April 22, 2018

REDBLACKS return to the field in the nation’s capital

Patrick Doyle/CFL.ca

OTTAWA — Though the circumstances have changed, the Ottawa REDBLACKS will pick up exactly where they left off last November when mini-camp kicks off Monday in Ottawa.

TD Place will be the site of the annual three-day mini-camp, which will see rookies, quarterbacks and a handful of returning veterans hit the field for the first time as a team in five months.

For those who were with the team last season, Monday marks a return to the scene of Ottawa’s season-ending playoff loss to the Saskatchewan Roughriders. However, many of the players arriving in the nation’s capital have never played the three-down game before, and will be focused on just trying to earn an invite to training camp on May 20.

“The objective is to bring everyone up to speed,” General Manager Marcel Desjardins told OttawaREDBLACKS.com. “We have to evaluate a lot of new players versus returning players and see what direction we want to go in.”

Room to ‘catch on’

On offence the REDBLACKS have very few holes to fill, bringing back the majority of their stars during what’s been a busy off-season for their GM. Greg Ellingson was already under contract while quarterback Trevor Harris, receivers Diontae Spencer and Brad Sinopoli, and running backs William Powell and Mossis Madu all signed new deals through 2018.

But while offensive coordinator Jaime Elizondo has a familiar cast to work with, there will be opportunities for newcomers to impress — especially at receiver after the team recently released Quincy McDuffie, Kenny Shaw and Josh Stangby. Juron Criner also left the team via free agency, signing with the Edmonton Eskimos.

Kenny Shaw’s release opens up new opportunities for young REDBLACKS receivers (Chris Hofley/Ottawa REDBLACKS)

Second-year receiver and 24-year-old Dominique Rhymes will have every opportunity to earn a much bigger role this season, and Austen Hartley and free agent signing Julian Feoli-Gudino are safe bets to provide Canadian depth. Otherwise, the door is open for one of a handful of American receivers to turn heads and earn a not only a roster spot this spring but a possible starting role.

Keep an eye on 6-foot-1 target Noel Thomas, who caught 100 passes in his senior season with Connecticut, along with Alabama’s Richard Mullaney and Texas A&M’s Lance Evans. If the REDBLACKS’ rookie receivers coming to mini-camp have at least one thing in common it’s their size. Most of them check in at 6-foot-3 or taller, including Temple’s Romond Deloatch, listed at 6-foot-4, 245 pounds.

Changing of the guard

No pads for this week’s session, meaning offensive and defensive linemen will be left at home. But the week still holds plenty of importance for Noel Thorpe, who makes his coaching debut as the REDBLACKS’ defensive coordinator after signing in the off-season. Previous defensive coordinator Mark Nelson was reassigned as the linebackers coach.

Thorpe can begin installing his system with some of the veteran players, but more valuable for him will be the opportunity to scout potential new fits in red and black. The REDBLACKS will have several returning vets this year and a couple of new ones in Kyries Hebert, Loucheiz Purifoy and Rico Murray, but plenty of tinkering can be expected from the former Alouette defensive mastermind.

Rick Campbell and Marcel Desjardins made the switch to Thorpe this off-season with hopes of being more aggressive on the that side of the ball. Well, before Thorpe’s dismissal during the 2017 season, the Als were always a pretty good bet to finish near the top of the leaderboard in sacks and pressures. Thorpe’s pressure defence will be a welcome sight in the nation’s capital.

Speaking of pressure, the REDBLACKS’ defensive backs will be under close watch this week, both returning veterans and CFL rookies. This should be a prelude to what will be a highly-competitive training camp in the defensive backfield after the club allowed nearly 317 passing yards per game in 2017, third-worst in the league.

Sherrod Baltimore was one of the young players who stood out a year ago at this time (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

Under centre

The top of the REDBLACKS’ quarterback depth chart is all but decided, with the veteran Trevor Harris returning on a one-year contract for 2018 and free agent addition Dominique Davis looking like a primary No. 2 following the departure of Drew Tate. However, Davis, the former Bombers backup, could be pushed by young pivots William Arndt and Danny Collins.

All eyes will certainly be on Harris in 2018. The REDBLACKS’ incumbent has emphasized mental strength in his off-season regiment over the last couple of years. He’s looking to reach yet another level in his game, and it all starts at this week’s mini-camp.

Harris has been somewhat of an enigma through his CFL career, putting up elite numbers through the regular season but at times leveling off late in the season. He was productive in the team’s Eastern Semi-Final loss a year ago, but did throw a game-changing interception to Riders linebacker Samuel Eguavoen near the opposing team’s goal line in the first half.

If Harris can maintain the elite level of production that he’s flashed throughout his six CFL seasons, the REDBLACKS should stack up as an East Division heavyweight.