July 2, 2014

Campbell: 10 REDBLACKS players to keep an eye on

Derek Mortensen/CFL.ca

Few, if any, know better what it’s like to enjoy instant success in the CFL than Ottawa’s Jeff Avery.

One minute he was hoisting the Vanier Cup as a member of the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees and the next – well exactly 12 months later – Avery was drinking from the Grey Cup as a rookie with the Ottawa Rough Riders after one of the CFL’s most amazing plays, “The Catch” by Tony Gabriel in 1976.

Now just two years short of a 40-year association with the league, as a player and now radio broadcaster, Avery knows things won’t happen quite so fast for the upstart Ottawa REDBLACKS.

“The Catch”

Jeff Avery was just a rookie for arguably the most iconic moment in Ottawa football history; “The Catch” made by Canadian receiver Tony Gabriel.

» Watch: Gabriel’s Clutch Catch

“If you put a number on how many games they are going to win, all you’re doing is guessing . . . it’s all just pure speculation,” said Avery, the two-time CFL all-star as a sure-handed receiver in Ottawa’s last great winning era. “How can you compare Ottawa against the other teams right now?

“We’re not going to know real answers until the season starts. . .until it’s your best against their best. The (season) opener is going to be a real yardstick.

“Where’s our depth chart at now? I’m not even sure the coaches know right now. They are always going to be looking – looking at cuts from other teams, then looking at NFL cuts in the summer. The scouting trips are already planned.

“I don’t like putting a number of how many games they will win. I will say if they were to win six games this year that would mark a pretty successful season.”

At the same time, Avery would be happy to see the REDBLACKS win four games in their first season if it meant building towards an improvement to perhaps eight wins in the second season.

“That would be great progress.”

Avery has seen it all in Ottawa football.

First as a player, who in seven seasons as a Rough Rider never once missed a playoff cheque, won the one Grey Cup, lost in three consecutive East finals (’77-79) and played on the last above .500 Ottawa team (8-6-2 in ’79).

His association with the team for the following five seasons was that of a spectator until a chance meeting with former play-by-play man Dean Brown in the Byward Market. The question from Brown: “You ever think about doing color commentary on our radio broadcasts?”

Avery couldn’t resist, though he could not possibly have known what he was getting into. Eight losing seasons with the Rough Riders, and just one season at .500 and a combined won-loss mark of 43-119.

With a winning percentage of just .264, Avery forgets he got to call playoff games too – six in fact, all losses in the Eastern Semi-Final.

“If you had asked me how many playoff games we had, I might have said just one,” he laughs. “It was often difficult to do your job when the team was that bad.

“It was a lot of negatives and if you had tried to pull too many positives out of what was happening, you would have sounded like you were full of crap. It was tough spinning too many positives from what was going on down on the field.”

When the Riders ceased to be after the ’96 season, Avery did like most every other die-hard fan did and found another way to spend his summer, even building a summer home to get away to.

Just the same, when the Renegades surfaced in 2002, he answered the call for another four non-descript seasons of football, an overall mark of 23-49 and not a sniff of the post-season.

Even before he sees a snap for real in 2014, Avery is comfortable drawing one comparison between Ottawa’s last expansion effort and the product he’s watched through training camp and two pre-season games.

“The REDBLACKS are better at some key positions and certainly better at THE key position: quarterback,” said Avery. “Henry Burris will make things happen.

“Still a lot of things have to fall into place for the team to be successful. For one, they have to find a way to keep the 39-year-old (Burris) on his feet.

“Henry is a very positive guy and he’s seen enough that he’s going to be able to handle anything that happens. The team will have problems up front. They will screw up but his ability to handle that part of things will be huge.”

Avery has watched the REDBLACKS in person for eight quarters and his players to watch, keeping in mind he’s partial to receivers, is this:

1. Naturally, Henry Burris, QB, Temple University, 14 CFL seasons.
“He’s really turned into a working-out kind of guy. And he’s not the scrambling Henry Burris he was 10 years ago. The attitude he will bring is huge for a young team.”

2. Carlton Mitchell, WR, University of South Florida, 2nd CFL season.
“He’s a guy I thought ‘hey, he can be something’ . . . He spent just the one year with Edmonton but I spoke with people out there and they liked what they saw.”

3. Chevon Walker, RB, Sioux Falls Community College, 3rd CFL season.
“Walker has been that impact guy before (with Hamilton) so you hope he can do it here too.“

4. Marcus Henry, WR, University of Kansas, 4th CFL season.
“You just look at that target . . what is he 6-4, 6-5, 220? (actually listed 6-5, 225). You just like a guy that big out there.”

5. Kierrie Johnson, SB, University of Houston, 4th CFL season.
“Played very well in BC and Saskatchewan. Just think he did some things out there.”

6. Zach Evans, DT, Regina Thunder Jrs., 3rd CFL season.
 “Comes from a good junior program out there and he and Keith Shologan give them a pair of good Canadians at that defensive tackle position.

7. Travis Brown, LB, Fresno State, rookie.
“They are going to need somebody to make big plays and even though he’s a rookie, he looks like a guy who could make an impact on defence and special teams.”

8. Antoine Pruneau, DB, University of Montreal, rookie.
“He’s an interesting guy to watch. I doubt he begins the season as a starter but he’s just so friggin fast.”

9. Nolan MacMillan, OL, University of Iowa, rookie.
“He’s a keeper. I realize he’s only a rookie but give him time to learn things here.”

10. Andrew Marshall, DT, Simon Fraser University, 2nd CFL season.
“You have to play these pre-season games and just watch people to do things and he made the plays.”