TORONTO — From highly-anticipated debuts to competitive position battles, there are plenty of storylines to report after training camps opened across the country on Sunday.
So while many Canadians enjoy the first long weekend of the summer, the third weekend in May is always a busy time for players and coaching staffs in the Canadian Football League.
On one hand it’s merely a single step on a six-month marathon from May through November, but the first day of camp can be sentimental for players new and old.
“Being able to run here and seeing the new faces, this is where it all started for me, where I got my name,” said Bombers receiver Chris Matthews. “It’s amazing.”
After leaving Winnipeg for the NFL in 2014, Matthews’ career has gone full circle, returning to the site where he was named CFL Most Outstanding Rookie nearly seven seasons ago.
“I knew I was going to come back here because this was where it all started. I feel like I had the most fun here.”
In Vancouver, the BC Lions are barely recognizable after a busy off-season that saw the club recruit new head coach DeVone Claybrooks, receiver Duron Carter and, arguably the biggest free agent signing in two decades, quarterback Mike Reilly.
But while many showed up to see No. 13 spin the ball, another key player making his debut is former NFL offensive lineman and CFL draft pick Brett Boyko, who could offer up plenty of protection for the team’s prized signing.
“I know I’m not coming here and that they’re just going to put me in,” Boyko told BCLions.com. “I’ve got to prove that I can play and I’m going to accept that challenge. I want to be the best football player I can be to help the BC Lions any way I can.”
After Sunday’s session, Boyko talked about the comparisons between two franchise quarterbacks in Reilly and LA Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers.
“First and foremost, they’re unbelievable leaders,” explained Boyko. “You know it’s funny, I told my brother this two years ago — ‘if I ever go to the CFL, I’d love to block for Mike Reilly. That’s the guy’.
“It’s day one so I haven’t been around him a ton, but just meeting him and the kind of guy he is, he’s just an outstanding leader.”
The Lions could have another new face joining them soon in Canadian linebacker and Vancouver native Adam Konar, who has reportedly signed with the club after being released by Edmonton.
Just over the Canadian Rockies was the team getting used to life without Reilly. Trevor Harris, Greg Ellingson, SirVincent Rogers and Jason Maas are all quite familiar with one another from their time in Ottawa, but not for Eskimos fans, who got their first look at the team’s new offensive core.
Ellingson followed Harris to Edmonton in free agency as the two look to pick up where they left off. Yet on the first day of camp, it was a different receiver Harris couldn’t stop talking about: DaVaris Daniels.
“I’ve seen him play for a long time,” Harris said of the former Stampeder. “I’ve seen him win rookie of the year, make unbelievable catches. He checks every box as a receiver.
“I’m excited to throw to him and I’ve got some lofty expectations and goals for DaVaris this year . . . he’ll be one of those guys that rises up and you say ‘woah, DaVaris Daniels is a 1,300, 1,400-yard receiver’.
“Hopefully we can get him involved in the offence heavily and stay healthy, I think he’s the kind of guy with that capability.”
While the Lions and Eskimos, ranked fourth and fifth respectively in the West last season, are looking for better results, the defending Grey Cup Champions also have plenty to prove after significant turnover.
The Stamps lost nearly two-thirds of their starting defence along with their coordinator in Claybrooks, making for a competitive camp on that side of the ball. With the secondary, linebacking core and defensive line each having at least two starting jobs up for grabs, Head Coach Dave Dickenson isn’t dwelling on the ratio.
“Instead of looking at it as ‘this is going to be Canadian, that’s going to be American’, just go win the job, and if you do you’re going to be playing,” said Dickenson. “What we’re basically trying to say is ‘go win the job’, and that’s multiple spots.”
Dickenson wouldn’t rule out the possibility of starting two Canadians at defensive tackle following the departure of Micah Johnson. Junior Turner, Ese Mrabure and Derek Wiggan are all in the running along with Mike Rose.
The Stamps announced early in the day that the team has released running back and returner Romar Morris, who hasn’t yet healed from a season-ending Achilles injury last November. He’s still rehabbing with the team however and could one day return.
In Saskatchewan, another Dickenson is setting the table for what could be a memorable season. Craig Dickenson replaces Chris Jones as the Riders’ head coach and is gearing up for his first training camp on the job after serving as the team’s special teams coordinator.
“This is my first crack at it,” said Dickenson. “I’m going to try to push these guys. The balancing act is how far do you push them before the point where you start losing guys. When I see the group start to slow, I’m either going to push them if they need it or I’m going to pull back.”
It was hard to miss Micah Johnson debuting on the defensive side of the ball, while veteran running back William Powell and injured receiver Emmanuel Arceneaux are welcome additions to the offence. The latter, who tore his ACL back in late August, looks to be well ahead of schedule, even making a highlight-reel catch.
“That was good to see him out there moving around,” said Dickenson. “These guys are pretty amazing humans, they can heal up quickly. It was good to see him out there, but our philosophy is always going to be to take it slow with guys coming off injuries, make sure that when they’re out there they’re 100 per cent.”
While recently-signed linebacker Solomon Elimimian was not available on Sunday, the Riders are hoping some new veteran leadership, along with a year of continuity with returning quarterback Zach Collaros, will make them a much improved team in 2019.
“If there’s one thing everyone knows about Manny it’s how hard of a worker he is,” said Collaros. “I’m not surprised to see him out here running around already, it’s just a testament to him and his work ethic.
“He’s going to bring a lot to the locker-room, a lot to that receiver room and a lot to the offence in general just from his leadership so I’m excited to be his teammate and excited to have him here.”
Dickenson also announced that Dan Cark, who was in a car accident a couple of weeks ago, is around the team and close to returning, while first round draft pick Justin McInnis is working his way in slowly. Second round pick Brayden Lenius left practice after injuring his hamstring.
In Winnipeg, Bombers fans are ecstatic to have just landed a legitimate complement to Darvin Adams at receiver in the physical Chris Matthews. Matthews, who turns 30 in October, noted that the culture has changed since he left in 2014, hinting towards great things in 2019.
On the other side of the ball, just as impactful should be defensive end Willie Jefferson, who gives the Bombers one of the best defensive lines on paper opposite Jackson Jeffcoat.
“That’s been on my mind since I signed here over the off-season,” Jefferson said of the team’s new-look pass rush. “It’s going to be fun, it’s going to be fast, it’s going to be physical and it’s going to be tough. That’s what we want to bring to the table from the beginning of the year, just to be a tough front line.”
The Bombers’ O-line will also be a point of emphasis in camp, as the team opened Sunday with Geoff Gray at right guard and Michael Couture at centre. Lucky Whitehead and Charles Nelson are competing to be the team’s primary kick returner and both have speed to burn.
At receiver, the team has placed Kenbrell Thompkins on the suspended list after he failed to report to camp.
Shifting to the East, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats are the favourite to win the division on paper. But first-time head coach Orlondo Steinauer was keeping his team grounded on Sunday, as he assembles a new-look coaching staff that also includes offensive coordinator Tommy Condell and defensive coordinator Mark Washington.
Long-time foe Chris Van Zeyl, who spent 11 seasons with the hated Toronto Argonauts, has suddenly become a friend in Hamilton, signing a two-year deal with the club and taking first-team reps at right tackle. If Van Zeyl starts he’ll provide immediate ratio flexibility as a fourth Canadian starter up front.
“You never know how things are going to fall,” said Steinauer. “Chris Van Zeyl should be a nice addition. He’s been there, he’s a champion. His play speaks for itself.”
Speaking of ratio flexibility, versatile defender Jackson Bennett, the team’s second round draft pick in 2018, appears to have switched sides on the depth chart, joining the offensive backfield as a running back. Bennett makes up a trio of Canadian running backs that also includes returning Sean Thomas-Erlington and 2019 draft pick Maleek Irons.
“We just kind of looked more at what was his best chance to contribute,” said Steinauer. “We felt he had a better chance on paper heading into training camp on offence. We haven’t had in-depth conversations about the ratio. We just want to see how people come out of camp healthy. We definitely have ratio flexibility so we’re looking at all options right now.”
Just up the QEW the Argos are also beginning a new era, as Head Coach Corey Chamblin begins his second head coaching job at 41 years old. Training camp will bring plenty of competition after the team released veterans Chris Van Zeyl and Bear Woods, but the biggest competition might just be at kicker where two more additions arrived in Donald De La Haye and Canadian Tyler Crapigna.
James Franklin, who’s looking to assert himself at the top of the Argos’ depth chart this camp, wore his new No. 8 for the first time, but had a familiar new connection at receiver in former Eskimos teammate Derel Walker.
While the Argos hope that a new-look defence can lead them to the top of the East, the inverse is true in Ottawa where the REDBLACKS were decimated this off-season. Trevor Harris, Greg Ellingson, Diontae Spencer, William Powell and SirVincent Rogers are no longer with the club, while the departure of offensive coordinator Jaime Elizondo leaves a lot to figure out in the nation’s capital.
“It’s an open competition between Dominique and Jonathon,” said Head Coach Campbell. “You probably noticed Dominique was going first today, we’re going to flip this tomorrow, they already knew this ahead of time.
“The only rule we’re following is what gives us the best chance to win,” he added. “I don’t mind it. Sometimes it can be more comfortable if you know who the guy is, but any competition at any position tends to have people rise up. Both these guys have gone through a rookie camp, they’re both very capable guys and I’m excited to see what happens.”
The first day of training camp always brings surprises, and on Sunday the biggest may have come from furthest east. The Montreal Alouettes made a series of roster moves as they took the field at Percival Molson Memorial Stadium, most notably dropping veteran receiver Ernest Jackson.
Montreal hosts one of the biggest camp battles across the country this spring, as 23-year-old Antonio Pipkin tries to hold down the top quarterback job on a busy depth chart that also includes Vernon Adams Jr., Jeff Mathews and Matthew Shiltz.
It was an exciting day of football across the country, and the journey continues on Tuesday. There’s little time to waste as the pre-season schedule begins on Sunday, May 26 when the Lions head to Edmonton for a clash with the Eskimos.