As the 2023 season approaches, CFL.ca is here to catch you up with the Five Things To Know series. Each article will look at key storylines facing each team this season, while examining off-season movement and where your team might stand in 2023.
REGINA — A look back on the 2022 Saskatchewan Roughriders, as painful as it might be for those who worship at the green altar, is the personification of that expectations vs. reality meme.
The expectation a year ago was that the Riders could finally take the next step in their championship journey over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and lift the Grey Cup at Mosaic Stadium. Just like in 2013, the host Riders could be on top of the league on home soil, lauded by their province for the rest of the country to see.
Reality had different plans for the green team. After a 4-1 start, the Riders went 2-11, including a seven-game losing streak to close out their playoff-free campaign.
Those kind of results make change inevitable and there’s plenty of it this season in Saskatchewan. Expectation may be replaced this year by hope, but perhaps the best aspect of the CFL is that it’s a league where teams can turn things around and jump back into the competitive mix quickly. Here are five things that the Riders will impact whether or not they’re able to do that this year.
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Protection up front
Quarterback protection was the No. 1 issue with the Riders last year, as fans watched — perhaps with their hands over their faces at points — their quarterbacks be taken down 77 times. If the Riders are going to put last year behind them, it’ll have to start with improved o-line play.
To that end, general manager Jeremy O’Day has been busy. He signed versatile offensive lineman Philip Blake and former BC Lions’ centre Peter Godber the day that the free agent market opened and has brought in some sizeable American talent. On paper at least — which is all we have at this point — the Riders will have five players to look at in camp (Jerald Hawkins, Eric Lofton, Jeremiah Poutasi, Kooper Richardson and Jordan Tucker) that are all over six-foot-four and in the range of 300-340 pounds that all have experience playing the tackle spots. That, paired with the improvement of younger, returning linemen like 2021 Draft pick Logan Bandy, could make for a better year in the trenches.
As we saw last season, it won’t matter who’s behind that offensive line if they can’t get proper protection. Which brings us to Thing No. 2.
There’s a new quarterback in town
When Cody Fajardo was introduced to the bench before the Riders were mathematically out of the playoff hunt, the writing was on the wall for his time in Saskatchewan. Essentially the moment the free agent market opened on Feb. 14, Fajardo was off to Montreal and Trevor Harris made the leap from the Als to the Riders.
O-line protection will be paramount for Harris, who is more of a pocket passer (though he is creeping up on the 1,000-yard rushing mark) than Fajardo. The 10-year vet put up 4,157 passing yards last year in Montreal, helping to steer the team through its own rough patch with a 2-6 start, en route to a 9-9 finish that saw their season come to a close in the Eastern Final. Harris has traditionally brought big yardage and lots of scoring to the teams he’s suited up for. If he has the time to make those plays, the Riders’ offence and their overall success would be in position to rebound this year.
A new conductor making offensive music
Along with the change at quarterback, the Riders will have a new person drawing up the offence. Kelly Jeffrey takes over for Jason Maas, who was relieved of his duties at the end of the season, then landed the head coaching gig in Montreal, setting the stage for a reunion with Fajardo.
As Harris has gotten settled with his new team over the winter, his conversations with Jeffrey about the offence should be encouraging to him.
“Explosive, high-tempo scoring machine,” is how Jeffrey described his offence to Riderville.com’s Rob Vanstone earlier this month.
“The ‘scoring machine’ for me implies that we’re going to be very good in the red zone,” Jeffrey said. “We’re going to score touchdowns, not field goals.
“However, we have to do that — whether we’ve got to change some personnel or do some quarterback runs or do some gadget plays or whatever we’ve got to do — we’re going to come away with touchdowns. (Riders head coach) Craig (Dickenson) talks about that a lot. We want touchdowns and if we can get touchdowns, we’ll be aggressive and go for it.”
Assuming the o-line is improved, Harris will have a plethora of weapons at his disposal. In the run game he’ll have Jamal Morrow and Frankie Hickson. As for receivers, Kian Schaffer-Baker, Brayden Lenius and Mitchell Picton are all back, lending ratio-breaking strength to Jeffrey, while he’ll add in another National in Juwan Brescacin and fellow free agent signings Jake Wieneke, Derel Walker and Shawn Bane Jr. There are fireworks in the waiting, as long as the fuse can be lit.
A defence to keep an eye on
Last year, the Riders were a middle-of-the-pack 41-sack defence. That should change this year. Veteran defensive tackle Micah Johnson has returned to Saskatchewan after a year spent with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Stefen Banks has come over from Calgary. They’ll join Anthony Lanier II and Pete Robertson to form a fearsome foursome that’ll go out to hunt quarterbacks this year.
With the linebacking corps of Larry Dean, Derrick Moncrief and Micah Teitz returning, defensive coordinator Jason Shivers can build an aggressive, attacking defence that should help limit offences and force turnovers.
Last year in this space, we looked at the unique pressure that can land on the Riders’ starting quarterback when they’re hosting a Grey Cup. With Fajardo off to Montreal and in the wake of last year’s difficulties, the pressure has now shifted over to two different people. Like Fajardo a year ago, O’Day and Dickenson head into this season in the last year of their respective contracts. The 2023 season is their shot at getting the team back on track. In 2019 and 2021, the Riders were a win away from playing for the Grey Cup. The challenge this year for both men will be to help steer them back in that direction in a West Division that’s a dog fight every single year.