June 20, 2014

Preview: Budding rivalry kicks off in Montreal

CP/Rogerio Barbosa

CFL.ca Staff

MONTREAL — Future rivals are set to meet for the first time on Friday night, as the Montreal Alouettes host the Ottawa REDBLACKS at Percival-Molson Stadium in one final pre-season game.

With the days of Anthony Calvillo and Marc Trestman seemingly a long way back in the rearview mirror, Friday presents an opportunity to usher in a brand new era of football that includes a number of new faces – faces that although are new in Montreal, almost everyone has seen before.

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Tom Higgins, Troy Smith, and Chad Johnson are the faces of change in this city, and the three of them will play a pretty big role in the team’s title hopes both this season and in the near future.

The team finished third in the East Division last season in what became not a rebuilding year but a re-charging year, after Calvillo was dealt a head injury that eventually forced him to hang up the cleats for good.

But the Alouettes never stopped fighting tooth and nail, just missing out on second in the division and eventually falling to the eventual Grey Cup finalist Ticats in the Eastern Semi-Final. With Smith, a former Heisman winner who possesses freakish athletic ability, the Als have plenty of spark on an offence that could surprise.

Fans have a chance to see that group assembled for the first time on Friday night, as big off-season hire Higgins leads a unit that includes the likes of superstars Brandon Whitaker and S.J. Green, along with Duron Carter, Brandon London, and Johnson.

Most of those players sat last weekend, as Higgins opted for a closer look at the bubble players during a 28-23 loss to the Ticats on the road. Still, it was a chance to get an early look at how the team is progressing in its first season under a new regime.

“There are some things out on the field I’m extremely pleased with, others it became one where you shake your head in a little bit of disappointment,” Higgins told MontrealAlouettes.com. “

“But all said and done the fact that we got through relatively healthy and had the opportunity to evaluate and see the players play that needed to play, we got done what we needed to get done.”

Former Blue Bombers quarterback Alex Brink split the reps with Collin Klein and Tanner Marsh, with the latter and the former competing to be Smith’s backup. Brink looked the most comfortable, completing seven of 10 passing attempts for 85 yards with a touchdown in his first action in two years.

“Timing-wise there were some things that we’d like to clean up, missed one or two that I’d like to have but at the same time we hit some too,” said Brink.

“We got some guys some reps, got them out of there, got to see some of our backup guys and see what they can do and I thought some guys really stepped up  and made some plays so it was positive.”

Both Marsh and Klein on the other hand had some trouble, giving Brink a leg up on the competition. Klein, meanwhile, has seen been released. Still, the focus on Friday will be on Smith, as all of this season he’ll go under the microscope with fans asking: ‘is this the right guy to replace number 13?’

While the REDBLACKS also face question, the quarterback position won’t be one of them. Henry Burris is a future Hall of Famer and as big a playmaker as any in the CFL, and has a chance to make expansion Ottawa competitive from the get-go.

The question heading into the pre-season finale and of course the regular season remains what kind of identity will define this franchise heading forward, particularly for a group that’s never spent a day together until now?

With a couple of former Calgary Stampeders in the coaching brain trust, some point to the Cowtown connection. First-year head coach Rick Campbell was the Defensive Coordinator and assistant coach to John Hufnagel in Calgary, while the team’s offensive coordinator Mike Gibson coached the offensive line.

Given Calgary’s success over the past decade, if that’s what the REDBLACKS are gunning for then it’s pretty hard to argue.

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“Hopefully we’ll be as good as them,” Gibson said in an interview with OttawaREDBLACKS.com. “They’ve been very successful.”

“Football is called copying,” he continued. “Everybody copies one another, so why wouldn’t you copy the best people that do it right now?”

Whereas coming into the off-season it looked like he’d have to start from scratch on offence, Gibson and Campbell have a pretty good starting point in Burris. Now comes the even trickier part, as the coaches look to implement a system around their quarterback that can work to the strength of their roster.

“It’s not what the coaches know, it’s what the players know,” Gibson says. “We’ll find out what they can do and what they know and what they can handle, and we’ll structure it around them.”

Campbell, a defensive specialist in his own right, knows that the key to keeping a defence off balance is attacking from all angles.

“If it’s just going to be a drop-back and pass game, usually that plays into the hands of the defence,” Campbell said. “As an offence, you need to mix things up. The same from the defensive point of view, you need to be a moving target for the offence.”

With a guy like Burris at the helm the REDBLACKS should have no issue being unpredictable. The rest of the offence, however, still needs to fall in place. That should continue to happen on Friday night, as the team gets one final dress rehearsal before the real football begins.

The REDBLACKS have a bye week to open the season, before traveling to Winnipeg to take on the Bombers on July 3rd in their season-opener. They open their schedule with two out West, before playing their highly-anticipated first home game on July 18th.

Kickoff is at 7:00 P.M. ET, and can be seen on TSN.

– With files from MontrealAlouettes.com/OttawaREDBLACKS.com