Changes in the coaching ranks and players swapping uniforms will give the CFL West Division a new look this season. It should also result in a closer race for the playoffs.
Four of the five teams will have a different coach from last year. The biggest shakeup was Chris Jones’s move from the defending Grey Cup Champion Edmonton Eskimos to take over a Saskatchewan Roughrider team that has struggled the last two season.
In BC, the new boss is the same as the old boss as Hall of Famer Wally Buono returns to the sidelines after four years of concentrating on being the Lions’ general manager.
With Jones gone, former Edmonton quarterback Jason Maas will attempt to have the Eskimos win back-to-back championships for the first time since winning five consecutive titles between 1978 and 1982.
After a long apprenticeship, Dave Dickenson will take over as the Calgary Stampeders’ coach while John Hufnagel continues as general manager and president.
The lone holdover coach from last year is Winnipeg’s Mike O’Shea. Bombers fans are hoping the addition of running back Andrew Harris and a healthy Drew Willy will return Winnipeg to the playoffs for the first time since a 2011 Grey Cup appearance.
Quarterback Mike Reilly remains the lynch pin of the Eskimos’ success. Edmonton won its final 10 games last year after Reilly returned from injury.
Reilly will have Adarius Bowman, the CFL’s leading receiver last year, to throw to but Shamawd Chambers is gone. The defence remains strong with Almondo Sewell and Odell Willis back but linebackers Dexter McCoil, Otha Foster and defensive back Aaron Grymes are departed.
The Eskimos will start the season with just eight rookies on their roster.
“I have the same amount of confidence year in and year out,” GM Ed Hervey told the Edmonton Journal. “I’m not afraid of taking chances, I’m not afraid of young players, I’m not afraid of turnover. I don’t fear when guys leave or anything like that. You just can’t do that.”
In Bo Levi Mitchell the Stampeders have one of the league’s best quarterbacks. Replacing all-star running back Jon Cornish won’t be easy, but Jerome Messam rushed for over 1,000 yards last year and might have better hands as a receiver.
A Calgary defence that was ranked first or second in 10 categories last year, including allowing just 16.1 offensive points a game, must adjust to the loss of linebacker Juwan Simpson, defensive back Keon Raymond and lineman Freddie Bishop.
After experiencing years of success with Hufnagel at the helm, Dickenson knows his coaching will be under the microscope.
“I’m not trying to re-invent the wheel but I don’t think there’s a point where you try to stay real stagnant,” he said. “You always have your foundation you come back too.
“Luckily Huff is still here and I have a lot of foundation to lean on.”
Maybe it’s just coincidence but the Lions haven’t won a playoff game since Buono stepped aside as head coach following their 2011 Grey Cup victory.
After struggling through two years of injuries quarterback Travis Lulay is healthy again but he will start the season as the backup behind Jonathon Jennings, who threw for 2,004 yards and 15 touchdowns while going 3-3 as a starter last year.
Jennings’ strong throwing arm and scrambling ability has resulted in him being compared to Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks. What Lions fans don’t want is a repeat of Casey Printers.
With his size and speed, 1,000-yard receiver Emmanuel Arceneaux is a game changer. The addition of Nick Moore adds depth but the Lions will probably be looking for more production from Canadian Shawn Gore.
The return of linebacker Solomon Elimimian, who suffered a season-ending Achilles injury last year, will add more teeth to the defence.
With Harris gone the Lions brought in Anthony Allen and Jeremiah Johnson as running backs.
After being tarnished by a couple of mediocre seasons Buono hopes to return some shine to the Lions.
“I want to be able to put a team on the field that every time we line up, the fans know we are going to play hard and play to win,” he said.
It took Jones just two years to take the Eskimos from a 4-14 team to a Grey Cup champion. Saskatchewan fans hope he can work the same magic with a Rider team that has spiraled downward after two season-ending injuries to quarterback Darian Durant.
A healthy Durant makes the Rider offence dangerous while the addition of Kendial Lawrence and Curtis Steele will add some legs to the running attack.
Veteran receivers Weston Dressler and Chris Getzlaf are gone, but Durant still has plenty of passing options in Rob Bagg, Chambers, John Chiles and Naaman Roosevelt.
On defence, veteran lineman John Chick was released but Saskatchewan has added Justin Capiccotti, Shawn Lemon and linebacker Greg Jones.
Glenn Suitor, the former CFL player and current TSN analyst, expects the Riders defence will be the backbone of the team’s success.
“You know their defence by mid-season will be one of the top defences in the league,” said Suitor. “Chris will put the right athletes in place.
“It might take a month or two, but the defence will be drastically better. They will be in closer games and with a healthy Darian Durant there is no reason to believe they won’t win a few more games.”
The return of Harris to his home town gives the Bomber offence more punch. The signings of Dressler and Ryan Smith adds to the receiving corps.
Winnipeg’s success still depends on the offensive line giving Willy protection and keeping him healthy. New offensive coordinator Paul Lapolice will add some different wrinkles.
A Winnipeg defence led by Jamaal Westerman got even better with the additions of Keith Shologan and Euclid Cummings.
The clock could be ticking for O’Shea. The Bombers want a quick start to the season to build confidence.
“There’s no more talking about it,” said veteran defensive back Chris Randle. “We’ve got some new additions in the offseason, the team has built a camaraderie, the coaching staff and everyone is more familiar with each other and our communication is better.
“We’re setting ourselves up to be a great team. Now all we have to do is go out there and be great.”