Chris Hofley/Ottawa REDBLACKS
TORONTO — For CFL players, the six-month road to the Grey Cup can be grueling and full of hurdles both mental and physical in nature.
Despite how long it feels though, don’t let anyone tell you it’s a marathon. While a select handful of veterans have the luxury of job security going into the season, the sprint has begun for anyone trying to win a roster spot.
From the quarterback competition in Montreal to potential starting running back jobs in Calgary and BC, CFL.ca takes a look at 20 position battles to watch throughout training camp.
1. Quarterback, Montreal Alouettes
The Favourite: Drew Willy
The battle everyone’s anticipated this spring could have an anti-climactic ending if Drew Willy takes the starting quarterback job in Montreal. But that’s the safe pick, as the learning curve is significant for former NFL hand Josh Freeman while the Als may want to give Matt Shiltz a little more seasoning.
Many believe the Als have a talented roster but the question mark is at quarterback, which is why all eyes will be on the only true battle for a number one QB position this training camp.
2. Running back, Calgary Stampeders
The Favourite: Terry Williams
When asked about the possibility of bringing in recently-released veteran John White, Stamps head coach Dave Dickenson said he wouldn’t rule out anything, but he likes the guys he’s got. American running backs are a dime a dozen but Dickenson is hoping he can find someone special to replace the departed Canadian Jerome Messam.
Terry Williams has the advantage going into camp considering his experience and what he did in his only career start last year, rushing for 156 yards and three touchdowns in a blowout win over the Als. His speed could bring a different dimension to the Stampeder offence, although first he’ll have to claim the No. 1 job.
3. Middle linebacker, Toronto Argonauts
The Favourite: Toss-up
Jim Popp is collecting linebackers for his new defensive coordinator Mike Archer, as the Argos try to sustain success with the defence that played an unheralded role in capturing the 105th Grey Cup. All signals point to competition between Bear Woods and Taylor Reed at the middle linebacker position, although whoever ends up losing could factor in at WILL along with Terrance Plummer and Khalil Bass.
The Argos’ linebacker situation is cloudy to say the least, with Woods and Reed both signing with the team at around the same time this off-season. Do the Boatmen go with the sure-handed field general in Woods or the younger-but-also-proven Reed?
4. Boundary corner, Saskatchewan Roughriders
The Participants: Chris Lyles, Jeremy Cutrer, Rudy Johnson, Nick Marshall, Orlandus Harris
The Favourite: Chris Lyles
Some had earmarked John Ojo for this position when he signed over a month ago, but the former all-star defensive back was cut on Tuesday morning. The battle for the boundary is a key one on Chris Jones’ defence, as the Riders’ coach would surely like to avoid having to rely too much on top receiver Duron Carter at the position.
So far in camp we haven’t seen much if any of Carter there, while the veteran Chris Lyles has emerged as the early favourite. Chris Jones will look for strong, rangy defenders to fill the spot previously occupied by Kacy Rodgers.
5. Left tackle, Edmonton Eskimos
The Favourite: Chauncey Briggs
Kevin Palmer and the recently-signed Tommie Draheim come with CFL experience, but it was 23-year-old rookie Chauncey Briggs getting the first look in camp as the Esks look to fill Joel Figueroa‘s old spot. Choosing a replacement for one of the CFL’s best tackles will be critical for the Eskimos, who look to continue protecting their Most Outstanding Player in quarterback Mike Reilly.
While Colin Kelly could shift to left tackle and Matt O’Donnell to right tackle, the Eskimos have the ratio flexibility to start two Americans on their O-line. It appears Brock Sunderland is trusting his American scouting to unearth a young gem in lieu of older, more expensive options.
6. Running back, BC Lions
The Favourite: Jeremiah Johnson
The life of a running back in pro football can be perilous to say the least. Just look at Jeremiah Johnson, who could be fighting for a job just a year after being considered one of the most talented backs in the CFL.
Ed Hervey has signaled his intentions at the running back position by bringing in Brandon Rutley via trade and signing recently-released Travon Van. It’s still up in the air who will be the top ball-handler on the west coast.
7. Backup quarterback, Calgary Stampeders
The Favourite: Ricky Stanzi
Andrew Buckley‘s retirement just before the start of camp has left the Stampeders scrambling for a No. 2 option for franchise quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell. Ricky Stanzi competed for that job with Buckley last year and lost, making him the most logical choice to be the backup. But he’ll see plenty of competition.
While Tyler Rogers and Larry Brihl signed up late, Nick Arbuckle should have the best chance to push Stanzi for the job. The Stamps have looked at the 24-year-old Arbuckle in the past and he’s finally getting his chance. Interestingly, the Stampeders have opted against bringing in an experienced backup like Mitchell Gale, Rakeem Cato or the recently-released Jeff Mathews.
8. Left tackle, Saskatchewan Roughriders
The Favourite: Terran Vaughn
By starting a third American O-lineman in Travis Bond at guard, the Riders hope to enjoy the same success as division rival Winnipeg last year. Chris Jones has strength in numbers up front, but it won’t mean much if he can’t find a solid option at left tackle following the departure of Bruce Campbell.
Terran Vaughn, 24, appears to be the early favourite to take the job, but keep an eye on that spot over the next week as the Riders look to do everything they can to protect their biggest investment, new quarterback Zach Collaros.
9. WILL linebacker, Winnipeg Blue Bombers
The Participants: Jovan Santos-Knox, Ian Wild
The Favourite: Jovan Santos-Knox
All off-season, when reporters asked if the Bombers would bring in Henoc Muamba, Kyle Walters and Mike O’Shea maintained their trust in Jovan Santos-Knox. The signing of Adam Bighill shores up the middle linebacker spot in Winnipeg, but Santos-Knox is still in the running for a job at WILL linebacker.
The pressure is on for both Santos-Knox and the veteran Ian Wild, who appear to be in competition for the WILL linebacker position.
10. Wide receiver, Edmonton Eskimos
The Favourite: Vidal Hazelton
The field is much bigger than pictured, as no receiver spots are safe outside of Derel Walker‘s. But it makes sense for the Eskimos to keep Duke Williams at his field wideout spot and plug in Bryant Mitchell in the slot, leaving the boundary receiver position up for grabs.
If that’s how it plays out, Vidal Hazelton is left to compete with veterans Juron Criner and Kenny Stafford along with a handful of rookies. The always-talented Hazelton might have the edge but he’ll have to put in a productive camp to keep his job.
11. Defensive backs, BC Lions
The Participants: Too many to count
The Favourite: No clear favourite
The most complicated position battle resides in Vancouver, where it’s hard to pick out a lock among the six starting defensive back positions if you include the SAM. On paper, Anthony Thompson is the safety, Otha Foster is the SAM and T.J. Lee is in at half, but Ed Hervey has a mix of veterans and newcomers in camp and he’s hoping the odds play in his favour.
Kendall James and Anthony Orange (formerly known as A.J. Jefferson) may be penciled in early as starters at the corner positions while Marcell Young, Garry Peters and Winston Rose could be competing for the open spot at half. Solomon Means is also throwing his hat in the ring.
12. Backup quarterback, Winnipeg Blue Bombers
The Favourite: Alex Ross
Even with just one year next to his name, Alex Ross may be the Bombers’ second-string quarterback by default following the departure of Darian Durant. He was supposed to compete to be the team’s developmental third-stringer, but now he’s the most sensible backup due to his experience.
Chris Streveler has talent but is just 23 and too raw to be thrown into the fire, while Canadian Zack Mahoney is likely fighting for a chance just to stay on the roster after going undrafted.
13. Receiver, Ottawa REDBLACKS
The Favourite: No clear favourite
Greg Ellingson and Diontae Spencer are the only returning internationals penciled in as starters for the REDBLACKS, opening up some intriguing competition following the departures of Juron Criner, Kenny Shaw and Josh Stangby.
One of the CFL’s highest-octane offences is hoping to unearth some new young talent at receiver, with the returning but mostly-unknown Dominique Rhymes leading the charge for one of likely a few starting jobs.
14. Quarterback, Hamilton Tiger-Cats
The Favourite: It’s complicated
The Hamilton Tiger-Cats didn’t bring in Johnny Manziel to ride the pine for two years. With that said, he’ll have to take his time to reach a minimum level of comfort with the three-down game before being ready to play.
Dane Evans and Bryant Moniz are competing just to make the team, while Manziel and Vernon Adams Jr., considered by some to be one of the league’s most intriguing prospect, will be dueling to become the second-string quarterback to Jeremiah Masoli — at least for now.
15. Wide receiver, Toronto Argonauts
The Favourite: Brian Tyms
Jeff Fuller (released) and DeVier Posey (NFL) are out, while S.J. Green and Armanti Edwards are on the wrong side of 30 so the Argos are stocking up on young international receivers. The Argos have started two internationals out wide before at X and Z, and have the ratio-flexibility to go that route again.
There’s some talent in Argos camp, but keep an eye on Brian Tyms, who essentially red-shirted his time with the Argos after arriving part way through the year. He’s high on talent but so far hasn’t turned that into production, but working in Marc Trestman’s offence could change that.
16. Defensive tackle, Ottawa REDBLACKS
The Favourite: Daryl Waud
The departure of Zack Evans opens what is literally a gigantic hole in the figurative heart of the REDBLACKS defence. Looking to stay national at that spot, it appears Rick Campbell will turn to either Daryl Waud or Michael Klassen.
Waud is an intriguing name. Once one of the most highly-touted draft prospects, the former Western defensive lineman was picked in the second round of the CFL Draft before turning down an NFL contract with the Washington Redskins to sign with the Argos. With some better injury luck Waud could become a steal for Marcel Desjardins.
17. WILL linebacker, Calgary Stampeders
The Favourite: Jameer Thurman
It was believed that Jameer Thurman would be penciled in as the starter after thriving as the starting WILL linebacker last season, but Dave Dickenson has raved about his depth at the position, which has been left open after the retirement of seasoned veteran Deron Mayo.
The incumbent Thurman has to be the early favourite, but the Stampeders’ American scouting is part of what’s helped them dominate the league over the last decade or so, and it appears Dickenson and GM John Hufnagel have a few ideas up their sleeves this training camp.
18. Field wideout, Winnipeg Blue Bombers
The Favourite: Drew Wolitarsky
It’s no secret that the Bombers plan to start two Canadian receivers on offence, with one of those spots occupied by newcomer Nic Demski. Former supplemental draft pick Drew Wolitarsky seems to have the inside track on the job, but a talented crop of rookies could make for a difficult decision from the coaching staff.
Rashaun Simonise is the big name here. The former University of Calgary receiver is considered a bit raw after being out of football for the last year, but he’s been in an NFL camp with the Cincinnati Bengals and has the highest upside of any Canadian receiver on the roster aside from perhaps Demski.
19. Offensive line, Montreal Alouettes
The Favourite: Sean Jamieson
All off-season it looked like the Als planned to start two Americans on the O-line, with Xavier Fulton slated to line up opposite of Jovan Olafioye. The script was flipped when Olafioye was released, leaving more questions than answers on Montreal’s front five.
It appears the Als will start four Canadians on the offensive line, with Philip Blake moving from guard to tackle, Kristian Matte moving to centre, Ryan Bomben at left guard and an open competition at right guard. Sean Jamieson may be the front-runner but second-overall pick Trey Rutherford should state his case.
20. Receiver, Montreal Alouettes
The Favourite: T.J. Graham, Eugene Lewis
Kavis Reed has built up a solid cast of national starters in his year as a general manager, and the payout could be seen on the offensive side of the ball, specifically at the receiver position. The Als could start as many as six American receivers, leaving room for up to three more starters outside of B.J. Cunningham, Chris Williams and Ernest Jackson (although it’s believed George Johnson will start at field wideout, making it five international receivers starting in total).
T.J. Graham, Eugene Lewis, Jack Bramswig, Alton Howard and Jamal Robinson are internationals competing for starting roles this week in camp, with Graham and Lewis holding the edge in experience coming into camp.