Seagraves remains on the roster.

Okeke was the CFL’s outstanding lineman in 1999, a finalist on two other occasions and a CFL all-star seven times. A free agent last winter, he decided to re-sign with Montreal, albeit at a significantly reduced salary and knowing the odds were stacked against him.

“Uz can still play,” Popp maintained.

Nonetheless, it’s unlikely any other CFL team will offer him employment. His salary, age and import status work against him.

Meanwhile, the Als acquired defensive-back Coby Rhinehart in a trade from Calgary on Saturday for a conditional draft choice. It’ll potentially be a late-round pick next year, should he play a certain number of games for Montreal. If not, the Stampeders receive nothing in return.

The 30-year-old Rhinehart had a team-leading seven interceptions last season and was named a CFL all-star while playing weak-side cornerback. Montreal has Mark Estelle playing there, but the Als would like to move Rhinehart inside, although according to the Calgary Herald, he doesn’t play halfback or safety.

Rhinehart lost his job in Calgary to 6-foot-4, 220-pound rookie Brandon Browner. It also didn’t help Rhinehart’s cause when he was beaten twice for big gains by Saskatchewan’s Matt Dominguez last Friday in an exhibition game.

“The interest from our end … is to have a vet,” Popp said. “Coby fits into our (bump-and-run) system. He adds to our situation. We’re young back there.”

Other players released Saturday were: guards Darryl Conrad and Ryan Karhut; slotback Sean Coffey; wide-receivers Chris Davis, Ashlan Davis and Danny Desriveaux; running-back Andrew Hamilton; defensive-tackle Chris Van Zeyl; linebacker Louis Mackey; defensive-backs Clint Kent and Kenny Scott, and corners Thomas Whitfield and Jesse Hendrix.

Dave Stala, Eric Wilson, Jarrett Payton and Paul Archer were placed on the one-game injured list, while Dwayne Taylor and Pascal Masson are on the nine-game injured list. Bruce Perry was suspended.

Popp didn’t announce his seven-man practice squad yesterday. When he does, it will probably include wide-receiver Braden Smith and Conrad, for starters.

Notes – Kent, whose release was reported by The Gazette last week, is probably headed to Calgary – eventually. “We like him, but don’t have any room on our roster,” Stamps GM Jim Barker said. “I’m sure he’ll be here at some point.” … Rookie wide-receiver Brad Smith, released by Toronto, has been added to the Argonauts’ practice roster. His father, Larry, is the Als’ president. … Former Montreal wide-receiver Thyron Anderson, traded to Saskatchewan last winter, has been dealt to Hamilton. … Veteran slotback Derrell Mitchell, released by Edmonton, is unlikely to end up in Montreal. Mitchell turns 36 in September, and the last thing the Als need is another old receiver, although the one they have now – Ben Cahoon – isn’t half bad.