May 28, 2019

Rutherford, Johnstone could define Alouettes’ rebuild

Dominick Gravel/Montreal Alouettes

The Alouettes’ rebuild rests on some pretty broad shoulders.

No, not Antonio Pipkin, or Vernon Adams, or any of the other quarterbacks that have lined up behind centre since Anthony Calvillo retired several years ago.

It almost goes without saying that quarterback play will impact the Alouettes’ hopes of a resurgence this season.

On the other hand, it takes more than one player to make a team. Just ask the 2018 Eskimos, who slumped through the second half of the season and missed the playoffs, even with a healthy Mike Reilly going over 5,500 passing yards for a third straight season.

There’s no denying it, the Alouettes must finally find an answer behind centre that’s eluded them for almost six seasons if they’re going to get back in the post-season.

Just as important, however, if the Als are to carry out a successful rebuild, is the offensive line. And who better to shoulder the load of such an undertaking?

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On a team without a first round pick until 2022, Trey Rutherford and Tyler Johnstone both need to become cornerstones of the Alouettes’ O-line sooner rather than later.

Once a proud CFL powerhouse that defined the early 2000s, the Als have gone a combined 21-51 (.292 pct.) over the last four seasons. They haven’t made the playoffs since 2014, and their last season above .500 was in 2012, when they won the East with an 11-7 record.

That’s the cyclical nature of sports — all good things come to an end. The Alouettes’ core got old, fast, and as quickly as we point behind centre, where No. 13 carved out a reputation as one of the greatest of all time, he wasn’t the only key figure that lost the battle to father time.

By the time Kavis Reed was named general manager after the 2016 season, Josh Bourke had already left in free agency, while Luc-Brodeur-Jourdain and Jeff Perrett were 33 and 32 years old, respectively.

While Kristian Matte and Philip Blake were still in their early 30s, the ‘next ones’, Philippe Gagnon and Jacob Ruby, tabbed by previous general manager Jim Popp with the team’s first round picks, couldn’t fill the voids on an otherwise aging O-line.

For Reed, there was no getting around it. The offensive line had to be rebuilt, a project for which existed no simple overnight fix.

Suddenly I’m reminded of the modern day Winnipeg Blue Bombers, who gave up a franchise-worst 70 sacks in 2014. Kyle Walters and Mike O’Shea had to start somewhere, firming up the O-line by drafting Matthias Goossen and Sukh Chungh with back to back second overall picks.

That’s not to say there weren’t other factors at work. Matt Nichols became the team’s franchise quarterback and hometown running back Andrew Harris signed in free agency, while the Bombers’ Canadian depth improved across the board.

In the end, though, a powerful O-line on the shoulders of two young Canadians played a key role in the team’s burgeoning success. Rushing yards were up, sacks were down. Byproducts of an O-line that became the envy of the league.

It’s a blueprint the Alouettes can follow, especially after allowing a league-worst 66 sacks last season. In reality, a revolving door of quarterbacks didn’t help matters, but the struggles of the O-line were beyond apparent when even Johnny Manziel, a noted escape artist, couldn’t quite flee the relentless siege allowed by the Alouettes’ front five.


One year can make a difference. Johnstone and Rutherford will be asked to become full-time starters. Free agent addition Spencer Wilson brings the experience of a Grey Cup champion. And Tony Washington, Kristian Matte and Luc Brodeur-Jourdain are all experienced starters in the three-down game.

Quietly, and optimistically, there’s a lot to like about the group Kavis Reed has assembled.

With Johnstone at tackle the Alouettes have one of the CFL’s true ratio-breakers. Chris Van Zeyl, who turns 36 in September, can’t play forever, meaning Montreal could one day have an advantage that is completely unique to the CFL.

In Rutherford, the Als have a 23-year-old guard they hope will lock down a starting job for the next decade

Coincidentally, like Goossen and Chungh in Winnipeg, both turned out to be second overall picks (the Als sacrificed their 2019 draft pick for Johnstone as a supplemental selection).

Behind the starting five awaits other young talent in Sean Jamieson (24), Samuel Thomassin (24) and Zach Wilkinson (26). Prospects that can develop at their own pace, without being rushed into action.

Yes, finding a franchise quarterback is a priority in Montreal. When and if that happens, though, whoever it ends up being will need an offensive line to keep him standing.

Calvillo had it for years, as we recall names like Bryan Chiu and Scott Flory, Perrett, Bourke and Brodeur-Jourdain, regarded as some of the best in the business.

The men up front often go anonymous, and they certainly don’t get the headlines. But if the Als are going to have success, Johnstone and Rutherford will have to be a really big part of it.