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April 16, 2018

Defending champs set to start journey in Bradenton, Florida

Johany Jutras/Argonauts.ca

Almost five months after their stunning Grey Cup win, the Toronto Argonauts will begin to look forward, with their mini-camp at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.

The Argos will run a three-day camp from Tuesday, April 17 until Thursday, April 19. Similar to the Alouettes across the state in Vero Beach, there will be a mix of veteran and rookie players, with less of an emphasis on the offensive and defensive linemen.

Here are the top storylines to watch from this week’s Argos’ mini-camp.

Ray, Franklin, present and future

There’s no question about who the Argos’ starting quarterback will be this season. Ricky Ray had been declared the starter weeks before he signed a new, one-year deal with the Argos. One of the CFL’s greatest quarterbacks ever (four Grey Cup rings and counting), Ray has the present locked down for his team.

After winning his fourth Grey Cup, Ricky Ray is firmly entrenched as the Argos’ starter (CFL.ca)

Taking reps behind him, looking to secure the backup spot will be the future, in free-agent signee James Franklin. The 26-year-old’s career numbers are limited, having spent the last three seasons playing behind Mike Reilly in Edmonton, but the glimpses of talent he’s shown have been bright.

As Argos coach Marc Trestman pointed out at a press conference last month, there are more than two QBs on the Argos’ roster. McLeod Bethel-Thompson, Jeff Mathews and Dakota Prukop will all be at the mini-camp. All three saw limited action for the Argos last season and will be looking to increase their roles this season.

A nod to the past, too

When he was unveiled as the Argos’ QBs coach, Anthony Calvillo admitted that it felt strange pulling on a Toronto-coloured polo shirt for the first time, after HOWMANY years of playing for and coaching with the Montreal Alouettes. Seeing Calvillo working alongside Ricky Ray, his quarterback rival for so many years through the 2000s, might feel strange initially, too.

These three days will provide the first glimpse of the tremendous advantage that the Argos’ quarterbacks will get to enjoy this year, learning from one of the best to ever play the game on either side of the border. Don’t forget that Trestman and Offensive Coordinator Tommy Condell are there too. Whatever stage of your career you’re at, that’s a hub of info and knowledge like no other in the league.

T.J. Heath is back in a darker shade of blue

T.J. Heath was devastated when he was traded from the Argos to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the fall of 2016. As a free agent in February, he very quickly swapped his Blue Bombers jersey for the comfortable double blue that he started his CFL career in.

The one thing that’s remained consistent in his three years in the league is his ability to pick off passes. He had five interceptions in his first run as an Argo, then added two more with the Bombers in the final weeks of 2016 and had five picks last year, playing all 18 games with the Bombers.

After a year in Winnipeg, T.J. Heath returns to where his CFL career began with the Argos (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

James Wilder Jr. is back and ready to star

He won rookie of the year on the back of an impressive nine-game stretch with the Argos, injecting life into the run game and making his team’s offence infinitely more dangerous. Now, after a contract dispute threatened to keep him out for the coming season, James Wilder Jr. will begin his first full season as the Argos’ starting tailback.

Wilder had 872 yards on 122 rushes last year, scored five touchdowns and averaged 7.15 yards per carry. We’ll get our first indications of what Year 2 with Wilder will look like in Florida this week.

Middle linebacker questions

The Argos came to terms with a pair of middle linebackers on Feb. 20, re-signing Bear Woods and snagging Taylor Reed from Ottawa. Both had similar seasons — Woods had a team-best 91 tackles last year with the Argos, two sacks and five QB pressures, while Reed had a team-best 94 tackles in Ottawa, adding four sacks, seven QB pressures, a forced fumble and a pass knockdown.

One player will presumably have to make the move away from MIKE linebacker and while that battle will be decided in training camp, it could get its start in Florida, where first impressions with new defensive coordinator Mike Archer and linebackers coach Greg Quick could go a long way.