June 27, 2014

Preview: Als, Stamps put busy off-season to the test

CFL.ca Staff

CALGARY — The Calgary Stampeders and Montreal Alouettes look to set all of the distractions from training camp aside on Saturday afternoon, as they kick off their 2014 regular season at Calgary’s McMahon Stadium.

The distraction for Calgary was a month-long duel between Bo Levi Mitchell and Drew Tate for the starting quarterback job. The younger Mitchell got the better of the two Lone Star State quarterbacks and he’s ready to start on opening day for the first time in his career.

“It was very close – it was a photo finish so to speak,” Head Coach and General Manager John Hufnagel told Stampeders.com. “We’re very fortunate as a football team to have two young men that can lead this football team and win football games for us.”

Both Mitchell and Tate have proven equally capable in the past, and with Kevin Glenn now in BC it’s up to the Texas tandem to lead the Stampeders back to the Grey Cup after falling in the Western Final last season despite winning the division.

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Now the responsibility of trying to get the Stamps back to the top of the division, at least for the time being, lies on Mitchell. 

“He’s been here long enough, he needs to play well and go out there and lead our team,” said Offensive Coordinator Dave Dickenson. “My expectation is for him to play well and come out with a win.”

Mitchell, 24, will be treated like any other starting quarterback in the league – with some leash to work with should things go wrong. But what’s clear is he won’t be babied.

The Stampeders were the class of the league in last year’s regular season and have reached 10 wins in six straight years. In nine years they are a league-best 101-59, narrowly ahead of BC. You can bet they didn’t name Mitchell their starting quarterback in order to take a step back.

“I’ve never wanted to pull quarterbacks but if they’re not into it, they’re not playing well and we need a spark, we make the move,” said Dickenson.

Mitchell boasts a quarterback rating of 106.4 over 156 career passing attempts, with 12 touchdowns to just 5 interceptions. Last season though was when he made his biggest leap, as he stood out among the eight other quarterbacks who made their first starts last year.

His performance in that first start was the most impressive, as he completed 29 of 33 passes for 376 yards and three touchdowns, helping him finish 2013 with 10 touchdowns in total and just three interceptions, along with a 69.6 completion percentage.

All of that was good enough to earn him just the opportunity to compete with Tate, an already-proven star CFL quarterback, for the reins of a Grey Cup-caliber team.

“This is where I want to be, I’ve been waiting for this for a while,” said Mitchell. “It takes a lot of hard work to get here but it’s not just one person, I didn’t get here by myself I got here with my teammates, my receivers, my offensive line giving me time.”

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“I’m just going to keep doing what I’ve always done, give those guys the ball and let them make plays.”

Last year’s Most Outstanding Player and Canadian Jon Cornish is one of those guys, and is up to the task after spending his off-season finding ways to improve his game and build on a dream season – at least, a dream season from a statistical standpoint.

The New Westminster, B.C. native led the league in rushing with 1,813 yards, with only Kory Sheets coming anywhere close. Yet he pointed out ahead of Saturday’s opener that he’s not looking to improve his numbers, instead focusing on winning a championship and he knows the path to that championship starts now.  

“I think a lot of people have mentioned ‘the season doesn’t matter, it’s all about the playoffs’. But I think you build a winning attitude during the season, and that starts with the first game,” Cornish told the team’s official site. “You have to win the first game, and you have to win the second game, and you have to focus on winning every single individual game, and then you get used to winning.”

“But the real key is never resting, it’s always being focused and ready to play the next game.”

While the Stampeders have worked to avoid distractions from their quarterback duel, the Alouettes went through some turbulence of their own during training camp. Veteran head coach Tom Higgins, in his first season with Montreal, made shockwaves by firing Offensive Coordinator Rick Worman a week into his first training camp with the team.

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The problem was accentuated by the team’s second pre-season game, a 26-10 home loss to the Ottawa REDBLACKS in which Troy Smith was held to just 141 yards on 11-22 passing and the team failed to generate a single touchdown.

“Usually the defences are ahead of the offences and we let go our offensive coordinator so we had a slight adjustment, but those are all excuses, we’re not making any excuses,” Higgins told MontrealAlouettes.com. “We didn’t execute as well as we felt we could offensively.”

It’s not the start Alouettes fans might have hoped for after a promising final stretch of 2013, which saw the emergence of former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback as a potential bonafide starting CFL quarterback.

Yet on a team chalked full of talented offensive playmakers including newcomer Chad Johnson, complemented by a defence that was among the league’s elite a year ago, there’s reason for optimism to start this season.

“Last year is last year,” said Higgins. “Each year is a brand new year. We’d like to get on track, we’ve shown signs of brilliance at times and we’ve shown signs of not the way you want to play.”

“I like the players we have on the roster, let’s see how they play together.”

While the team looks to overcome the loss of Shea Emry on defence, the focus remains on the offensive side of the ball, which is where Quarterback Coach Ryan Dinwiddie will assume playcalling duties for the first time in his coaching career.

With so many talented receivers to throw to and a multi-talented running back in Brandon Whitaker to lean on, along with arguably the most athletic quarterback in the league in Smith under centre, a lot of the team’s success will be attributed to Dinwiddie, a former CFL quarterback.

“It wasn’t easy, I’d be lying if I said it was easy,” said Dinwiddie about taking over the reins on the fly. “Can we get it done? Absolutely.”

Dinwiddie said the point of emphasis for his offence is the high-percentage throw.

“I’ll call plenty of shots downfield but sometimes we’ve gotta take our high percentage throws to not even move the ball, but to change field position so if we don’t score we’re at least backing them up,” he said.

“For me it’s just getting the guys to buy in, and if they believe it they’ll buy into it,” he continued.

“Trying to put them in positive situations and let them know there’s a chance to be successful, obviously it’s tough on those guys and I appreciate them buying in and all the hard work they’ve put in.”

A good sign for Dinwiddie is the fac tthat his quarterback seems to be the first on board.

“My offensive coordinator does a great job of putting guys in position to make plays – it’s him putting together the game plan, and I’m doing what I can to execute,” Smith told the team’s official site.

Game Notes:

– Last season the Stamps became just the second team ever to win after being 20 points down, accomplishing the feat on July 20th, 2013 after being down 24-0 against Montreal, eventually earning a 38-27 win.

– Calgary has won five of the last six meetings with Montreal, building a lead of at least 11 points in each of the last four games.

– Saturday marks just the second time since 2001 that someone not named Anthony Calvillo starts at QB for the Als against Calgary.

– On Calgary’s 46-man roster, a league-low five players are in their first CFL season, including 2014 draft picks Pierre Lavertu and Quinn Smith.

– The Alouettes open their 60th season in the CFL, with an all-time record of 460-429-1. Their 205-118-1 record since re-entering the league in 1996 gives them 19 more wins than the next best team over that span.

– Since 1990 the Alouettes are 14-4 in season openers.

– Troy Smith is the first player not named Calvillo to start a season opener for the Alouettes since 1999, when Tracy Ham started.

– The Alouettes had six All-Stars on their defence in 2013, and all of them are on the active roster this week.

Kickoff is at 3:00 P.M. ET, and can be seen on TSN or followed live here with CFL.ca Gamecast.

– With files from Stampeders.com/MontrealAlouettes.com