While kids across Canada clamour for the end of June, there’s a first day of school vibe in nine cities across the country this morning.
Rookie camps are opening across the CFL and we all know what that means. The vets are right behind the CFL newbs, ready to hit their respective fields on Sunday, May 14. From there, it’s a fast, furious and fun run into the 2023 season. The off-season — all 172 long, mostly cold days of it — is behind us.
We’re heading into new faces making fast impressions, position battles, the start of team chemistry experiments and while it’s still far, far off on the horizon, the first steps toward the 110th Grey Cup are now being taken.
My favourite part of rookie camps is the unknown. All across the league, there are American players that many of us haven’t heard of, that have strong football resumes, have likely had a brush (or two or three) with the NFL and now find themselves in a new country, learning a new style of the game that they’ve poured their lives into. And in every city across the league, there are players on the field that will have an impact this year. The path to that impact is never clear. Some players make a splash right away, with the most recent example being Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ receiver Dalton Schoen.
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Schoen arrived at rookie camp with little fanfare. Bluebombers.com’s Ed Tait wrote that Schoen went into that camp with a street dog mentality, where he knew he had to prove himself. Could anyone have seen Schoen breaking through on an already deep receiving corps in Winnipeg? Could anyone have seen him rack up a league-leading 1,441 yards and 16 touchdowns? The 26-year-old took the league’s Most Outstanding Rookie award in a cakewalk, as the Bombers went 15-3 and played in their third straight Grey Cup; a remarkable feat even with their loss to the Toronto Argonauts. To answer my own half-rhetorical question, no, no one perhaps other than Schoen might have seen any of that coming.
Others, like Derel Walker, might go through training camps, impress enough to be asked to stay but can remain diamonds in the rough on a practice roster. Walker made it to Edmonton in 2015 and spent the first four weeks of the season on the practice roster where technically, another team could have scooped him up and put him into the game. An injury to Adarius Bowman opened the door for Walker. Twelve games, 1,110 yards and six touchdowns later, Walker was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Rookie and would be a part of a Grey Cup-winning team just a few days later.
There will be tons of new American players reporting into camp today, but it’s not strictly an American affair. Teams have been diligently working at signing the members of the 2023 CFL Draft and Global Draft classes, trying to get them all on the field by Wednesday to maximize their time in rookie camp, before the vets join the roster battle on Sunday.
Linebacker Jordan Williams (2021), kicker Lewis Ward (2018) and former Stampeders offensive lineman Brett Jones (2013) are the last three National players to win the Outstanding Rookie award, but creating a presence on a team and taking home hardware aren’t mutually exclusive.
Last year, Nationals Tre Ford, Jalen and Tyson Philpot, Daniel Adeboboye and Gregor MacKellar all put a mark on their respective teams’ seasons. Now, dozens of freshly drafted players will set out over the next four days to try to do the same.
This time last year, Global punter John Haggerty was an unknown when he joined the Argos for training camp at the University of Guelph. He finished the season an East Division All-Star. Could defensive lineman Blessman Ta’ala, the first overall pick in this year’s Global Draft help elevate the REDBLACKS this year?
We won’t have concrete answers by Saturday from anyone, but there are undoubtedly players stepping onto fields across the league this week that are about to become household names to CFL fans. That’s a great way to usher in a new season.