May 28, 2013

Moffat: Some pressure for Hawkins at Als’ training camp


It was a smoking hot day at Alouettes training camp in 2008 and a rookie CFL head coach named Marc Trestman must have known he had received the stamp of approval from his players when not a single one griped or groused about the last drill of the day:  How to line up for the anthems, with jerseys tucked in.

Fast forward five years and new Als sideline boss Dan Hawkins knows he doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel at what will be his first CFL training camp. He may not even have to adjust the helmet hold for the pre-game ceremony.  

But “Coach Hawk” will surely find a moment to gauge the buy-in he gets from his players, not to mention the largest coaching consortium in the CFL, probably in CFL history.

Feeling’s Mutual

“We may come wrapped in a different cloth, but deep down inside we’re very similar when it comes to our feeling of what football is about and what the culture of a successful organization is.”
– Dan Hawkins on the comparisons between him and Marc Trestman

“We’ve got 270 years of coaching experience,” Hawkins bragged last week on the Als’ conference call about his new staff, stocked full of NFL and CFL minds. As intriguing as it is watching the players compete for reps and jobs will be, watching the assistant coaches and coordinators wield influence on Hawkins’ tactical and personnel decisions will something to marvel at as well.

The Als will be installing an offence that Coordinator Mike Miller has been devising in consultation with Anthony Calvillo. It is likely to be an evolution of what’s worked for AC over the years.

The defence however will be overhauled completely with Noel Thorpe becoming the third different D-Coordinator in three years, ditching the 3-4 scheme of Jeff Reinebold that seemed to be something less than the sum of its parts all last year.

In one sense the Als have “only” three areas of concern they need to address at camp: Offence, defence and special teams.  

Training camp performances could determine whether incumbents Victor Anderson and Chris Jennings have to make way for former Colts’ Super Bowl stud Dominic Rhodes at running back.  The Als have never shied from big-name NFL invites, but with wildly varying results.

Just one year ago, Ahman Green, the Packers’ all-time leading rusher, failed to scrape off the rust without injury and vanished in 24 hours.  Back in 2002 Lawrence Phillips astounded with a training camp performance so impressive by the end of pre-season he’d taken the job of then future Hall of Famer Mike Pringle.

Jerome Messam also hopes to prove he can be a ratio changer, but must prove he’s in the best shape of his life.

At quarterback, Quinton Porter has to show he can be a serious student of the game and soak up all that Calvillo and Miller can cram in. Former McMaster Marauders pivot Kyle Quinlan has won raves from GM Jim Popp, but must demonstrate that he can do more than just throw the deep ball with a touch that Popp has compared to that of Ricky Ray.

Backfield Battles

Chris Jennings (above) is one of four serious candidates to take over the Montreal run game. Victor Anderson, Jerome Messam and Dominic Rhodes also have their eyes on the prize.

A difference maker must step up on the defensive line to help John Bowman deliver consistent pressure.  Moton Hopkins is back after missing the entire 2012 season, while Canadian Chima Ihekwoaba must step up or risk being forever cast as little more than a special teams hitter and a reserve rush-end.

In the secondary, the only players listed as safeties on the roster are all but certain NOT to be starting there in 2013.  All-Star Kyries Hebert will likely get plenty of reps at linebacker, where he has prowled before in both the CFL and NFL.

Along with Shea Emry and Ejiro Kuale, the Alouettes may experiment with what could turn out to be the most physically punishing trio of linebackers in the CFL.

The Als could convert Marc-Olivier Brouillette to fulltime safety, a move that would put a Canadian in that spot for the first time since the Etienne Boulay- Mathieu Proulx job sharing of years past.
A cast of many will audition for kick-returning duties as well, a position that was a point of weakness a year ago, highlighted all the more by the 100th Grey Cup returners duel of former Alouette stars Larry Taylor and Chad Owens.

The Als settled for Trent Guy and Bo Bowling, whose punt return averages (5.3 and 5.5 respectively) barely stayed above the five-yard halo zone.  None of five different kick returners excelled.  That could mean opportunity for Tyron Carrier, signed to the practice roster last fall, but has a reputation of being an outstanding returner in college (Houston).

Then there’s the most important rookie of them all – Hawkins.

His performance at Camp will be crucial.  Hawkins knows there is a culture of winning that is already instilled in the Alouettes, but that also raises fan expectations for a winning start.

Hawkins heads into camp as the eighth head coach hired by the Als since the team’s rebirth in 1996.   Five have won their first regular season games; four have started at least 3-0 (only Bob Price in ’96 and Jim Popp in ’07 started their seasons with a defeat).

“Hawk” doesn’t have to match Don Mathews’ franchise record of eight-straight victories to launch a coaching tenure.  After all, let the historical record show Marc Trestman won only two of his first five games on the Als’ sideline. Marv Levy won only two of his first six back in the 1970’s.

Hawkins does have to show he can handle pro players for the first time in his coaching life, not college kids. The foundation of his relationships, winning the hearts and minds of veterans and rookies alike, will be laid at Training Camp.