April 23, 2018

Riders looking for diamonds in the rough in Florida


BRADENTON, FLA. — How things can change in a year.

It was around 365 days ago that the Riders’ annual two-day mini-camp brought us our first look at Vince Young and the start of a highly-anticipated quarterback battle.

There has yet to be an official declaration from Chris Jones and the Saskatchewan Roughriders on who will be their starting quarterback in 2018, but on Tuesday morning, when this year’s two-day voluntary camp kicks off, there will be no question about the most important position in football.

The Riders’ brass will tell you that mini-camp is more about evaluation and getting any newcomers a head start on learning the league and the system before training camp. But make no mistake: all eyes will be on the team’s big-ticket acquisition in Zach Collaros.

“Anyone who’s down there will be interested in watching (Collaros) throw,” Riders assistant vice-president of football operations and administration Jeremy O’Day told the team’s official website. “But they should be just as interested in seeing the rest of the guys throw, the receivers catch and the defensive backs cover. It’s not like Zach is a brand new player to the league who you’ve never seen play before.”

A trip to the Eastern Final last year and some impressive off-season acquisitions have raised the bar in Riderville. Expectations will be high going into Tuesday when quarterbacks and first-year players suit up for the first time in an official capacity.

No question about it

The Zach Collaros trade was a hot topic all off-season, and on Tuesday CFL fans will see the quarterback take the field with his new team for the first time. Don’t expect anything groundbreaking this week from Collaros — who will share time with the other three quarterbacks on the roster — but everyone’s itching to see what No. 17 will do for the Green and White.

If Collaros can return to his 2015 form, when he was the leading candidate to win MOP before a season-ending injury, the Riders might just be the class of the CFL this season. If not, Brandon Bridge continues to knock on the door and will be happy to take advantage of any opportunity to show he can be the long-term answer under centre.

Brandon Bridge made strides in 2017 and hopes more is in store this season (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

Marquise Williams and David Watford are the other two quarterbacks on the roster. They’re dueling for the No. 3 developmental role behind Collaros and Bridge, although both could be in the team’s long-term plans if their play over the next month warrants it.

Chris Jones has to be hoping for some semblance of continuity at the position considering the turnover since he’s arrived. Kevin Glenn and Vernon Adams Jr. both departed this off-season, leaving Williams and Bridge as the only carry-overs from this time last year.

Diamonds in the rough

Chris Jones is probably in his best element this week. Why? Because this is the time he finally gets to see all those players he scouted at various off-season tryouts in action. The Riders’ GM and his staff will use mini-camp as an opportunity to confirm what he’s seen on film and in tryouts and weed out the rest before camp.

The competition will be stiff as Jones likely has a good idea of who will be starting where come the regular season — more so than in previous years for the Riders. But Jones also loves healthy competition, and the best players will have every opportunity to push for playing time.

Most of the 35-to-40 players at this week’s mini-camp have never played on a Canadian Football League field or been exposed to the three-down game. But at least a couple will turn enough heads to earn an invite to training camp and potentially earn a roster spot come the regular season.

Chris Jones will use this week’s camp to evaluate first-year players before training camp (CFL.ca)

Last year’s Most Outstanding Rookie for the team, defensive end Tobi Antigha, was a mini-camp invite, as were linebacker Alexandre Gagne and receiver Antwane Grant.

While the Riders’ mini-camp roster has not yet been revealed, former fourth-round NFL Draft pick Shaq Evans could be one to watch this week. The UCLA product has a nice blend of size and speed, and spent three seasons in the NFL before signing with the Riders in January.

Also keep an eye on some of the defensive backs at this week’s mini-camp. Recent veteran signing John Ojo won’t be participating, but his projected boundary corner position along with the SAM linebacker spot could be open for battle over the next month or so.

After mini-camp wraps up on Wednesday, the next big date on the off-season calendar for the Riders comes on May 3 with the 2018 CFL Draft. After that, quarterbacks and rookies report on May 16 with training camp officially opening May 20. Pre-season kicks off a week later, on May 27, when the Riders visit the Eskimos.