June 23, 2013

Moffat: Nothing is guaranteed in pre-season ball

Adam Gagnon

The Alouettes have again reminded aspiring CFL players everywhere: a good pre-season guarantees nothing.  A shaky pre-season even less.

While some Alouettes fans obsess over the release of Quinton Porter and a winless exhibition schedule, CFL newbie Head Coach Dan Hawkins’ smiling face turns from his warm Tank McNamara visage to a touch defiant.

“What was the record last year?” he challenges rhetorically.  He chuckles when I remind.

Montreal was 0-2, though in hindsight it could have served warning for both a sputtering regular season start and defensive flaws exposed in the East Final – the Als gave up 30+ points in 4 of those first 5 games.  The Mark Trestman Era also began with a winless pre-season and a stutter step 2-3 back in 2008.

“We all know Anthony Calvillo is a good player and I’m not sure I ever saw him out there in the 2nd quarter (of either game).  I like the way our guys competed, we got to evaluate a lot of talent.”

“If you Rick Moffat are telling me I have to win both pre-season games, then maybe I’m playing #13 all 4 quarters.”

That will of course have to be the case Weeks 1 through 18. 

The Als, blessed with Marcus Brady or Adrian McPherson since 2006, now have #2 and #3 QBs with a combined total of 0 career CFL victories, touchdowns or completions.

Should #13 show any signs of aging in 2013 the Als plunge into “Marsh Madness” or hope 3rd year backup Josh Neiswander can be a nice surprise.

Tanner Marsh’s confident twitter handle notwithstanding, the fresh face right out of college (Arkansas Tech following a transfer from Texas A&M) has been in a pleasant surprise in both pre-season outings.

First came a modest 3 of 4 passing in his Canadian debut at Molson Stadium.  Then a 4 of 7 for 79 yards with a 47-yard TD bomb to former New York Jet property Michael Campbell, who was released the next day despite leading the Als’ gaudy receiver corps in pass-catching yardage (Campbell paid the price for a brain-cramp on special teams duty among other rookie mistakes).

Marsh was rated 65th out of 111 quarterbacks by nfldraftscout.com and had a brief stint at Indianapolis Colts camp just days before Montreal rookie camp.  “Madness” as a senior included becoming only the second Arkansas Tech “Wonder Boys” to pass for 400+ yards in a game and his career 60.5 completion percentage is 2nd-best in school history.

Neiswander packed 3 changes of clothes when he first came to Alouette rookie camp in 2011.  He’s stayed 3 years now.

He set passing records at Angelo State in West Texas, but still has not attempted a pass in a regular season game.   He can’t even get most teammates or coaches to pronounce his name correctly.  Sounds like “Nice” not “Nees.”

If backup quarterbacks don’t win championships, defences do.  The 2013 Als remain a question mark when the offence is not owning the football.

Only veteran Billy “Ballhawk” Parker and Jerald Brown stay from the starting secondary of 2012.  Jim Popp’s free agent dabbling brought in Byron Parker and Geoff Tisdale, while purging Dwight Anderson and releasing Seth Williams who was re-signed but never healed after ankle surgery.

Kendric Burney and Ed Gainey have had outstanding camps, the latter a constant nuisance frequently sent on halfback blitzes by new Defensive Co-ordinator Noel Thorpe.  Burney is only 5’9” but had long looks from the NFL’s Panthers and Rams and will contribute on specials teams as well.

The safety position is Canadian territory again with 3rd overall pick Mike Edem making few rookie mistakes and hybrid LB/S Marco Brouillette a crunching hitter if injury-prone.

The linebacker trio is exceptionally good with playmaker Chip Cox, infamous Outstanding Canadian and Defensive player of the year nominee from 2012 Shea Emry joined by the physicality of Kyries Hebert moving all the closer to the line of scrimmage.

Defensive line may change question marks into exclamation points.  John Bowman’s coy tweet celebrating his 8th straight year did bear an appropriate hashtag.  #FearTheBird.

Bowman will bounce back from a 7-sack disappointment in ’12.  Let the record show he closed out the last month nearing a sack/game and rose to the occasion with 2 sacks in 3 games versus the now arch-rival Argos.

Bowman could double his total if Alan-Michael Cash and Scooter Berry live up to the GM’s hopes.  Cash had an impressive 6 sacks plus 2 tackles for losses from his tackle position in only 13 starts as a newcomer.  Berry, former property of the Houston Texans, registered his 1st CFL sack and tackle for loss just 2 starts.

Ejiro Kuale at rush end is a project.  The beast remains to be unleashed.

Under the mentoring of long-time Steelers All-pro Keith Willis, a veteran defensive line coach but new to the CFL, they’ll hear coaching wisdom tracing back to Chuck Noll and even Marv Levy (who Willis played for the year of “The Comeback”—still the NFL’s largest rally ever— against Warren Moon’s Oilers).

“Same foot, same shoulder,” Willis recalls his NFL mantra. 

June 27 in the Blue Bombers’ new home kicking off a new season we’ll find out if the Als are on the same page.