May 20, 2019

Primer: A team by team look at 2019 training camp

TORONTO — Change is in the Rocky Mountain air this spring as the Calgary Stampeders take the field at McMahon Stadium Sunday in defence of their Grey Cup Championship last November.

The Stamps face a tough task, even in a nine-team league where only one club, the Montreal Alouettes, has won back-to-back titles since 1997.

Compounding the issue is that fact that 11 of Calgary’s 24 starters from a 27-16 win over the Ottawa REDBLACKS in the 106th Grey Cup are not back on the roster. Returning for his fourth season as the Stamps’ head coach, Dave Dickenson is doing his best to embrace a challenging situation.

“That’s almost fifty percent, that’s a crazy stat,” Dickenson told Stampeders.com. “Do I love it? No. But if I was a young player, I would want to make my name and get out there and show people what I can do.

“For me,” the former quarterback recalled, “I had to wait until Jeff Garcia left, and I felt like I could play, but that’s what it took. If that’s what some of these other guys can do and run with it, that’s certainly the hope.”


OFF-SEASON DEPTH CHARTS

» WEST: CGY | WPG | SSK | BC | EDM

» EAST: OTT | HAMMTL | TOR


While the Stamps hope some of their younger players can take on bigger roles in 2019, eight other teams take the field on Monday as training camps officially kick off across the CFL. The sights and sounds of two-a-day practices are certainly welcomed by fans.

So marks the start of a six-month journey towards the 107th Grey Cup, which returns to province of Alberta for a second straight season on Nov. 24, this time in Calgary.

It may seem like a marathon journey, but for many of the players attending camps this week, little time will be afforded to achieve mid-season form. Starting jobs and roster spots are on the line from the very moment players set foot on the field.

As rookie camps wrap up and veterans join their teams for the first time this season, CFL.ca takes a team-by-team look at 2019 training camp:

 

Mike Reilly made shockwaves this season when he left Edmonton to sign with the Lions (The Canadian Press)

Mike Reilly’s career has come full circle. But will the new-look Lions get their storybook ending?

OVERVIEW

After a three-day rookie camp, the rest of the Lions’ veterans report to Kamloops, B.C. on Saturday before taking the field on Sunday for the official start of training camp.

Following a 9-9 season that ended in a blowout loss to the Ticats in the Eastern Semi-Final, General Manager Ed Hervey has now put his full mark on the team, making a big coaching hire in DeVone Claybrooks and landing arguably the CFL’s biggest free agent in two decades in quarterback Mike Reilly.

The Lions open the pre-season on May 26 with a visit to Edmonton before a final dress rehearsal on June 7 against Calgary. Their 2019 season then finally kicks off on June 15 against the Blue Bombers at BC Place, when Reilly and the rest of the new-look Lions make their long-anticipated debut.

3 THINGS TO WATCH

Cub coaches

The Lions’ coaching staff may be young but does not lack experience in the three-down game. Star pupil DeVone Claybrooks has long been touted as a top up-and-comer and is embracing his first head coaching job, leaning on a staff of former players that includes Ryan Phillips, Nik Lewis, Drew Tate and Keith Stokes.

Claybrooks will likely lean on Rich Stubler’s 40 years of coaching experience, but the former Stamps defensive coordinator is sure to show up with his own ideas of how to run things. The Lions’ new staff needs to click with the players right away in order to deliver on high expectations.

Greatest show on turf?

With three straight seasons of 5,500-plus passing yards, Mike Reilly brings promise of a high-octane offence to the west coast. Reilly has been texting with Lions receivers all off-season, including big free agent addition Duron Carter, but Sunday provides the first opportunity to put it all into practice.

The Lions’ new-look offence has certainly generated plenty of buzz going into the season. The question is how quickly can a new unit gel? Reilly has played under offensive coordinator Jarious Jackson before, but can they get in sync on the new offence in time for the June 15 opener?

Canadian beef

The Lions will want to protect their new biggest asset throughout the 2019 season, bringing a beefed up O-line to camp that includes two significant additions in Canadians Sukh Chungh and Brett Boyko. While Chungh is known for his physicality, Boyko arrives in the CFL four years after being picked in the second round.

With Canadians David Knevel, Peter Godber, Hunter Steward and David Foucault, among others, also in the mix, DeVone Claybrooks will have plenty of options when it comes to his front five, including potentially the ability to start four Canadian offensive linemen if the ratio flexibility is needed. Questions to be answered in camp.

TOP POSITION BATTLE

For the third time in four years there will be competition at the running back spot. Brandon Rutley is looking to bounce back from a season-ending knee injury last year, while John White showed he’s just as elusive as ever in spot duty with the Ticats last season. The other name worth monitoring is Shaun Wick, who had a good camp and pre-season with the Lions in 2018. Whoever wins the job will have a chance put up big numbers in a Mike Reilly-led offence.

BREAKOUT RADAR

After parting ways with Canadian receiver Danny Vandervoort, the Lions are clearly all-in with 26-year-old Shaq Johnson. The speedy vertical threat didn’t have the impact many expected in 2018, but he’s never played with a quarterback like Mike Reilly and should see a significant increase in volume this season.


Rising star defensive end Kwaku Boateng is looking to build on a big sophomore season (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

After losing their franchise QB, the Eskimos came up big in free agency. Can the Esks embrace change and escape Mike Reilly’s shadow?

OVERVIEW

All rookies and veterans are scheduled to report to Edmonton on Saturday, before taking the field at Commonwealth Stadium for the launching of a new year on Sunday as training camp gets under way.

After missing the playoffs with a 9-9 record in 2018, the fans’ biggest fears became reality over the winter when franchise quarterback Mike Reilly left as a free agent. GM Brock Sunderland responded in free agency, however, signing a handful of top-ranked free agents including former REDBLACKS quarterback Trevor Harris.

The Esks must prepare quickly for their pre-season opener against BC on May 26 before wrapping things up five days later in Winnipeg on May 31. A short turnaround, but one that gives the Eskimos plenty of time to prepare for their regular season opener on June 14 vs. Montreal.

3 THINGS TO WATCH

Ottawa connection

The Eskimos had a ‘plan B’ in the event of Mike Reilly leaving, and it clearly involved Jason Maas and Brock Sunderland leveraging their Ottawa connections. Trevor Harris, Greg Ellingson and SirVincent Rogers have played key roles in the REDBLACKS’ recent success and will bring immediate chemistry to a new-look offence.

If new receivers DaVaris Daniels and Ricky Collins can get on the same page as well, look for the Eskimos’ passing attack to get off the ground quickly in 2019.

Well received

The Esks’ receiving corps has been decimated in recent years, losing a long list of key contributors that includes Duke Williams, Derel Walker, Brandon Zylstra and Bryant Mitchell. The good news is Maas’ offence seems to be receiver friendly, producing the league’s top pass-catchers year after year.

It’s a new group in Edmonton this year but there’s plenty of talent, as Ellingson and Daniels could challenge for the receiving lead this season while Collins and new Canadian addition Tevaun Smith are sure to make an impact.

Defensive reinforcements

For a team that fell short in 2018, the Eskimos’ sixth-ranked defence no doubt played a role. That unit needed to be more consistent and has since made changes, swapping in Phillip Lolley at defensive coordinator and adding a number of key free agents during the off-season.

Linebackers Larry Dean, Jovan Santos-Knox and Don Unamba join defensive tackle Mic’hael Brooks as the club’s big additions and will try to hit the ground running in camp starting on Sunday. Significant improvement would put the Eskimos in a position to contend for the highly-competitive West.

TOP POSITION BATTLE

There’s plenty of talent in the Eskimos’ defensive backfield, we’ll just have to wait and see how it plays out. Money Hunter, Maurice McKnight, Forrest Hightower and B.J. Clay are all competing for starting jobs, while the competition extends to safety where Jordan Hoover may not be guaranteed anything. It’s a good problem to have for Lolley in his first camp as defensive coordinator.

BREAKOUT RADAR

With no shortage of breakout candidates in Esks camp, the most intriguing is easily former first round pick Tevaun Smith. The speedy receiver caught on in the NFL after being drafted by the Eskimos in 2016, but is now vying for a job after signing his first CFL contract this off-season. Smith is well-polished and ready to make an immediate impact.


 

Bo Levi Mitchell avenged consecutive Grey Cup losses with a victory last November (The Canadian Press)

It was November to remember and, in some ways, an off-season to forget. Are the defending champs still the team to beat?

OVERVIEW

First-year players and quarterbacks who took the field Thursday and Friday will be joined by the rest of the team on Sunday, as the Stamps begin defending their title on home turf at McMahon Stadium.

The third time truly was the charm for the Stampeders, who erased their ghosts of Grey Cup’s past with a decisive win over the REDBLACKS last November. However, a lot has changed since then, as the team has lost nearly two-thirds of its starting defensive along with veteran coordinator DeVone Claybrooks.

Pre-season opens on May 31 at McMahon with a visit from the Riders, followed by a trip to Vancouver on June 7 for one last tune-up. The Stamps could have as many as 13 new starters when they take the field for their season-opener on June 15 against visiting Ottawa.

3 THINGS TO WATCH

Competition, everywhere

Every coach wants a competitive camp, but the Stamps really have no choice after losing nearly half of their starters, including Alex Singleton, Ja’Gared Davis and Micah Johnson, in the span of an off-season. The linebackers, defensive line and secondary all have multiple spots up for grabs, setting up a busy first camp for new defensive coordinator Brett Monson.

On the other side of the ball Dave Dickenson will have to determine a centre and right tackle, while the receivers will also battle for starting spots considering veteran Kamar Jorden could miss most — if not all — of the 2019 season.

Load management?

Bo Levi Mitchell does not have to win a job in training camp. Yes, the two-time Most Outstanding Player has proven all he can to the Stamps, who say they’ll take a strategic approach with the quarterback this training camp by limiting his workload to avoid injury and keep him fresh.

Even if that results in a slower start than usual for one of the CFL’s top pivots, it’s a well-calculated risk for the Stamps. Backup Nick Arbuckle could use the extra reps, and besides, it’s no secret just how important Mitchell’s right arm is to the Calgary Stampeders. They need him to be healthy and well-rested.

Mr. Rogers’ neighbourhood

Speaking of load management, it’ll be interesting to see how the Stamps approach Eric Rogers‘ usage throughout training camp and pre-season. Rogers was bothered by his surgically repaired knee almost all of last season, sporadically missing time while having to tough it out in the playoffs.

Will Rogers ever feel 100 per cent? We may never know, but the Stamps showed confidence in their top receiver by signing him to a new deal over the off-season. He’s so good that even when playing injured he’s one of the best on the field, as demonstrated in a memorable three-touchdown Western Final last season.

TOP POSITION BATTLE

Take your pick. There are lots, but the most intriguing one may be at linebacker, where departed stars Jameer Thurman and Alex Singleton both need to be replaced. Dickenson has said that Wynton McManis and Cory Greenwood are the favourites going in, but Greenwood turns 34 in June and has struggled to stay healthy in his career.

BREAKOUT RADAR

With 488 yards in six games last year, it’s probably not fair to pick Reggie Begelton, even if he’s primed for big things this season. So instead we’ll go with DaShaun Amos. The 24-year-old sophomore will be given every opportunity to play in 2019 and could have a Tre Roberson-like breakout in the Calgary secondary.


 

Zach Collaros returns for a second season as the Riders’ starting quarterback (Arthur Ward/CFL.ca)

Chris Jones’ rebuilding project was left incomplete. Led by the CFL’s most intimidating defence, can the Riders finish the job?

OVERVIEW

After a two-day rookie camp at Mosaic Stadium, the scene shifts to the University of Saskatchewan’s Griffiths Stadium in Saskatoon, where the rest of the Riders report to 2019 training camp on Sunday.

Every year it seems the Riders are one step closer, coming off an impressive 12-6 season featuring a top-ranked defence in 2018. However, despite hosting the first playoff game at the new stadium, the season ended on a sour note with a loss to the rival Bombers. Things will be different this year following the departure of Chris Jones, but the Riders are expected to contend once again.

The exhibition schedule opens on May 31 with a visit to the defending Grey Cup Champions in Calgary. After wrapping up pre-season on June 6 against Winnipeg, the Riders will prepare for the CFL season-opener on June 13, when quarterback Zach Collaros faces his former team for the first time in Hamilton.

3 THINGS TO WATCH

New leadership

Chris Jones wore many hats in Saskatchewan, but the Riders didn’t have to look far to replace him. Head Coach Craig Dickenson and General Manager Jeremy O’Day were internal hires, as was new defensive coordinator Jason Shivers as the Riders look to pick up where they left off after a 12-win season.

Losing a leader of Jones’ calibre so late in the off-season was far from ideal, but the Riders calmly carried about their business and appear to be set up for a successful 2019 season. That should translate from the very outset of training camp starting on Sunday.

Veteran presence

Helping the Riders make the transition will be a solid core of veterans, including off-season additions Micah Johnson and Solomon Elimimian on defence and William Powell and Emmanuel Arceneaux on offence. All four players bring a winning pedigree and a different attitude to Riders’ camp this season.

On offence, Zach Collaros is back for a second season as the team’s starting quarterback. He wasn’t the ‘Plan A’ in free agency and had a tough 2018 season, both injury- and performance-wise, but Collaros has seven seasons and more than 2,000 passing attempts to his name.

Canadian core

While some knocked Chris Jones’ track record on draft day, the Riders’ Canadian core is starting to take shape, and it’s covered by Jones’ fingerprints. Last year’s first round pick Dakoda Shepley and injured guard Dariusz Bladek should both push to start this season, as could Cameron Judge as he competes with Sam Hurl at the MIKE linebacker position.

Elie Bouka, drafted in the third round in 2016, signed with the Riders this off-season after some time in the NFL and is a versatile defensive back, while this year’s top draft picks Justin McInnis and Brayden Lenius are already under contract and have a direct path to playing time at receiver. Suddenly there’s a lot to be excited about when it comes to the Riders’ young Canadian talent.

TOP POSITION BATTLE

Despite some aging starters, the Riders are the deepest they’ve been the last several years at the offensive line position. Brendon LaBatte, Dan Clark and Phillip Blake are the veterans of the interior, but any of the three could be pushed by 2018 first round pick Dakoda Shepley or, depending on his health, Dariusz Bladek as he returns from injury.

BREAKOUT RADAR

Still just 23, KD Cannon has speed to burn after running a 4.42 in the 40-yard dash coming out of college. Zach Collaros has the arm to attack vertically and could use Cannon’s ability to stretch the field along with other speed threats in Marcus Thigpen and Kyran Moore. On the defensive side of the ball, 24-year-old Chad Geter is trying to win a job at defensive end following Willie Jefferson‘s exit.


 

Andrew Harris, 32, is coming off arguably the best season of his prolific career (Adam Gagnon/CFL.ca)

The Bombers made strides again in 2018 with a trip to the Western Final. Is this the year they end their Grey Cup drought?

OVERVIEW

With a two-day rookie camp in the books, newly-named IG Field will be the site as the Bombers open up camp on Sunday in Winnipeg. Quarterbacks Matt Nichols and Chris Streveler, mostly observers throughout the week, will join the rest of the team on-field as 2019 officially gets under way.

The mercury continues to rise on the Bombers’ Grey Cup expectations, with the club coming off its first playoff victory since 2011 last season. Entering his sixth season in Winnipeg, Mike O’Shea is tied with Rick Campbell as the CFL’s longest current tenured head coach, leading a veteran core into what could be a defining year for the Blue and Gold.

Pre-season opens on May 31 when the Eskimos come to town, followed by the finale on June 6 with a short trip to Saskatchewan. On June 15 the Bombers will open their regular season on the road against Mike Reilly and the BC Lions.

3 THINGS TO WATCH

Secondary school

The Bombers lost several key members of their defence, with the biggest impact in the secondary. Three-time CFL All-Star Taylor Loffler will be replaced by Derek Jones, who GM Kyle Walters seems to be quite high on, but other spots need to be answered for as Kevin Fogg and Chris Randle will also play elsewhere in 2019.

With young starters Marcus Sayles and Brandon Alexander already locked in, Winston Rose and Chris Humes will try to lock up the other openings. With Jovan Santos-Knox‘s old spot at linebacker also open, it promises to be a competitive camp for the Bombers’ defence.

Strong man competition

One of the biggest position battles across the country this spring will be on the Bombers’ O-line, where the team is trying to replace departed Canadians Matthias Goossen (retired) and Sukh Chungh (signed with BC). Head Coach Mike O’Shea has plenty of options, with Geoff Gray arriving from the NFL and Drew Desjarlais being picked in the first round.

Michael Couture seems to have the inside track at centre, while there’s no guarantee Patrick Neufeld locks down the left guard position. Either way, if you add Cody Speller into the mix, there are about five players vying for three starting positions on the Bomber offensive line. Let the battle begin.

Youth movement?

An aging core that includes Andrew Harris and Matt Nichols, both 32 years old, hints at the potential closing of the Bombers’ competitive window. Teams can prepare for that though, and the Winnipeg front office seems to have done just that, building a pipeline of intriguing young talent that should one day be ready to start — all 24 and under.

The ultra-athletic Chris Streveler has asserted himself as Nichols’ protege behind centre, while 2019 second round draft pick and Winnipeg native Brady Oliveira will have plenty of time to develop behind Harris in the offensive backfield. No less impressive is the trio of Canadian receivers in Daniel Petermann, Rashaun Simonise and current starter Drew Wolitarsky.

TOP POSITION BATTLE

After talking at length about the O-line, another position battle that could intensify in Winnipeg is at receiver. While Chris Matthews and Darvin Adams give the Bombers a solid one-two punch, there are plenty of openings behind them. Don’t rule out the possibility of three Canadian starters if one of Daniel Petermann or Rashaun Simonise can make strides in their second camp.

BREAKOUT RADAR

He’ll have to earn a job, but there’s a chance the Bombers had Chris Humes in mind when letting go of veteran corner Chris Randle this off-season. The six-foot, 200-pound defender, who’s just 24 years old, has the build of a boundary corner and made his first career start in last year’s regular season finale.


 

Brandon Banks look to return to form after a season-ending injury late last year (Adam Gagnon/CFL.ca)

In under two years June Jones built the CFL’s most exciting offence. Will the Ticats be successful without him?

OVERVIEW

It’s a changing of the guard in Hamilton, where new head coach Orlondo Steinauer and offensive coordinator Tommy Condell lead the Ticats onto the field at McMaster’s Ron Joyce Stadium for the official start of training camp on Sunday.

Despite winning just eight games in 2018, the Ticats have generated a ton of hype this off-season thanks to a league-leading offence and some key additions on defence. On the 20th anniversary of their last Grey Cup win, there’s reason to believe the Ticats could be competing in late November.

The Ticats open their pre-season slate on June 1 in the nation’s capital before returning home on June 6 for a date with the rival Argos. They’ll remain in Hamilton for the June 13 season opener, when a familiar face in Zach Collaros comes to town with the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

3 THINGS TO WATCH

Going through changes

For a team defined by roster continuity, things could look a lot different when the Ticats take the field on Sunday. With June Jones and Jerry Glanville heading south, a trio of new coaches leads the Tabbies into 2019 in Orlondo Steinauer (head coach), Mark Washington (defensive coordinator) and Tommy Condell (offensive coordinator).

All three coaches have compiled impressive CFL resumes, while Steinauer is preparing for his first career head coaching job after biding his time with the Argos, Ticats and NCAA Fresno State Bulldogs. The new-look staff will try to build on the team’s recent success, including a top-ranked offence and third-ranked defence in 2018.

Ratio busters

There could be some head-scratching over the ratio this camp, as the Ticats have a number of options when it comes to their seven Canadian starters. O-linemen Darius Ciraco, Mike Filer and Brandon Revenberg are virtual certainties to start on offence along with receiver Mike Jones. On defence Ted Laurent is one of the CFL’s top defensive tackles, while the safety position will also be Canadian whether it’s Mike Daly or Tunde Adeleke.

Outside of that, though, the Ticats have options. Defensive end has traditionally been a Canadian position and could be filled by Jamaal Westerman or Connor McGough this season. There have also been whispers about the SAM linebacker position, where either Jackson Bennett or the versatile Adeleke could push Rico Murray for a starting job.

The real X-factor could be at running back, where the team shocked the league by releasing Alex Green before camp. While American Cam Marshall could fit the position, starting either Sean Thomas-Erlington or recent draft pick Maleek Irons might give the Tabbies a chance to start an extra American at receiver. In any case it’s a good problem to have.

MOP watch

Sunday marks the start of a big season for Jeremiah Masoli, who will have to build on his 2018 campaign in order for the Ticats to be successful. The departure of June Jones presents Masoli’s first big challenge as a starter, but the 30-year-old has an abundance of talent around him even after the club released Alex Green and receiver Jalen Saunders.

There were some ups and downs, but Masoli had an impressive first season as a starter, leading all quarterbacks in yards per attempt (9.1) and rushing average (7.5) while guiding the CFL’s top-ranked offence. He’s knocking on the door of the CFL’s elite, including the likes of Mike Reilly and Bo Levi Mitchell.

TOP POSITION BATTLE

With Alex Green out the door, the battle at running back could be fierce this year for the Ticats. If they go Canadian, Thomas-Erlington’s experience likely gives him the upper hand over a rookie in Irons. With that said, a healthy Cameron Marshall could re-establish himself as a physical, downhill runner.

BREAKOUT RADAR

Bralon Addison already announced his presence last November with 24 catches in a three-game span. The sudden release of Jalen Saunders means the door is wide open for Addison to become one of Masoli’s most trusted targets, which could lead to gaudy numbers in 2019. Honourable mention goes to linebacker Lucas Wacha, who a number of people like on the defensive side of the ball.


 

James Franklin threw more interceptions (9) than touchdowns (8) in his first year with the Argos (Dominick Gravel/Montreal Alouettes)

Ricky Ray‘s retirement leaves big shoes to fill. Will James Franklin become the star many once envisioned?

OVERVIEW

There will be one notable absence when the Argos open camp on Sunday at York University, as the CFL’s fourth all-time leading passer in Ricky Ray won’t be present for the first time in eight seasons.

Recent history has proven that it is possible to go from chumps to champs in the three-down game, after the Argos accomplished the task with a stunning Grey Cup Championship in 2017. They find themselves in that same boat again this season, as Corey Chamblin and James Franklin look to navigate a new-look roster hoping to make a splash.

The pre-season starts with a rare 11 a.m. start time on May 30 against Montreal, followed by one last dress rehearsal on June 6 in Hamilton. After that, the Boatmen have the first week of the regular season off to prepare for their home opener against the Ticats on June 22.

3 THINGS TO WATCH

Welcome back

After dismissing Marc Trestman, hiring Corey Chamblin was easily the most logical solution for the Argos. Chamblin’s defence played an unheralded role in the team’s Grey Cup run in 2017, and now the former coordinator is back as the head coach.

Still just 41, Chamblin brings new energy to an Argos team that finished last in the CFL with four wins in 2018. He’s popular with his players, and already has experience as a head coach after winning a Grey Cup with the Riders in 2013. Head coaches often fare better in their second go round, setting up a good situation for Chamblin and the Argos.

No controversy here

There may be some buzz over the Argos’ quarterback depth chart this training camp, but the starting job is James Franklin‘s to lose. No single player will have a bigger impact on the team’s success this season, as the 27-year-old looks to make good on his former billing as the league’s top quarterback prospect.

Argos general manager Jim Popp has shown a good deal of confidence in Franklin, while Franklin’s rapport with former Eskimos teammate Derel Walker can’t hurt either. With the backing of an improved defence, better quarterback play could help the Argos compete for an East Division title in 2019.

O-line shakeup

It looked like the Argos would start four Canadians on the O-line before releasing 35-year-old tackle Chris Van Zeyl on Saturday. Perhaps first overall pick Shane Richards could fit into that role eventually, but the move indicates the Argos could tinker with their ratio and go American at both tackle positions.

This could also impact the receiver position, where another Canadian might make a push to get into the starting lineup. In addition to Anthony Coombs, Llevi Noel and recently-signed Regis Cibasu are nationals looking for a bigger role in the receiving corps. It’s no surprise the Argos are trying to get younger on the O-line, and it’ll be interesting to see how they juggle their roster as a result.

TOP POSITION BATTLE

The Argos’ secondary will be a contentious spot in training camp as veterans Abdul Kanneh, Kevin Fogg and Qudarius Ford battle for spots with up-and-comers Trumaine Washington and Will Likely. If we have to narrow it down though, the middle linebacker spot just got a whole lot more interesting following the release of Bear Woods. Chamblin’s first Toronto camp will be a competitive one.

BREAKOUT RADAR

Trumaine Washington stood out often during his rookie season and will look to track down a starting job in camp. If he does, the 5-foot-8, 190-pound defender could make plenty of plays in Corey Chamblin’s pressure-packed defence. He’s 24 years old and has a bright future ahead of him.


 

RJ Harris is one of the new, young faces of a different looking REDBLACKS offence (CFL.ca)

Marcel Desjardins isn’t calling it a rebuild. Can the REDBLACKS still contend after an off-season of losses?

OVERVIEW

The REDBLACKS took full advantage of their rookie camp window this week, inviting quarterbacks and first-year players to participate all three days at TD Place. The rest of the team reports Saturday before joining them on the field Sunday in the nation’s capital.

It’s been a difficult winter for Ottawa fans, who could only look on as a number of core offensive players departed in free agency along with the team’s offensive coordinator in Jaime Elizondo. In the wake of another Grey Cup appearance, though, Marcel Desjardins isn’t panicking, as the REDBLACKS’ general manager looks to overcome his losses and get the team in position to compete for a fourth East Division title in five years.

The pre-season opens on the first day of June when the Ticats come to town, followed by the finale on June 6 in Montreal. After that it’s a trip to Calgary for the regular season opener on June 15 vs. the Stamps.

3 THINGS TO WATCH

Transition period

It’s not often you lose your quarterback, top two receivers, running back and left tackle in the span of a single off-season. Oh, and to top it all off, your offensive coordinator leaves a month before training camp. That’s what the REDBLACKS are up against, but they aren’t making any excuses as they try to defend their East Division title.

Even the most optimistic may need to be patient this season, at least out of the gate. While Jonathon Jennings and Dominique Davis battle to be the starting quarterbacks, both will be trying to learn in a new system while also jiving with different receivers. There’s talent here, but how quickly can it click?

Comeback story

About three years removed from being the CFL’s shining, up-and-coming star, Jonathon Jennings hopes to write a new script with the REDBLACKS this season. The 26-year-old could benefit from the change of scenery, and if so, the potential is easy to get excited about.

Jennings averaged an incredible 9.4 yards per attempt his first two years in the league, including 5,226 passing yards in 2016 alone. He can make plays with his legs, but his arm is capable of making any throw on the field. Jennings’ competition with veteran Dominique Davis will be one of the top storylines in training camp across the CFL.

Strength in numbers

A year after adding Mark Korte fourth overall, the REDBLACKS bolstered their offensive line yet again this off-season with Philippe Gagnon, a former second overall pick, and this year’s first round pick Alex Fontana. You almost want to say they have too many good Canadian offensive linemen, but when has that ever been a problem?

Desjardins has drafted Canadian offensive linemen religiously, taking that route in the first round all but once since 2013. And it’s clearly paying off, as the REDBLACKS have appeared in three of the last four Grey Cups, with the O-line deserving some of the credit.

TOP POSITION BATTLE

Camp will be competitive for the REDBLACKS’ entire offence, but we return to the quarterback position, where Davis and Jennings are set to go head to head. Many assumed Jennings would be the starter after signing in free agency, but Rick Campbell has gone on record saying Davis will get every opportunity. Pre-season games on June 1 and June 6 will be massive.

BREAKOUT RADAR

It’s a make or break year for perennial breakout candidate Dominique Rhymes, who had his first career 100-yard game last November vs. Toronto. The 25-year-old is a favourite to win a starting role, as the REDBLACKS look for playmakers following the losses of Greg Ellingson and Diontae Spencer. Rhymes and RJ Harris could be top targets in Ottawa’s offence this season.


 

Antonio Pipkin leads what appears to be a wide open quarterback competition (Dominick Gravel/Montreal Alouettes)

Despite a deeper roster, the same question lingers in Montreal. Have the Als finally found the answer at quarterback?

OVERVIEW

The Alouettes will be on their their home turf for this year’s training camp, which begins on Sunday at Percival Molson Memorial Stadium following a three-day camp for first-year players and quarterbacks.

Montreal’s roster is the deepest its been under General Manager Kavis Reed, with the club adding marquee free agents in receiver DeVier Posey and nationals Taylor Loffler, Bo Lokombo and Spencer Wilson. Still, the focus remains almost entirely on the quarterback position, where 23-year-old Antonio Pipkin looks to lock down a starting job and help the Alouettes bounce back from a five-win season.

Pre-season starts bright and early for the Alouettes, with an 11 a.m. kickoff time in Toronto on May 30, before returning home to face Ottawa on June 6. After wrapping up pre-season, the Als open their 2019 campaign on the road against the new-look Edmonton Eskimos on June 14.

3 THINGS TO WATCH

Pipkin’s job to lose

In a wide open competition, Antonio Pipkin looks to be the favourite to win the Alouettes’ starting quarterback job, if ever so slightly. Some were enamoured with the 23-year-old last season when he stepped in for Johnny Manziel and dazzled with his legs and his arm. However the sophomore struggled at times too, throwing eight interceptions in the span of four starts.

Pipkin has to come to camp and show consistency in his third CFL season, otherwise the door will be wide open for one of Matthew Shiltz, Jeff Mathews or former top prospect Vernon Adams Jr. to walk in and take the No. 1 job.

No time for patience

Of course no one will complain if the Alouettes’ defence becomes a juggernaut by the final third of the season. But new coordinator Bob Slowik has a tough task ahead of him, taking on his first CFL job after years out of football. That could cause the Alouettes headaches early in 2019.

Despite a strong finish last year, the Alouettes’ season was virtually lost after a slow start on both sides of the ball resulted in a 1-8 record at the halfway point. If this is the year the Als get over the hump, their defence has to gel quickly and perhaps even steal a game or two.

Line workers

You don’t see many playoff teams giving up 50-plus sacks. The Alouettes allowed 66 last season, as inexperienced quarterbacks and poor offensive line play put the offence in a bind every week. That unit should see a lot of improvement this year, as free agent signing Spencer Wilson adds depth to one of the CFL’s youngest offensive lines.

To Kavis Reed’s credit, he inherited one of the league’s oldest five-man units and has added top draft picks like Tyler Johnstone and Trey Rutherford. If those two can become good every down starters, the Alouettes’ fortunes could change quickly.

TOP POSITION BATTLE

We return to the quarterback position, and a question that’s gone unanswered since Anthony Calvillo retired in 2013. Could Antonio Pipkin become the Alouettes’ franchise quarterback? That’ll be the pressing question in camp as a young, talented pivot looks to turn fleeting flashes of brilliance into consistent productivity.

BREAKOUT RADAR

Despite losing the second overall draft pick in this year’s draft, no one is questioning the team’s decision to take Tyler Johnstone as a supplemental selection in 2018. Johnstone has the chance to be a franchise tackle for the Als, giving them a rare ratio-breaker at the position. This year will be an important year for the Oregon Ducks product.