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June 12, 2019

Division of the Unknown: New stars will be born in CFL East this year

The Canadian Press

There is one clear-cut contender.

There are three rebuilding teams with big, big questions at quarterback.

It’s the CFL East, in 2019. One’s a safe bet and the others are all “we’ll see.”


OTTAWA REDBLACKS
2018 Record: 11-7

The REDBLACKS are now Dominique Davis‘s team and the young starter has every opportunity in the world to silence those who have already counted Ottawa out of Grey Cup contention (CFL.ca).

There may not be another team in the CFL that suffered the same depth of free agent bleeding and the Ottawa REDBLACKS are a bit of a mysterious lot heading into the season because of that.

It is on offence, in particular, where they felt the deepest gash, with star quarterback Trevor Harris moving his act out west to the Edmonton Eskimos, taking left tackle SirVincent Rogers and clutch receiver Greg Ellingson along with him.

That offence is now in the hands of a man who has so far been a career backup, Dominique Davis, named by Head Coach Rick Campbell as the starter for their Week 1 game versus the Calgary Stampeders.

After being released by Calgary in 2015, then serving as an understudy in Winnipeg for two years before backing up Harris last year, Davis gets the chance to show he can be QB1 in the CFL. He’s won the training camp battle for the designation, but free agent Jonathon Jennings is right behind him, once a starter himself and trying to reclaim that status after things went sideways for him with the B.C Lions.

Besides moving on from Harris – who proved that a long period as back-up does not mean you can’t be a starter – this Ottawa offence is a far cry from what it was a year ago, at least on paper.

William Powell, second in the league in rushing in both 2017 and 2018, signed in Saskatchewan and that means 31-year-old Mossis Madu is the main man to start the season. Behind him, an intriguing possibility in the form of 27-year-old John Crockett, who, in 2014, rushed for 1,994 yards in a sixteen game season for North Dakota State. Crockett was put on the practice reserve when final rosters were trimmed over the weekend, but do not expect him to remain on PR for very long.

With Ellingson gone, and Diontae Spencer now a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Ottawa receiving corps has lost two very important members and will need a few good men to step up. 2018 CFL all-star Brad Sinopoli is back and he will feel defensive clamps all over him unless the likes of free agent signings Caleb Holley and Ryan Lankford or incumbents R.J. Harris and Dominique Rhymes can step up. Young Canadian receiver Jacob Scarfone could be in the mix, after a nice effort against the Alouettes in last week’s pre-season capper.

Ottawa’s secondary is an experienced one, with veterans like free safety Antoine Pruneau and halfbacks Corey Tindal and Sherrod Baltimore on the roster. Corner Jonathan Rose was a CFL East all-star in 2018, and veteran Chris Randle, released by the Winnipeg Blue Bombers after five standout seasons in blue and gold, is a terrific add to that defensive backfield.

There is veteran presence up front on the defensive line, too, although A.C. Leonard, a CFL East all-star in 2018, has joined the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Still, holdovers like Danny Mason, Michael Klassen, Ettore Lattanzio, Michael Klassen and Mike Wakefield remain, along with Jonathan Newsome, who actually saw some time at middle linebacker during the pre-season.

Kevin Brown anchors the linebacking unit, with a versatility and nose for the ball that would make him a key contributor on any team, and the REDBLACKS have second-year men in Avery Williams and Anthony Cioffi at middle linebacker and strong side linebacker, respectively, so there is quality and continuity there. Both Williams and Cioffi enjoyed emergent rookie seasons in 2018.

QUESTION: Can a bulldozing, all Canadian offensive line, coupled with a strong run game give the Ottawa offence the edge it needs in a season of transition?

OUTLOOK: *shrugs shoulders* It remains to be seen whether Ottawa’s offence has the quarterback it needs, but a defence full of veterans means coordinator Noel Thorpe should have a more than decent unit.


HAMILTON TIGER-CATS
2018 Record: 8-10

Brandon Banks was destroying opposing offences last year before he injured his collar bone in the final weeks of the regular season. How will he respond with a Hamilton squad that is the easy favourite to take the division (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)?

Finally, the time is here. The head-coach-in-waiting that everybody expected to see in charge of a team for the last few years, Orlondo Steinauer, is now getting that chance as top man with the Ticats.

Whether Hamilton misses former head coach June Jones – the man who rescued everybody on the scene when the 2017 season had begun with an eight game losing streak – remains to be determined. At any rate, they have the pieces of Jones’ run-and-shoot offence in place, with a veteran group that knows how to use it. And since Steinauer is widely regarded as one of the brightest defensive minds in the game, things seem secure.

Let’s start with the offence, one that seemed to move the ball with relative ease often in 2018.

The Ticats have 2018 Eastern MOP nominee Jeremiah Masoli back at quarterback, and an even better offensive line in front of him, with a plethora of receiving targets to choose from.

Masoli, you would expect, will pick up right where he left off in 2018, when he passed for 5,209 yards and 28 touchdowns, while breaking the hearts of pass rushers with his Houdini escape act time and time again.

The 30-year-old is now a bona fide star quarterback, and there will be great expectations placed upon him in 2019.

In returning receivers Luke Tasker and Brandon Banks, Masoli has two of the best in the CFL to look for when he drops back. Bralon Addison, who saw limited but impressive action late in the 2018 campaign, will be expected to step up, after the Ticats released Jalen Saunders, an 1,100 yard man in 2017 who was on track to equal or better that last year when he had his season ended early by a knee injury. Fourth-year Canadian receiver Mike Jones will be expected to pull his weight, too.

While targeting pass-catchers, Masoli should have improved protection up front, where veteran Chris Van Zeyl – released by the Toronto Argonauts on the eve of training camp – has been brought in to man the right tackle position.

Interestingly, Hamilton will have a new look in the offensive backfield, where Canadian Sean Thomas Erlington has been promoted to the number one tailback position. He’ll get the bulk of the early ball-carrying looks, according to Steinauer.

Defensively, the Ticats lost big in free agency, at the linebacking positions, where both middle man Larry Dean and strong side linebacker Don Unamba (a CFL all-star in 2018) signed with Edmonton. However, they won pretty big in free agency as well, with replacements. Rico Murray left Ottawa to head back to the Hammer while former Argo Justin Tuggle was signed to play the middle. And there’s always the ever-present Simoni Lawrence remaining at weak side.

The secondary is air tight, on paper, anyway. Led by everybody’s first pick at shutdown corner, Delvin Breaux, it’s one of the best in the entire CFL. There is anticipation as former Calgary Stampeder free safety Tunde Adeleke joins the group, perhaps poised to become the next great Canadian defender at the position. With veterans Richard Leonard and Cariel Brooks at half, the seams holding this unit together are tight.

Up front, nose tackle Ted Laurent remains. When they get free agent signee Dylan Wynn in there beside him? Look out. Adding plum free agent defensive end Ja’Gared Davis makes the Hamilton line – already with Adrian Tracy at the other end – a fearsome foursome indeed.

QUESTION: Did the Ticats make the right decision in releasing running back Alex Green?

OUTLOOK: With their three stablemate teams all looking like far from sure bets heading into the season, the division appears to be there for the taking for the 2019 Hamilton Tiger-Cats.


MONTREAL ALOUETTES
2018 Record: 5-13

It’s been less than a week since Khari Jones was appointed to the head coaching role in Montreal. Can he and the Alouettes prove the doubters wrong? Time will tell.

Stability has not been a hallmark of the once mighty Alouettes, and they enter the season bouncing along in more turbulence, after the dismissal of Head Coach Mike Sherman just after the pre-season came to a close.

With Khari Jones stepping up from the role of offensive coordinator to take over from Sherman, perhaps the turbulence subsides but only if the Als show early promise under his guidance.

“It’s no secret we like to throw the ball and I’m hoping to stretch the field,” Jones said just after being named interim head coach. That’s not surprising, coming from a former quarterback and that’s good news for recently-named starter Antonio Pipkin, who enters his second season in Montreal after showing some promise – and a dash of fiery competitiveness – when given opportunities in 2018.

Pipkin is not a sure bet, however. If he fails to soar, Vernon Adams and Matthew Shiltz – unproven themselves – are in the wings awaiting another opportunity.

The Als have what looks like a pretty decent fleet of receivers to target as the season begins, with the addition of DeVier Posey being of notable interest. Posey’s a game-breaker, a Grey Cup MVP (2017) who should help loosen things up for the always dependable, underrated B.J. Cunningham. Much will be expected from third-year man Eugene Lewis, too, after an impressive sophomore season that saw him pull in 827 yards in receptions in a barely-moving offence. Ernest Jackson is now out of the offensive picture after two fairly miserable seasons in Montreal, so there is room for new blood in the corps and rookie Jake Wieneke might be the one.

Pass protection has been very problematic for the Als over the last couple of seasons. We’ll see if the addition of veteran free agent Spencer Wilson can help correct that.

At tailback, hard-running William Stanback is the choice, with veteran Jeremiah Johnson brought in to shore up the backfield scene.

Montreal’s defensive coordinator is new to the Canadian game, so there is some question as to just how good Bob Slowik will be in his first year. He has terrific talent to work with, beginning with veteran shutdown corners in Tommie Campbell and Ciante Evans.

2018 All-star free safety Taylor Loffler will anchor the deep middle, after three splendid seasons in Winnipeg. In front of him, at middle linebacker, is the very active Henoc Muamba, second in the league in tackles last season, with 108. The Als parted ways with breakout weak side linebacker (WILL) Chris Ackie via trade late last season, they have replaced him in very solid fashion, plucking former B.C Lion Bo Lokombo through free agency.

Up front, a little intrigue; The ageless John Bowman returns at end, and we’ll find out if the 36-year-old (37 in July) still has it in his 14th season as an Alouette. Certainly there can be no questioning his leadership and that will be important as Montreal is served by youth through the rest of the line, after the release of veteran Gabe Knapton.

QUESTION: The circumstances under which he has become the boss are less than perfect, yet here he is. Is Khari Jones ready to be a head coach?

OVERVIEW: *shrugs shoulders again, sheepish grin creases face* There is good talent on this roster but things will only go as well as the quarterbacking does, hand-in-glove with good offensive line play. If those things go smoothly, the Als will take steps forward. However, we’ve heard that before….

TORONTO ARGONAUTS
2018 Record: 4-14

Derel Walker headlines a long list of off-season acquisitions for the Argos and if his limited time in pre-season is any indication, he could completely alter the Toronto offence (Adam Kreuger/Argonauts.ca).

The yo-yos of the East will be looking to ascend once again. After a terrible 2016, the Argos hired a new coach and went all the way to a championship in 2017, before crashing all the way back into the basement in 2018.

The architect behind the hopes of an upswing will be the man who coordinated Toronto’s defence into championship calibre two years ago, before heading south for a season. Corey Chamblin is now the head coach and his team will mirror his personality, with a healthy dose of “go for it” expected to provide the subtext for Toronto’s 2019 campaign. There’s a bit of Don Matthews in Chamblin, – as there is in new Offensive Coordinator Jacques Chapdelaine – and it looks like it’ll show up this season.

Chamblin’s defence, personnel-wise, will be quite different from the crew he coached up to elite levels in 2017, though he’ll have a trio of veterans he can bank on from that Grey Cup run in defensive linemen Cleyon Laing and Shawn Lemon, as well as free safety Jermaine Gabriel.

Up front, former Calgary Stampeder Freddie Bishop and former Saskatchewan Roughrider Tobi Antigha will help Lemon bookend the pass rush, with the versatile Antigha being a particularly interesting add to the Argos’ roster, what with Chamblin’s predilection with moving defensive chess pieces around from time to time. Antigha should be right at home with that, having played for Chris Jones previously.

The linebacking trio is all new – sort of. Qdarius Ford was a rising star for Toronto when Chamblin was first there, cut down by season-ending injury in 2018. Looks like he’ll get the nod at SAM, with former B.C. Lion Micah Awe in the middle and former Blue Bomber Ian Wild at WILL.

Toronto’s secondary includes Gabriel and a slew of other vets, including corner Kevin Fogg, who takes his ballhawk (and kick return) abilities to Toronto from Winnipeg, via free agency. Abdul Kanneh, injury-plagued the last two years, hopes to return to the form he showed in Ottawa when he helped lead the REDBLACKS defence in a Grey Cup victory. Alden Darby, solid at SAM in 2018, drops back to one of the halfback spots this season.

As is the case with Montreal and Ottawa, the Argonauts have pivotal concerns and will go with James Franklin as their starter when they take the field for the first time in Week Two. There is hope that the offence that Chamblin and Chapdelaine are designing will be much better suited to the 27-year-old’s abilities. If not, journeyman McLeod Bethel-Thompson will get another look.

In a post Ricky Ray world, Argos quarterbacking has to be listed, at the present time, as questionable.

The addition of free agent receiver Derel Walker is, of course, huge, and the former Eskimo standout was breezing along during pre-season, loving the option route philosophies being employed by Chapdelaine. With S.J. Green and Armanti Edwards returning, the core of the Argo receiving unit looks good.

In the backfield, James Wilder Jr. will try to get back to the form he showed in 2017, winning Rookie Of The Year honours. He has a ton of company, with veterans Tyrell Sutton, Chris Rainey, Brandon Burks and Mercer Timmis all still on the roster at the time this preview was published.

The Argos hope Rainey still has gas in the tank when it comes to his skills as a returner, and when it comes to the kicking game, that’s suspect for the time being, with placekicker Drew Brown and punter Ronnie Pfeffer earning roster spots.

QUESTION: You already know the question. And it’s all about James Franklin.

OUTLOOK: *shrugs shoulders, palms to the sky, holds that position for what seems an eternity* Toronto’s defence was one of the worst in the CFL last year, last in many key categories. The same can be said for the offence. And the special teams. There’s talent and renewed hope with Chamblin at the helm but it is far from certain that the Boatmen will return to contending status in the East. There is potential for great improvement and pre-season did look bright for them.