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Fully Loaded: REDBLACKS take strong special teams unit into ’21

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

I can’t believe I am actually writing a team preview for the 2021 CFL season, in this case the Ottawa REDBLACKS!

I’ll be focusing on their special teams unit and I’ll be honest, I’d be happy to break down their Top-10 snaps from centre to Richie Leone because it means our brand of football is almost here. Yes, all the qualifiers deserve to be highlighted before I continue. As long as COVID numbers continue to go down, the vaccinations numbers go up and we do not see undue stress on our hospitals than we should have a 2021 CFL season. I’m optimistic it will happen because quite frankly, constantly living a pessimistic life seems exhausting.

One of the highest honours that can be bestowed on an athlete is when they make a grown man’s voice crack. We’ve all heard it before. A trained professional is calling a play that goes from routine to spectacular, they’re caught up in the moment and in the middle of some crazy touchdown they sound like they are suddenly 12 years old again. That happened back in Week 8, 2019 when DeVonte Dedmon broke the backs of the Montreal Alouettes’ special teams and Rod Black’s larynx along the way.

Let’s all go back and relieve one of the few bright spots for the 2019 REDBLACKS

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Just skip ahead to the 22 second mark as Rod says “foot race now” with Dedmon winning the race. I lost track of how many tackles he broke on that play but it was that game that put up him on the map.

The funny thing is despite a 3-15 season, Ottawa’s special teams were elite. I know that doesn’t exactly jive with the record but consider this: When you think of how good the REDBLACKS are at this phase of the game, Dedmon, you could argue, is the third most important part of this group.

Let’s start with the reigning holding kicker, Lewis Ward. His story is the embodiment of the sports rags-to-riches story. Going undrafted in 2017 (reminder: drafts are part hard work and part voodoo), winning both the Most Outstanding Rookie and Most Outstanding Special Teams awards in 2018 and then setting the record for consecutive regular-season field goals made at 69. The shame of it all was the kick he missed was a simple 31-yarder in mid-August against Hamilton.

At the end of the 2019 season there were a few kickers with a higher field goal percentage than his but none had a longer average field goal attempt distance than Ward. He wasn’t exactly gifted a boatload of chances close to the goal line. Ward is young, accomplished (I’d say 92.2 per cent is fairly accurate) and there is no reason he can’t continue his on-field excellence.

Off the field I, like so many others, have brought up the work he’s done as a COVID-19 screener at his mother’s hospital, Kingston General Hospital. I know in football it’s far easier to root for the quarterback or skill players but in this case, Ward is probably the easiest kicker to get behind.

Next up is the hardest working man in football. Nope, it’s not the Argonauts’ capologist, I’m talking about punter Richie Leone. As much as the good fans of Ottawa deserve to watch a more dynamic offence in 2021, I think we can all agree that no one is more justified in hoping for a turnaround like Leone.

All he did in 2019 was punt the ball 23 more times than any other punter in the league with his punts travelling over 1,000 yards further than anyone else. Just imagine what life was like for him. He trots on the field, does his job at an all-star level (2019 East Division all-star, CFL all-star in 2015 and 2016) and before he can finish a glass of Gatorade he’s back out on the field again.

Ottawa Redblacks kicker Richie Leone (13) kicks the ball during second quarter CFL action against the Edmonton Eskimos in Ottawa on Saturday, September 22, 2018. (CFL PHOTO - Patrick Doyle)

Ottawa’s offence did him no favours as only 7 per cent of their drives ended in a touchdown, while 120 of those drives resulted in a two-and-outs. Yes, the REDBLACKS’ offence was last in both these categories. Trust me when I say there is not a better kicker/punter duo in the CFL.

Let’s go back to Dedmon for a moment. I know there is only so much Hot Punter Talk you can take in just one column. Now that Stefan Logan has retired, Dedmon has a chance to do some serious work and challenge some records. Dedmon was a star in the making before a Week 9 hamstring injury kept him out for over a month. Credit to his work ethic that got him back on the field sooner than expected when he was out there with his teammates in Week 12 against the BC Lions.

In five games as a rookie, Dedmon put up nearly 1,000 return yards and two touchdowns. Now imagine what a fully healthy version could do. Obviously with a shortened season in 2021 we can throw away Chad Owens’ single season combined yardage total of 3,863 yards set back in 2012. But what about Diontae Spencer’s absurd 496 combined yards setting a single-game record back in 2017? Dedmon put up 382 combined yards in his coming out party in that 2019 30-27 OT win by Ottawa over Montreal.

The most fascinating storyline will be whether or not Dedmon will even get a chance at some of these special team records. Four days after that OT win over the Alouettes, then coach Rick Campbell was openly talking about the idea of getting his rookie return star more involved in the passing game. All you have to do is look at the career of Brandon Banks to see that this makes a ton of sense, especially for a team that was last in points, yards and yards per play offensively. Of all the narratives that will come out from a special teams perspective, the expanded role Dedmon will play on this team deserves the most attention.

Usually when a team finishes last in the league, every phase of a football team is feeling pressure to perform, to get better and grow as a unit. Not so much in Ottawa, where there are stars all over the place. Here is how good they are: I am finishing my preview and have yet to mention the CFL leader in special teams tackles, Frank Beltre signed with Ottawa a couple weeks back! I have plenty of questions surrounding the REDBLACKS’ offensive and defensive units but when it comes to the special teams my message for Ottawa fans is to sit back, relax and try not to damage your vocal cords on a Dedmon return.

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