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May 18, 2021

O’Leary: Some would-be training camp thoughts

Geoff Robins/CFL.ca

Most years, mid to late May is a time that we feel like we’re coming out of football hibernation in Canada. CFL training camps are open across the country and fans begin to take stock of their teams and who might impact them for the coming season.

Of course, the pandemic has altered that twice now in the last 12 months. If you’ve followed the CFL long enough, though, this time of year is almost ingrained in you. The weather is turning for the better and you almost instinctively want to make your way to your team’s stadium or the university campus they’re holding camp at, stretch out in some normally tightly-packed seats and watch your team get to work.

Maybe the secondary instinct to that is to start thinking about your team and the additions that have been made and how the new faces are trying to mesh with the older, more familiar ones. Regardless of the scenario I find myself doing that at this time of year again, even if I’m confined to the comforts of a seat on my balcony, possibly fighting off blankets of midges.

Even if the football part of the equation isn’t happening yet, here are a few would-be training camp storylines I’m thinking about right now.

Dane Evans thrived in Jeremiah Masoli’s absence in 2019, taking the Ticats to the Grey Cup game in Calgary. With two star QBs on the roster in 2021, the team will try to find a balance for them both (Geoff Robins/CFL.ca)

HAMILTON

Things like a team-first mentality and mutual respect take some of the traditional elements out of what will happen when the Ticats hit the field this year and that’s fine. It’s a good thing, really, for the betterment of the entire Tiger-Cats organization that Jeremiah Masoli and Dane Evans are both back, both healthy and both ready to help their team lift the Grey Cup at the end of the season at Tim Hortons Field.

But from a competitive standpoint — and these two great quarterbacks will be doing that in training camp — there isn’t a better positional battle in the league than between Masoli and Evans.

While Evans’ resume is shorter, both have proven themselves as starters and after Masoli’s season-ending ACL injury in July of 2019, both played a significant part in the Ticats’ 15-3 run that included them being a perfect 10-0 at home. Evans is a young talent at the start of a brilliant CFL career. Masoli is in his prime and could put in an MOP-worthy campaign in 2021. Watching how the Ticats deploy this tandem will be fascinating. Watching what might be the friendliest training camp battle the league may have ever seen will be fun too.

Buck Pierce will get to put his signature on the Bombers’ offence in 2021, following some masterful work from former OC Paul LaPolice (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

WINNIPEG

The defending Grey Cup champions will march out much of the same roster that it walked off the field in Calgary in 2019, its 29-year Grey Cup drought finally over. But there’s a change in the team’s offence that should have eyes on it across the country when the Bombers take the field.

Longtime offensive coordinator Paul LaPolice — who inadvertently may have the answers for the Ticats’ questions above — took the head coaching gig in Ottawa last year. Buck Pierce, who has earned his stripes as the Bombers’ running backs coach and QBs coach the last six years in Winnipeg, after playing his heart as a Bomber from 2010 through 2013, slides in as offensive coordinator. It should be a smooth transition, but it’ll be an interesting one for two reasons.

First, LaPolice proved himself to be an outside-of-the-box thinker, a coordinator that crafted what I liked to call a QB centaur (Chris Streveler’s legs, Zach Collaros’ upper body) and got the most out of his roster at the perfect time. Second, that roster has changed somewhat. Streveler went to the NFL. The Bombers doubled down on Collaros, their trade deadline acquisition that led them to the Grey Cup and dealt Matt Nichols to Toronto…who eventually dealt him to Ottawa.

Will Pierce deploy a similar QB strategy in 2021? Third-stringer Sean McGuire would sit behind Collaros on the Bombers’ depth chart right now and the team has added Dalton Sneed and Dru Brown over the past year.

Quarterback is the most important position on the field, but you of course need more than that. The Bombers have a game-changing RB in Andrew Harris, who finished the 2019 season on top of the CFL mountain as Grey Cup MVP and Outstanding Canadian. The Bombers won’t need their defence to outright win them games, but their defence is good enough to outright win them games. They’ll remain a team to be feared.

OTTAWA

Speaking of LaPo, the veteran coach and TSN personality will reunite with Nichols with the REDBLACKS, as the team that became a Grey Cup regular over the last part of the decade looks to find its footing after a three-win campaign in 2019.

One of my favourite things about the CFL is a team’s ability to rebound. In other sports, a three-win season could mark the beginning of a long, painful stay in the cellar of a league. In the CFL, some roster work (read: acquiring a veteran quarterback) and a new head coach can throw a team right back into the mix the following season.

If you want man-on-a-mission vibes in training camp, watch Matt Nichols this year. He seems to feed off of criticism and doubt and after going from Winnipeg to Toronto to Ottawa, there’ll be plenty of fire in him.

Jason Maas will look to take Cody Fajardo and the Riders’ offence to new heights in 2021 (Riderville.com)

SASKATCHEWAN

Cody Fajardo was a feel good story in 2019. A longtime backup that had been in Toronto and BC before arriving in Regina to little fanfare, he was thrust into the green spotlight in Week 1, when Collaros went down with an injury in Hamilton.

The 29-year-old seized the opportunity and put his career and the Riders on a new path. Fajardo led the league in passing, led the Riders to the West Final and got the team to its first 13-win season since 1970.

This year, everyone will want a little more and offensively, the Riders are in position to do it.

The team hired Jason Maas as its offensive coordinator in December, 2019, shortly after he was relieved of his head coaching duties in Edmonton. As Henry Burris, Mike Reilly and Trevor Harris can attest, Maas brings firepower as an OC. We know that the Riders have a franchise QB, an excellent running back in William Powell and a handful of talented receivers in Shaq Evans, Kyran Moore and Jordan Williams-Lambert. With Maas at the offensive controls, you might be hearing the Riders’ TD golf cart in your sleep this year. That work starts for Maas, Fajardo et al in training camp.

An Argos roster already stocked to the brim with Canadian talent found room for more, with the late signing of linebacker Henoc Muamba (Dominick Gravel/Montreal Alouettes)

TORONTO

The best training camp battle might take place in Hamilton, but an hour (or two or three, depending on how the traffic gods feel) up the QEW, the Toronto Argonauts will have the most interesting overall camp in the league. We know how they spent their winter, signing big name free agents on top of big name free agents, loading their roster up with talent from both sides of the border.

GM Pinball Clemons and VP of player personnel John Murphy didn’t just swing for the fences through this long off-season. They bulldozed over them and planted Argos flags where the fences once sat.

Canadian talent? Juwan Brescacin, Jamal Campbell, Fabion Foote, Cameron Judge, Henoc Muamba and Llevi Noel (to name just a few) will tell you they have it.

American talent? How about Nick Arbuckle, DaVaris Daniels, Alden Darby, Charleston Hughes, Cordarro Law, Shaq Richardson, Eric Rogers, John White, Odell Willis, Bear Woods and Chandler Worthy?

Intriguing new CFL faces? Cousins Kelly and Martavis Bryant, Kony Ealy, Ronald Ollie…you know what, let’s just link to the roster. Look for yourself and you’ll see what we’re getting at.

This is a staggering collection of players. Who stays, who goes and how they all fit together through training camp will be must-see stuff and makes for the most interesting camp in the league, overall.

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