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July 13, 2021

O’Leary: Five camp battles to keep tabs on

Photo: Ticats.ca

Coming out of a slow, cautious start, training camps are up and running across the CFL. Training camp is football’s great equalizer. Status, big contracts and past accolades generally evaporate when players set foot on the field and only the best of the best emerge on a team’s final roster.

Every team will have its own set of training camp battles. Here are a few that, just a few days into this unique pre-season, loom as the most interesting.

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QUARTERBACK, HAMILTON TIGER-CATS

This one isn’t a surprise in any way. Anyone that followed the 2019 Ticats knows that the battle that Jeremiah Masoli and Dane Evans are engaged in for the starting QB job is the No. 1 position battle in the league.

To their credit, both players have gone out of their way to say that they don’t view this as a competition. Masoli and Evans have formed a tight relationship over their previous two seasons together and have downplayed the idea of this being the battle that outsiders label it as. .

“I’m trying to be the best quarterback I can be, the best teammate I can be, period,” Masoli told reporters this week.

“I’m another slice in the pie, another piece to the puzzle. We’re going to need all hands on deck to win this championship, me and Dane included. Coach O (Orlondo Steinauer), Tommy (Condell, the Ticats’ offensive coordinator), those guys will have to make the decision. It’s my job to be the best quarterback I can be. Honestly it’s the opposite: We’re helping each other out to be the best we can be.”

“I’m going to push him, I’m going to be his No. 1 fan and I know he’s going to push me and I expect him to push me,” Evans said of Masoli.

“I guess you could call it a competition but we’re just grinding together, we’re both working through it. We’re not bigger than the game, we’re just a position on the field. So whenever it rolls around and we start playing, whoever is out there is going to be the best for the team.
I trust everybody in this organization to make that decision.”

When Masoli went down with his knee injury two years ago, his team looked like a Grey Cup contender. Evans coolly took the reins of that team and got them all the way to the championship game, where Hamilton fell to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Masoli is the more veteran of the duo but the team is in proven, capable hands with whoever wins the starting gig out of camp.

MIDDLE LINEBACKER, SASKATCHEWAN ROUGHRIDERS

The Roughriders made waves across the league last week when four of their players suffered Achilles injuries in a single day. There’s an undoubtedly huge ripple effect that comes from losing Larry Dean, Freddie Bishop, Nelson Lokombo and Jonathan Femi-Cole. Amidst a depth chart that will be flush with new names, we’ll focus here on Dean’s middle linebacker spot and how that gets filled.

The 32-year-old Dean was a West all-star with Edmonton in 2019. Playing with Hamilton in 2018, Dean was named the East Division’s most outstanding defensive player. He would have slid in for the recently retired Solomon Elimimian at middle linebacker before last week’s rash of injuries at a pre-camp workout. Head coach Craig Dickenson and Riders’ defensive coordinator Jason Shivers may get creative in what they do at that MLB spot. Murray McCormick of the Regina Leader-Post noted the following in the wake of the injuries:

A player to keep an eye on here could be Deon Lacey, who thrived as a special teamer in Edmonton from 2014 to 2017 and has joined the Riders after some time in the NFL with the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins. At six-foot-two and 229 pounds, Lacey has the size to play the spot and was a West all-star with Edmonton in 2014.

KICKER, MONTREAL ALOUETTES

Perhaps not the most glamourous battle in a training camp, but it will be a crucial one for the Als, who traded Boris Bede and his big leg to the Toronto Argonauts before the pandemic hit last year.

Tyler Crapigna was the other half of that pre-pandemic deal last year and should be in the lead to assume kicking duties in Montreal. He’ll be pushed in camp by Felix Briere, who played for Als’ GM Danny Maciocia with the Montreal Carabins in 2014. As the two most veteran kickers on the camp roster, they’ll go up against rookie David Cote, out of Laval, American Matt Mengel and Global player Joseph Zema, a 26-year-old Australian.

RUNNING BACK, WINNIPEG BLUE BOMBERS

We all know that the starting running back role in Winnipeg is Andrew Harris’ but when he left practice on Monday, it opened up an interesting question. In the event that the team’s MVP were unable to go, who would play in his place?

Harris’s two-way ability at running back is an integral part of the Bombers’ offence. We’ve seen it time and again as he heads into his fifth year with his hometown team and had it cemented in his Grey Cup MVP/Outstanding Canadian performance in 2019 that the Bombers’ offence is at its most potent when it runs through Harris.

Harris sat out of Tuesday’s session as well.

Monday’s departure and Tuesday’s absence could be nothing more than a chance to rest a veteran player during a uniquely grueling camp. Of course, as long as Harris is healthy, that starting RB job is his. Johnny Augustine would be the next man up for coach Mike O’Shea and OC Buck Pierce, but he’s also on the sidelines to start camp with an undisclosed injury. So that leaves Canadians Brady Oliveira and Kyle Borsa to take all of the reps and for O’Shea to see just how much depth he has at RB while the two vets in front of them get a chance to rest and heal up.

Nick Arbuckle is the Argos’ No. 1 QB, but he’s got an experienced and talented player behind him in McLeod Bethel-Thompson (Adam Kreuger, Argonauts.ca)

TORONTO ARGONAUTS, QB

This could be a battle that spills out of camp and into the regular-season. There’s no question that Nick Arbuckle is the Argos’ top option at quarterback, but the fact remains that this is Arbuckle’s first year as a full-time starter and we all know that nothing is guaranteed in football. The Boatmen spent the last two off-seasons making waves and filling out their roster, after going 4-14 in 2018 and 2019. If Arbuckle were to start slowly, would the threat of falling behind early in the season force coach Ryan Dinwiddie to look to his more experienced backup, McLeod Bethel-Thompson, if he thought it would keep his team afloat?

“There’s always competition. I know Nick is penciled in as our No. 1 quarterback,” Dinwiddie told reporters on Monday.

“I’ve told McLeod and Nick I’m going to play the best quarterback. We know Nick’s a really good player, I’ve won with Nick before, we know we can win there. McLeod’s done some things. I haven’t gotten a chance to coach him yet but he’s worked with the coaches for the last few days and taken that step. For me, knowing that if we lose a QB it’s not going to ruin our season, that’s a key thing.”

Bethel-Thompson has had a fascinating career and through his time in the CFL has found opportunity behind other players that were initially slotted as starters in front of him. The Argos are confident that Arbuckle will shine as a starter, but they have an excellent option behind him as well.

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