April 13, 2018

Football is in the air as Als ready for mini-camp

Montreal Alouettes

The Montreal Alouettes’ trip to Historic Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Fla. has become an annual pilgrimage. This year, the Als’ trip to the grounds where Jackie Robinson once went through spring training will look different than years past.

Roughly 30 players, mostly on the offensive side of the ball, will take the field on April 16, and the Alouettes will try to begin their climb from the league’s basement. Finishing 3-15 last year, the group that’s in Vero Beach will look a lot different than the one that began its journey there a year ago.

Here are the top storylines to follow out of the Alouettes’ mini-camp.

Sherman in charge

The camp will mark the on-field debut of new head coach Mike Sherman and his staff. The longtime NFL and NCAA football coach will get to see his players in action, in something closer to live game situations. Sherman will also get to see his staff work and meet with the entire group daily, as they begin the process of assessing their team and how it’ll look in the weeks ahead.

Perhaps most important, Sherman can use these three days to get a taste of what three-down football looks like. While accomplished in the U.S., Sherman is a CFL rookie. The camp will be just as valuable to him as it will be to his players.

Despite his years of experience, Mike Sherman has plenty to learn in his first CFL season (Reid Valmestad/CFL.ca)

The debut of Josh Freeman

Josh Freeman has been out of football for three years, hoping for another opportunity to get back on the field. At 30, the former NFL QB will get to take his first steps toward that chance. In his first four NFL seasons with Tampa Bay between 2009 and 2012, Freeman threw for 12,963 yards, 78 touchdowns and 63 interceptions (he threw 25 TDs to six INTs in 2010). Between 2013 and 2015, his career went south, which led to his eventual departure from the NFL and hiatus from the game.

Seeing him at Mark’s CFL Week in Winnipeg, Freeman looks like he’s still in playing shape and at an imposing six-foot-six and 240 pounds, he’ll command a big presence under centre for the Als. It’s been a long wait. Freeman is just days away from putting pen to paper (or in his case, cleats to turf) in his comeback story.

Speaking of comebacks

Sherman has said that Freeman isn’t the clear-cut starter, that the job would be earned in training camp. There are five other quarterbacks on the Als’ roster at this point and they’d all like to have a say in who gets that coveted starting job. Drew Willy would like to use the mini-camp and next month’s training camp as a chance to make a prolonged statement.

Now a veteran at 31, Willy hasn’t been a full-time starter since the 2015 season, when he was with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Willy only got close to significant playing time in four of the six games he got into last season. He made 54 of 79 passes for 547 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions.

Matt Shiltz saw action in Weeks 15, 18, 19 and 20 last year and made 35 of 61 passes for 385 yards with one touchdown. The 25-year-old from Butler would love to try and build his resume this season. A late-season addition in 2017, 22-year-old Antonio Pipkin got onto the field for the Als’ season-finale against Hamilton.

Nick Shafnisky, Garrette Fugate and Justin Holman will round out the QB roster at the camp.

This year might be Drew Willy’s last opportunity to win a starting QB job in the CFL (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

Williams with plenty to prove

Before he gets onto the field for his first activity as a member of the Alouettes, Chris Williams might want to print out his 2017 stats, crumple them up and send them with authority into the nearest wastebasket.

Coming back from a torn ACL and meniscus in 2017, Williams was not his usual productive self in his one season with the BC Lions. After building a reputation as a steady pair of hands as a receiver and an explosive set of feet in the return game, the 30-year-old played nine games and had 415 receiving yards and one touchdown; all were career lows.

Williams was traded to the Als in December and will welcome the opportunity to show that he can get back to his pre-injury form. In two years with Hamilton (2011 and 2012) and two with Ottawa (2013 and 2014) Williams was a thousand-yard receiver each season. He has 1,668 career punt return yards, amassing most of those with the Ticats in 2012, when he returned 78 punts for 1,117 yards and five touchdowns.

Defence will start to take shape

While defensive players will be in the minority at the camp, the three days at Dodgertown are an opportunity for Defensive Coordinator Khalil Carter, defensive backs coach Billy Parker and linebackers coach Todd Howard to get a head start on some work with their groups. The camp will also be an opportunity to get a look at some of the team’s free-agent signings, which is now highlighted by Thursday’s acquisition of Canadian linebacker Henoc Muamba. Defensive backs Tommie Campbell, Joe Burnett and Mitchell White will also take their first reps together in the Als’ revamped secondary.

For Carter, who comes to the Als after a three-year run as the Stampeders’ defensive backs coach, the rookie DC can show his players what he’s about and start to lay the foundation of his first defence.