Freestyle Phototography/Ottawa REDBLACKS
Upon Further Review is a series that looks back at each team’s 2021 season, their key free agent additions and other staff and roster changes and looks ahead to their 2022 campaign.
Last season was anything but a smooth inaugural REDBLACKS ride for head coach Paul LaPolice and company.
After shifting Nick Arbuckle to Toronto essentially for Matt Nichols, the veteran passer would attempt less than 100 passes with no touchdowns before being injured. Dominique Davis was the backup and well known to Ottawa football fans after a troubling 2019 season. He too would attempt less than 100 passes with more interceptions than touchdowns before getting hurt.
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In came Caleb Evans who gave signs of life, hope and I believe showed to be a player worth investing developmental time in. But the signing of Duck Hodges meant Evans was pushed aside for LaPolice’s fourth QB of the season.
Hodges would complete 42% of his passes with a multitude of throwaways as he was rushed into game action trying to understand the Canadian game. Altogether six players took snaps under centre in 2021 including Canadian receiver Nate Behar in emergency action after Nichols and Davis were injured in the same game.
Ottawa finished 3-11 on the year and last in points for, net offence, opponent net offence and points allowed before firing general manager Marcel Desjardins at the conclusion of the season.
Enough on the past, this is where it gets good.
First and foremost I have to give a massive round of applause to Joshua O’Connor and everyone involved in the creation, promotion and support of ‘Behind The R’, the REDBLACKS internally produced YouTube series giving fans from coast-to-coast an honest inside look at the little moments between kickoff and final whistle that we rarely get to see. It’s an important project that has pushed other teams to recognize the value of a more transparent media strategy and welcomed frustrated REDBLACKS fans back inside the tent without a single punt, pass or catch.
As for what Behind The R has captured, it’s been busy.
New GM Shawn Burke stepped in and immediately went to work on a plethora of free agents, aiming to build up a roster worthy of Bob Dyce, Mike Benevides and Paul LaPolice’s coaching talents.
The first major move, of course, was QB Jeremiah Masoli who should fit LaPo’s run/pass tendencies and imagination wonderfully. Once Masoli was confirmed the flood gates opened with former REDBLACKS RB William Powell joining Masoli in the backfield, a much needed solution to what was a varied and wholly unproductive group in 2021.
Coming with Burke and Masoli from Hamilton to Ottawa was Jaelon Acklin who looks to be primed for a solid run in the CFL as a top-10 receiver based on the development of his first two seasons in the league from little known signing to starter and 2021 leading receiver for the Ticats.
Veteran incumbent RJ Harris returns in a supporting role while young Canadian Shaq Johnson lands back in Ontario from BC, B.J. Cunningham joins from Montreal and Darvin Adams reunites with LaPolice’s offence after a year apart in Winnipeg. All of this should help Ottawa avoid having their top receiving pair be the only in the league with above average usage and below average production per snap as seen below.
We haven’t even started to discuss the defence! Canadian additions include DE Kwaku Boateng, DB Ty Cranston and the re-signing of long time free safety Antoine Pruneau.
The back end received an American infusion of talent and aggression as well in the form of Trumaine Washington from Edmonton and both Money Hunter and Patrick Levels from Montreal in a move inflicting maximum pain on a division foe.
Simply put, the REDBLACKS in the course of one month transformed from non-threat to worthy talking point.
Not mentioned above is the offensive line repairs executed in the form of Hunter Steward, Ucambre Williams and Darius Ciraco. The hope, of course, is that other players in the Ottawa developmental pipeline will soon be ready to support these highly qualified veterans and the whole unit will be able to make the departure of Mark Korte less difficult to overcome.
If Ottawa can protect Masoli, establish a solid ground game with Powell and create turnovers with an improved secondary, they will turn some heads this summer.
The question moving forward is whether they can sustain that level of play once teams sort out what the 2022 REDBLACKS are all about, and is their best good enough to contend for an East Division title, or just annoy their Eastern foes on route to their own Grey Cup journey.