For months we’ve been speculating about what could be with all nine CFL teams. As training camps progressed, the picture became increasingly clear and now like an 8K camera following a QB through the sideline after a touchdown drive, everything is coming into focus.
Nowhere is this more apparent than with the starting quarterbacks. All nine starters across the league have worked tirelessly through COVID protocols and practice limitations to create timing and chemistry with everyone in their huddle over the last month.
With a unique set of circumstances facing each of the quarterbacks in action this week let’s take a look at one challenge I’m eager to watch each passer attempt to conquer in Week 1.
Zach Collaros | Winnipeg Blue Bombers
The last time Zach Collaros started a football season he was finally labelled ‘the man’ for a team (again) and was playing against Hamilton on a Thursday night to kickoff the year. It lasted four plays before being sent on a twisted path towards Grey Cup stardom.
This year Collaros begins the football season as ‘the man’ for a different team against Hamilton on a Thursday night to start the schedule. The question all year, an unfair one due to the unpredictability of pro football, is whether or not Zach can stay healthy. But my question for Week 1 is whether offensive coordinator Buck Pierce and Collaros are going to ride Brady Oliveira the same way Paul LaPolice did Andrew Harris.
In games Collaros started in 2019, Harris was targeted via run or pass on a whopping 39.6 per cent of plays, with Darvin Adams — who is also out — responsible for another 15.3 per cent of targets. Can Zach be effective without both? Kenny Lawler has entered the chat.
Jeremiah Masoli | Hamilton Tiger-Cats
It’s far too easy — and lazy — to say ‘the knee.’ Jeremiah Masoli is as mentally tough and mature an individual as I’ve had the pleasure to cover and I have no doubt the last thing on his mind will be the 2019 season-ending ACL injury which came against the same Bombers he faces this week.
With that being said, personal protection could come into play quickly if the Bombers pass rush remains as dominant as I think it will from the 2019 Grey Cup. There’s no doubt offensive coordinator Tommy Condell will have plenty of variety in the game plan to slow down Willie Jefferson and Jackson Jeffcoat after endlessly studying the 2019 Grey Cup, but the balance of worrying about throwing varied looks at the Bombers’ QB hunters while also trying to run what you do best is a unique challenge that Masoli will be at the controls of.
Michael Reilly | BC Lions
There is no worse place to start a CFL season when you are rebuilding trust in your offensive line than in Saskatchewan with a packed house when nobody has gotten into a rhythm with how to handle crowd noise yet.
That’s exactly the situation Michael Reilly finds himself in this week as he attempts to swat away any memory of 2019’s never ending assault on the BC pocket. In Week 1 of 2019 BC called 100 per cent pass plays on second down, but this is a new leadership group and coaching staff.
With Reilly’s best interests at heart, watch for offensive coordinator Jordan Maksymic to massage the first 15 plays to get Reilly comfortable with his protection and surroundings before opening up the playbook. An equation that could see a couple quick screen touches for training camp standout Lucky Whitehead.
Cody Fajardo | Saskatchewan Roughriders
For Cody Fajardo it’s less of a challenge, and more of a tendency that I’m interested to see start playing out as of Friday’s matchup with BC. In 2019 he had essentially the same downfield passing aggression on 1st down (10.04 yds) as he did 2nd down (10.73) while leading the CFL in percentage of called pass plays where the QB calls his own number to scramble at 7.1 per cent.
Can Fajardo carve out a unique identity and evolve his game in 2021 under new offensive coordinator Jason Maas, or is this the profile we should get used to for Saskatchewan’s leading man?
Nick Arbuckle and McLeod Bethel-Thompson | Toronto Argonauts
While it’s still unclear as of writing which passer will start for the double blue — although all signs point to MacBeth getting in ahead of Nick Arbuckle — I believe the challenge is the same for either and the theme runs through the entire Argos roster.
How do you possibly take this many new faces, so much talent, so many draft picks and free agent acquisitions and have it come together with coherent timing and smooth communication on the field?
It will be up to either, or both Argos QBs to show great huddle leadership and spread the ball around to as many of Toronto’s new receiver toys as possible. If they do, get set for an eye-opening Week 1 win.
Bo Levi Mitchell | Calgary Stampeders
Before camp kicked off, Bo Levi Mitchell was asked about 2021 possibly being the greatest challenge of his professional career, with names like Rogers, Daniels and Begelton all moving on to new threads.
His answer revolved around the concept of being the best point guard possible, distributing the ball in a way that sounded very Trevor Harris-inspired, while adding that unique flair for the deep and dramatic that defines Mitchell.
The question becomes Saturday, was that all lip service or will he actually find a way to improve his game by getting a plethora of offensive skill pieces involved? More importantly, can he do it against a fresh, deep and multiple re-built Argos pass rush?
Matt Nichols | Ottawa REDBLACKS
The expectations are low to start the season in Ottawa, which Nichols has leaned into recently stating that “I hope everyone picks us to come last.” They have, including the CFL.ca power rankings, and so begins the Matt Nichols Reclamation Tour to prove he can outplay your predictions.
The greatest challenge for Nichols in Week 1 will be staying in rhythm against a ball control Elks passing attack, which should be able to move the ball any way they choose through the air. Nichols has to convert second down opportunities, stay on the field and find some in-game chemistry with his new playmakers for Ottawa to have any shot at the perceived Week 1 upset.
Trevor Harris | Edmonton Elks
The biggest challenge here for Trevor Harris might be to not let his arm fall off because I see many, many attempts in his Week 1 future and with names like Greg Ellingson and Derel Walker waiting on the other end it could be a big night for the Elks’ revamped offence. One challenge I would like to see Harris conquer in Week 1 is finding new windows and ways to push the ball downfield on first down. In 2019 only Nick Arbuckle (6.89) threw the ball shorter on average on first down than Harris (7.57).