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.
The heady days of quick rise from expansion team to Grey Cup Champion are well back in the rearview mirror now, and the Ottawa REDBLACKS find they are on the verge of a critical season, as the 2023 campaign draws near.
Since their last appearance in a Grey Cup Game (2018), the REDBLACKS have suffered through three seasons during which they topped out at four victories (2022).
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The Ottawa faithful are starving for a return to a time when victories were more plentiful and clouds of wood cookie sawdust wafted through the night air at TD Place. The pressure’s on as the REDBLACKS head towards the opener with lots of change in their off-season wake, high hopes in tow.
Dyce runs the show
Bob Dyce, a longtime assistant coach (20 years give or take in the CFL) who’s had two short stints as interim head coach in that time, is now the head coach of the REDBLACKS after taking over for Paul LaPolice last autumn, for the final four games of the season. At long last, Dyce gets to oversee a program on a full-time basis, tasked with shepherding a team that has won just ten games over the last three seasons back to prosperity. To put it bluntly, the good people of Ottawa have had enough and will be expecting Dyce to deliver on the promise of a good-looking roster. The REDBLACKS have been in this position before, coming into a season with a good team on paper, only to see high hopes dashed. Dyce knows those frustrations well and has a great understanding of the inner workings of the REDBLACKS’ operation, having been on the coaching staff since the team last won a Grey Cup, in 2016.
Acklin and Masoli look to pick up where they left off
The REDBLACKS’ season was derailed in a huge way in 2022 when quarterback Jeremiah Masoli was lost for the season with a leg injury, just four games in. It was a serious blow to Ottawa’s offence, coming at a time when things should have been coming into focus. After going through the healing process and participating in a rigorous rehab regimen, Masoli will be back in 2023 and looking to re-establish himself as a star pivot. At the time of Masoli’s injury, he and receiver Jaelon Acklin – a teammate of Masoli’s for two seasons in Hamilton – were showing they were a tandem to be feared, connecting on 292 yards in pass receptions in less than four games. Acklin still had a fine season in 2022, even without Masoli, pulling in 1,169 yards worth of passes. You wonder just what the two of them can accomplish if given a full season together. Not only will Masoli have Acklin to pitch to, the REDBLACKS have brought in former Roughrider receiver Shaq Evans and former Ticat, Lion and Stampeder Lemar Durant, both looking for rebound seasons. Ottawa will look for even more from Justin Hardy, who impressed in seven games last season, with 44 catches for 416 yards. And then there is Nate Behar, who made 59 receptions for 727 yards last season, and is as tough a customer over the middle as any in the CFL.
A change in the middle of the defence
Every team needs a stone cold stopper at middle linebacker and you cannot say the REDBLACKS did not have that over the previous four seasons, with Avery Williams increasing his tackles total every year since 2018. But the REDBLACKS decided they could do even better, letting Williams hit free agency (he signed with rival Montreal) and signing free agent Jovan Santos-Knox, who’d played the previous two years with the Hamilton Ticats. Santos-Knox piled up 105 tackles in 2022 to Williams’ 92, but Williams was a bit more disruptive overall. Each of them had an interception in 2022, but Williams had two sacks to Santos-Knox’s one, and two forced fumbles to none. Are the REDBLACKS better at middle linebacker than they were?
New coordinators on both sides of the ball and on specials
In a difficult 2022 season, defence was not one of the REDBLACKS’ problems. But offence certainly was. New offensive coordinator Khari Jones gets an opportunity to put a stamp on what might be a very much improved Ottawa attack. If it is improved, he’ll be a big reason why. As both a coordinator and a head coach, Jones has shown the ability to build consistent, productive offences while not shying away from spicing up the conventional modus operandi with creative splash plays. He has the ingredients to make the REDBLACKS’ offence fun to watch. The new defensive coordinator is Barron Miles, a star defensive back in his day and now an experienced coach, having served as a defensive backs coach and as a defensive coordinator over the course of more than a decade in the CFL. Miles returns to the league after spending last fall as defensive coordinator with the Bishop’s University Gaiters, after having been let go from his DC position with the Montreal Alouettes, early last season. As mentioned, the REDBLACKS’ defence, under Mike Benevides, performed very well the last couple of years, so unlike Jones, who has nowhere to go but up with the offence, Miles will be tasked with keeping his unit’s standards high. With Dyce taking over as head coach in 2023, he relinquishes his special teams coaching duties to Cory McDiarmid, who assisted Dyce in 2022.
The strength of the running game is a question mark
The REDBLACKS were among the lowest of the lows when it came to rushing yards in 2022 (1,538 yards) with only the Toronto Argonauts finishing behind them (1,470). Veteran running back William Powell – who was injured for much of the 2022 season – was not re-signed, leaving holdovers Devonte Williams (90 rushes for 454 yards in 2022) and Jackson Bennett (50 for 234) in the backfield, along with free agent signing Ante Milanovic-Litre, to battle things with the lesser-known names in camp. The REDBLACKS signed 24-year-old Charles Williams last month, and he holds the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) all-time rushing record with 4,201 yards. The 24-year-old, five-foot-nine, 200-pound Williams is an intriguing add to the REDBLACKS’ training camp roster. With the offensive line looking good – the REDBLACKS signed highly-prized free agent Drew Desjarlais this off-season – it will be interesting to see if Ottawa can put things together and bring a stout running game back to the capital.