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On The Way Up: Riders hoping for a spark on special teams

CFL.ca will be previewing the 2021 season, breaking down special teams, defence and offence for all nine teams as they get set to hit the field.

Arthur Ward/CFL.ca

The Saskatchewan Roughriders need their special teams to be a little more special in 2021.

There were some highs, like Jon Ryan leading the league in punting average with nearly 49 yards per punt but there were also some lows, like Brett Lauther dropping into ninth of the regular field goal kickers across the league with a 78% field goal percentage.

You also have two of their top special teams players in Alexandre Chevrier and Alexandre Gagne making the move to Montreal.

So how do things set up for the Riders on their special teams?

First let’s look at Lauther, who returns for his third season as the Riders kicker. He seized the job in 2018 and didn’t disappoint with a 90% field goal percentage in his first full season as a kicker in the CFL after years and years of attempting to land a regular job since 2013.

Lauther, however, had an injury in 2019 and his average dropped over 10 percentage points. He did kick some big field goals, though, including the winning kick during Mark’s Labour Day Weekend.

He still seems to have a clutch gene with some game winners and went four for four in the Western Final on a chilly night in Regina.

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But, the Riders right now have no competition for Lauther, outside of global draft pick, Wihan van der Riet. That doesn’t mean head coach Craig Dickenson won’t be patient with Lauther. I don’t think the Riders can afford to be if he doesn’t climb back to his 2018 form.

I’m not going to bet against him though. Lauther has proven he has the drive to keep his job in the CFL and kick his way to the top of the league once again.

That brings us to his holder, and punter Jon Ryan.

Ryan’s first year back in the CFL after a lengthy career in the NFL has many impressed by his booming kicks but when you break down the numbers, Ryan does have room to improve.

Ryan needs to come in with a little more ability to get the ball outside of the numbers and toward the sideline. The term ‘out kicked his coverage’ was becoming noticeable with the Riders trailing the entire league by giving up the most yards per punt return in the CFL.

While Ryan led the league in punting average, the Riders were near the bottom of the league in net punting.

The stats show that average returns go up when you kick it between the numbers, rather than towards the sideline. Ryan was second in the league for a biggest percentage of kicks between the numbers in 2019.

Ryan also was far and away the league leader in punt singles, which adds to his high punting average and can over inflate the number that had him top in the league.

Now, how about the return game?

Marcus Thigpen is no longer in Saskatchewan so the Riders will either try to have a very effective Loucheiz Purifoy handle the kick return duties or find a new face to add a spark.

Head coach and special teams coordinator Craig Dickenson will be looking to solidify his special teams unit once camp begins (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

Purifoy did come close to leading the league in kick returns but it’s a tough ask to have your starting defensive back to be out there on defence and then turn around the handle a kick return.

Kyran Moore has provided some remarkable work in the punt return game but, like Purifoy, it’s unclear if they’ll want Moore back there taking more hits while being one of Cody Fajardo‘s main targets on offence.

But if there is going to be a new return specialist in Saskatchewan, it will have to be a new face.

The Riders also didn’t go out and sign a CFL vet to come in to handle the job. However, they’ve brought in some players with exceptional return numbers from college like DeMarcus Ayers, Kermit Whitfield and Carlos Henderson. Whitfield’s resume is the most impressive of the trio and with a name like Kermit… in Saskatchewan… it might be easy being green.

And that brings us to the fourth aspect of special teams: the coverage teams. Four of the top six players from 2019 in terms of tackles on special teams are gone (Chevrier, Gagne, Cameron Judge and Dyshawn Davis)

But general manager Jeremy O’Day tried his best to help fill some voids with three notable signings with an eye on coverage teams. Godfrey and Nakas Onyeka had decent years in 2019 getting down field on special teams and Kevin Francis returns to the team that gave him his start and a few years ago was No. 2 on the Riders in special teams tackles.

Also, Chad Geter, if he’s not a starting defensive end, was a standout two years ago with 17 special teams tackles but didn’t get the opportunities after moving back from Montreal for just six games in ’19. Jordan Reaves is another ‘addition’ after missing 2019 with injury.

Overall: head coach and special teams coordinator Craig Dickenson will want a better effort across the board and have a tonne of openings on the roster for players to make an impact on special teams on their road to try to get regular duty on offence or defence.

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