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April 29, 2022

Nye: Riders take a new approach to hosting Grey Cup

The Canadian Press

‘ALL IN’

It was the phrase that was plastered on t-shirts for the Saskatchewan Roughriders players and staff in 2013. Their off-season mimicked the motto in terms of the perception that the team was pushing all the chips in. Geroy Simon, Ricky Foley, John Chick, Rey Williams and Dwight Anderson were some of the moves made to bolster the Roughriders roster to win a Grey Cup at home.

The objective was achieved.

So, you know the ‘all in’ motto was expected to return to Saskatchewan. Fans were anticipating some more big splashes of big names to arrive to see if they could rekindle the magic of a championship in their new home.

Roughriders general manager Jeremy O’Day has heard it all winter. Actually, he’s heard it from his first availability after the 2021 campaign ended a win short of a Grey Cup appearance for the second straight season.

O’Day has said it repeatedly throughout the last few months, that he’s ‘all-in’ every year and reiterated it again Thursday when the Roughriders brass met with the national media in their season preview availability.

Their recent success, albeit without a Grey Cup appearance since 2013, has O’Day believing there was no sense changing too much with an already impressive roster.

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Duke Williams highlights a talented group of receivers that will look to take a step forward with QB Cody Fajardo this season, with the pressure of hosting a Grey Cup hovering over them (Matt Smith/CFL.ca)

“We feel like we have a lot of good players on the roster and maybe didn’t feel like we had to go out and change as much as every one would think,” he said.

“But, we feel we had a very good team coming into this season and obviously with the way we finished last season, we obviously made some tweaks to that. We certainly feel comfortable with the team we have going into the season.”

By no means, however, does that mean the Roughriders don’t have some question marks to figure out when training camp rolls around in two weeks, with rookies reporting May 11 in Saskatoon.

Riders head coach Craig Dickenson pointed out they need some defensive backs to step up with the departures of Ed Gainey and Louchiez Purifoy.

He knows he needs to see the receivers gelling with Cody Fajardo, with the Jason Maas offence in place for a second straight year.

But the biggest training camp battle is likely in the backfield.

“We need to figure out who our starting running back is, so that’s a spot we need to have some clarity” admitted Dickenson, who has gone to back-to-back Western Finals in his first two years as head coach of the team. He’s watched how important the running attack of Winnipeg has been in both of those games.

Jamal Morrow should be deemed the favourite, with his experience in Saskatchewan and in the offence last season. Canadian Kienan Lafrance will want another crack at a more regular role in the offence. Shaq Cooper has shown well at times in stops in Edmonton and BC.

However O’Day is hoping the work this off-season pays off with bringing in guys from the negotiation list that maybe a new face can become a CFL star. Shamar Moreland and Frankie Hickson are currently lined up to be at camp. O’Day admitted on Thursday that they are talking to neg list running back Mike Weber, who was released last week by the USFL.

For O’Day, he witnessed it up close in 2013, how important a run game is to a Grey Cup championship team and how important it is to be able to execute bringing in the players you protect on the negotiation list.

One thing O’Day said was maybe underappreciated about how they built that team in ’13 was the work they did in putting together their negotiation list in the years previous to that season and recruited some talented players.

Kory Sheets was exhibit A.

Jamal Morrow will get a shot at being the team’s starting running back, but the Riders expect some serious competition at that position (Matt Smith/CFL.ca)

Sheets became a dominant back in 2012, before tearing the league up in 2013, eventually breaking the Grey Cup record for most rushing yards in a championship game.

“There is certainly some things we did well in ’13 with running the football and taking some pressure off the passing game,” O’Day said. “Those are some things you’d like to mimic, you’ll want to be able to run the football when it gets cold.”

Running the football was a down spot for the Roughriders in 2021. Out of the top running backs for each team, William Powell’s 4.4 yards per carry was the lowest. Most were close to five yards or better.

So not only do the Roughriders need to figure out who that running back is but the offensive line needs to do a better job of opening up holes for Powell’s replacement after the Riders let Powell walk this off-season.

Another thing O’Day, who was the Roughriders director of player personnel in 2013, noted from that season was how well Darian Durant played in the playoffs.

Durant didn’t turn the football over and threw eight touchdown passes and in the Western Semi-Final ran for over 90 yards, lifting the team to a comeback victory over the Lions before wiping the floor with Calgary in the Western Final and then an even harsher beat down of the Tiger-Cats in the Grey Cup.

This year for the Roughriders, they’ll need Cody Fajardo to find his swagger again after the offence went from top three to bottom three in scoring from 2019 to 2021.

Fajardo told me last week he’s willing to get all the pressure thrown on him this year. He’s in a contract year, the Grey Cup is in Saskatchewan and oh, the added excitement (and speaking from experience – stress) of becoming a father for the first time.

Fajardo is taking it with the right mindset. In 2021, he was by himself for most of the season with his wife back in the United States. He allowed that alone time to have the demons of social media criticism and the pressure of being Saskatchewan’s No. 1 most talked about person weigh on him.

With his baby boy on the way he knows the positive it will bring: The joy of coming home to a loving wife, a bundle of joy and being able to disconnect from all the other drama that may be going on outside his home.

O’Day knows the experience very well of the benefit of being a dad, “the joy the little one will bring to you and it will actually get your mind off of football a little bit, which sometimes in Saskatchewan can be a good thing.”

Fajardo also told me that his visualization going into this season is being able to place his son in the Cup after a Grey Cup victory on home soil on Nov. 20.

Which would be an entirely different ‘all in’ than what Saskatchewan experienced in 2013.

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