May 21, 2019

Position Battles: 15 to watch in training camp

Stampeders.com

TORONTO — Front offices spend months throughout the CFL off-season scouting and signing new players to set their team up for success.

Training camp, however, is when rosters are made, as players battle for starting roles and in many cases just for spots on the team.

Off-season depth charts are a fun way to get ready for the season, but things tend to change as late May becomes early June and the season approaches.

CFL.ca highlights just 15 of the many position battles to keep an eye on this training camp:

1. QUARTERBACK, OTTAWA

In the running: Dominique Davis, Jonathon Jennings

The favourite: Flip a coin

Don’t read too far into Dominique Davis getting the first-team reps when the REDBLACKS opened camp Monday, as Head Coach Rick Campbell called it merely a formality. Both pivots seem to be on equal footing as they fight for the right to open the season as the team’s starting quarterback.

The most contentious battle in training camp could even go well beyond June 15, when Ottawa opens the season in Calgary, as Jennings and Davis are both capable starters with equally interesting back stories — Jennings the former rising star and Davis a long-time backup who’s had to bide his time with three different teams.

Jonathon Jennings looks to resurrect his career after signing in the nation’s capital (Robert Greeley/Ottawa REDBLACKS)

2. QUARTERBACK, MONTREAL

In the running: Antonio Pipkin, Vernon Adams Jr., Jeff Mathews, Matthew Shiltz

The favourite: Antonio Pipkin

It’s been six years since Anthony Calvillo last played football and the Alouettes are still looking for a long-term answer behind centre. The Johnny Manziel era was short-lived in Montreal, but one positive to come out of 2018 was the play of Antonio Pipkin. Though the 23-year-old showed only brief flashes of excellence, the upside is fairly obvious.

Pipkin won’t be handed anything, however, and faces some interesting competition in camp. Vernon Adams Jr. was once a top CFL prospect and is one of the most athletic quarterbacks in the league, while Jeff Mathews and Matthew Shiltz are more traditional pocket passers that can lock in and find their receivers downfield.

3. LINEBACKER, CALGARY

In the running: Cory Greenwood, Riley Jones, Wynton McManis, Jerod Fernandez, Anthony Gore, Nate Holley, Dwayne Norman, Travis Wilson, Eric Mezzalira

The favourites: Wynton McManis, Cory Greenwood

Since winning the Grey Cup last November, the Stamps have lost roughly two thirds of their starting defence either to retirement or free agency. There’s competition all over, but the most intriguing could be at linebacker, where Alex Singleton and Jameer Thurman, both NFL-bound, leaving gaping holes.

Wynton McManis plays both linebacker positions and was a special teams ace in 2018, making him a near lock to start. The other spot is more interesting, as Riley Jones could push Cory Greenwood, who turns 34 this summer and has struggled with injuries in his career. With several other Americans also in camp, Dickenson has the option to go all-American at linebacker and shake up his ratio.

4. RUNNING BACK, HAMILTON

In the running: Cameron Marshall, Sean Thomas-Erlington, Jackson Bennett, Maleek Irons, Ray Lawry III, Martez Carter

The favourite: Cameron Marshall

It came as a shock when 2018 breakout running back Alex Green was released just before camp, but the Ticats do have options. Cameron Marshall looked strong and healthy at the end of last season with the Riders and would give the Ticats a power option, while Ray Lawry III and Martez Carter are rookies looking to make an impression.

The addition of Chris Van Zeyl makes it unlikely the Ticats go Canadian out of the gate, but Sean Thomas-Erlington, recently-converted Jackson Bennett and 2019 CFL Draft selection Maleek Irons will try to convince the team’s coaching staff otherwise.

The Ticats have moved former draft pick Jackson Bennett to running back in training camp (Robert Greeley/Ottawa REDBLACKS)

5. RECEIVER, EDMONTON

In the running: Bryce Bobo, Tevaun Smith, Natey Adjei, Kevin Elliott, Torrance Gibson, Kenny Stafford, Joshua Stangby

The favourites: It’s wide open

Assuming Greg Ellingson, Ricky Collins and DaVaris Daniels are locks to start, the rest of the Eskimos’ receiving corps becomes incredibly complicated. The Eskimos started two nationals at times last season and could do the same with Natey Adjei and former draft pick Tevaun Smith, who finally arrived from the NFL this off-season (veteran Anthony Parker is also in the equation).

Setting aside the ratio, the competition between American receivers could also get heated. After Kenny Shaw was released Sunday, veterans Kevin Elliott, Kenny Stafford and Josh Stangby may also be on the bubble as younger pass-catchers Torrance Gibson and Bryce Bobo make their push.

6. KICKER, TORONTO

In the running: Drew Brown, Zackary Medeiros, Ronnie Pfeffer, Tyer Crapigna, Donald De La Haye

The favourite: Tyler Crapigna

At a 74.4 per cent clip, the Argos were worst by a wide margin at kicking field goals in 2018. That’s not to say the Boatmen didn’t have their issues elsewhere last season, but place kicking will be an area of focus in training camp with a wide open kicking battle. Okay, maybe let’s avoid the word ‘wide’.

Incumbents Zack Medeiros and Ronnie Pfeffer are back along with American kicker Drew Brown, who was good on 10 of 11 attempts at the end of last season. Donald De La Haye, signed Sunday, is a YouTube sensation who can kick field goals blindfolded. But the favourite has to be Tyler Crapigna, the former Rider who lost his job to injury in 2018 despite being a career 86.4 per cent kicker.

7. INTERIOR OFFENSIVE LINE, WINNIPEG

In the running: Michael Couture, Geoff Gray, Cody Speller, Drew Desjarlais, Patrick Neufeld

The favourites: Michael Couture, Geoff Gray, Patrick Neufeld

It’s an all-out battle in the middle of the Bombers’ O-line after the team lost Matthias Goossen (retirement) and Sukh Chungh (BC) over the off-season. The team was well-equipped with recent draft picks Michael Couture and Geoff Gray waiting in the wings, while Patrick Neufeld has a good chance to start at left guard.

Still, the Bombers have options on the offensive line. First round pick Drew Desjarlais is considered a pro-ready prospect and, with a strong camp, would force Mike O’Shea and Paul LaPolice to make a difficult decision. Cody Speller is also in the mix, while the Bombers could opt to go American at one guard position as they’ve done in the past.

Mike O’Shea could have some difficult decisions to make on the Bombers’ O-line (BlueBombers.com)

8. RUNNING BACK, BC

In the running: John White, Brandon Rutley, Shaun Wick, Jamel Lyles, Wayne Moore

The favourite: John White

With a new-look offence featuring Mike Reilly and Duron Carter, running back has become somewhat of a forgotten position for the Lions as they take the field in Kamloops, B.C. While Tyrell Sutton and Jeremiah Johnson are out, John White was signed from Hamilton and looks to be the front-runner for the job.

Still, he faces some definite competition, as Brandon Rutley returns from a season-ending knee injury while Shaun Wick, still just 25 years old, looks to make an impression in his second camp with the Lions. Whoever ends up starting could have a very prosperous season in a high-scoring offence.

9. OFFENSIVE LINE, SASKATCHEWAN

In the running: Dariusz Bladek, Philip Blake, Thaddeus Coleman, Dakoda Shepley, Terran Vaughn, Takoby Cofield, E.J. Price

The favourites: It’s wide open

Aside from Dan Clark and Brendon LaBatte, who have likely locked up jobs, there’s room for interpretation on the Riders’ offensive line. Two American tackles are likely to start with Terran Vaughn, Thaddeus Coleman and Takoby Cofield in the mix, which would leave Dariusz Bladek, Philip Blake and Dakoda Shepley to battle for one remaining job.

Add in the notion that the Riders could potentially go four Canadians on the O-line — with Blake having played tackle in the past — and you have a complicated position battle as the Riders take the field in Saskatoon.

10. LINEBACKER, TORONTO

In the running: Justin Herdman-Reed, Akeem Jordan, Nelkas Kwemo, Ian Wild

The favourite: Akeem Jordan

The Argos made a pair of surprise cuts heading into camp, handing veterans Bear Woods and Chris Van Zeyl their walking papers. Some juggling on the O-line will ensue, but the real question mark is at linebacker where there’s suddenly a gaping hole.

Micah Awe’s versatility helps — the star off-season addition has both the MIKE and WILL linebacker positions on his resume — giving the Argos plenty of possible configurations for their linebackers. Despite his age, 33-year-old Akeem Jordan seems like a natural fit in the middle going into the season.

 

11. DEFENSIVE END, BC

In the running: Darius Allen, Matt Boesen, Meffy Koloamatangi, Vantrel McMillan, Ebenezer Ogundeko

The favourite: It’s wide open

Shawn Lemon filled an immediate need for the Lions last season, racking up 10 sacks in 13 games. That spot has opened again with Lemon’s departure to Toronto, setting up quite the potential melee opposite veteran Odell Willis.

Darius Allen, who also played in BC in 2016 before signing in Edmonton, has the most experience of the crew, but 23-year-old Ebenezer Ogundeko has drawn some attention entering training camp. It’s an important spot on a new-look defence as DeVone Claybrooks and Rich Stubler look for a definitive answer.

12. DEFENSIVE TACKLE, CALGARY

In the running: Derek Wiggan, Ese Mrabure, Mike Rose, Darnell Thompson, Junior Turner, Vincent Desjardins

The favourites: Derek Wiggan, Mike Rose

One of the most impactful defensive players in the CFL, Micah Johnson left a gaping hole when he signed with the Riders during the off-season. The Stamps seem to really like Mike Rose for the spot, but their national depth opens up a compelling case to start two Canadians at interior defensive tackle.

That would certainly be unique to the CFL, while it would also open up new possibilities elsewhere on the roster for Head Coach Dave Dickenson. While Derek Wiggan likely has one of the two spots locked up, Ese Mrabure, Junior Turner and recent draft pick Vincent Desjardins could all make a case to start.

 

13. LINEBACKER, WINNIPEG

In the running: Nick Temple, Dale Warren, Kyrie Wilson

The favourite: Kyrie Wilson

The addition of star pass-rusher Willie Jefferson gives the Bombers one of the most intimidating front-sevens across the CFL. There is one question mark, however, and that’s at WILL linebacker following the departure of Jovan Santos-Knox. Who will line up beside reigning Most Outstanding Defensive Player Adam Bighill?

Third-year Bomber Kyrie Wilson leads a relatively inexperienced bunch, as Dale Warren and Nick Temple are also Americans that will compete for the job. Wilson, 26, did record four defensive tackles and a sack in last year’s playoffs when Santos-Knox was injured.

14. RUNNING BACK, EDMONTON

In the running: C.J. Gable, Shaq Cooper, Jordan Robinson, Alex Taylor

The favourite: C.J. Gable

This one’s a bit of an outlier as Gable, a six-year veteran, is coming off the first 1,000-yard season of his career and is touted for his ability in the passing game. Esks head coach Jason Maas has leaned heavily on his veteran back when healthy and it could be more of the same in 2019.

On the other hand, Gable will be 32 in October and as we know, time is undefeated and running back is a young man’s position. Shaq Cooper, 26, and Jordan Robinson, 24, both flashed exciting potential last season and now have a year of experience under their belts. They could push for a job this spring.

15. OFFENSIVE LINE, OTTAWA

In the running: Philippe Gagnon, Evan Johnson, Mark Korte, Andrew Pickett, Alex Fontana

The favourite: Evan Johnson

There’s a lot up in the air in the nation’s capital, especially on offence where the team was decimated this off-season. If the REDBLACKS start Jason Lauzon-Seguin at right tackle, an American at left tackle and Alex Mateas and Nolan MacMillan on the inside, that leaves an open spot at guard for a handful of possible players.

Evan Johnson has the most experience of the bunch, but free agent addition Philippe Gagnon and internal draft picks Mark Korte and Alex Fontana were all picked in the first round and should be in the mix for playing time. A good problem to have if you’re Rick Campbell and Marcel Desjardins.