Training camps have opened and the 2023 season is finally upon us. Across the league, the most exciting part of training camp is now underway and that’s position battles.
Every team has been impacted by an off-season that was full of free agency moves, releases and player retirements. There’s also the fact that anything could happen in training camp.
Trevor Harris, whose name might be as close as possible to being permanent markered in as the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ No. 1 quarterback, told reporters this week that everything is earned in camp and that you can’t take anything for granted. That’s true. Most vets across the league know what it takes to get through camp and into the regular season with the role that they’ve held. But every year, we see a few surprising developments out of camp. Here’s a look at battles to watch in all nine of the camps that have kicked off today.
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BC | Running back
When James Butler was at the height of his powers for the BC Lions last season alongside quarterback Nathan Rourke, the Lions had arguably the best combination of backfield starter running threats in the CFL. With Rourke taking his talents south to the Jacksonville Jaguars and Butler departing in CFL Free Agency for Hamilton, there is a Sukh Chungh-sized opening left in BC’s backfield.
Vernon Adams Jr. will start at quarterback, but who will line up next to him? Your guess is as good as mine right now with five backs currently listed on the depth chart ranging from six-foot-one, 218-pound Gregory Howell Jr. to five-foot-six, 190-pound Vance McShane.
EDM | National linebacker
There will be competition at most positions across the Green and Gold practice field this training camp. Chris Jones likes it that way both to see who answers the bell and which players thrive under adverse circumstances. I love it, but nowhere do I find this concept more interesting than at National linebacker.
On May 2 the Elks drafted Montreal Carabins LB Michael Brodrique second overall, adding him to a group that includes veteran Adam Konar, the Appolon twins, special teams ace Kevin Francis and 2022 first round pick Enock Makonzo.
Throw all those ingredients in a blender with their other rising American linebacker talents and you get a fun group with plenty of questions to be answered ahead of Week 1.
CGY | Philpot’s fill in
When the Stampeders took Northern Illinois receiver Cole Tucker fourth overall in the 2023 CFL Draft I thought it made sense. When they took Guelph receiver Clark Barnes in the third round I started to sense a trend and wondered what the motive was.
Days later we discovered 2022 first round pick Jalen Philpot was injured and would need to miss some time. Like The Joker with a broken pool cue in The Dark Knight, the Stampeders are having tryouts for Philpot’s fill in. They better make it snappy as kickoff rapidly approaches.
SSK | Offensive guard
Everyone in Riderville has their opinion on what ailed Saskatchewan’s protection scheme last year. I land at offensive guard. While the likes of Logan Ferland and Evan Johnson are expected to remain in place, I believe there is need for a transparent battle involving Diego Alatorre Montoya, Logan Bandy, Matthew Derks, Evan Floren, Zack Fry, Riley Schick and anybody not named Peter Godber, who will play centre after coming over in free agency from BC.
What I believe really ends up happening here is Philip Blake starts at tackle, until the Riders see they could upgrade the interior by kicking him inside and utilizing an American tackle. Trevor Harris will steady the Riders attack if he has time. Competition is needed to find the right puzzle pieces.
WPG | Centre
When Michael Couture fell to injury last year in Ottawa, Chris Kolankowski jumped off the bench and locked down centre snaps for multiple games. Despite a valiant replacement job I believe the role should still be open to conversation in Winnipeg with natural centre Tui Eli and potential defensive line convert Cole Adamson, who certainly has a centre body type.
Winnipeg has the best tackles in the CFL and Geoff Gray and Liam Dobson can be elite guards, but the centre choice will unlock this group’s interior potential.
HAM | Boundary corner
Jumal Rolle went from wide side to boundary corner following the departure of Delvin Breaux Sr. With Rolle gone to Montreal in free agency, the Ticats have plenty of raw, unknown answers to pick from in camp.
I expect there to be some serious competition in this group with Cariel Brooks leaving for Ottawa and Ciante Evans joining Rolle back in Montreal. Javien Elliot adds some CFL experience but the reality is Hamilton is going to have some fresh faces in the secondary with a great chance for someone — potentially Tony Collier or Will Sunderland who have been in Hamilton — to lock down a key role in the Ticats’ Grey Cup hopes at boundary corner.
TOR | Fifth receiver
DaVaris Daniels and Markeith Ambles have the boundary, Kurleigh Gittens Jr. and Cam Phillips have the field, but which name gets pulled to play the fifth receiver spot?
While I believe the role will evolve with the ratio and injury situation throughout the 2023 season it could come down to Nationals Tommy Nield, David Ungerer III and former second overall pick Dejon Brissett scrapping for the right to get offensive snaps. Meanwhile, names like Dontrelle Inman, Jeremiah Haydel, Damonte Coxie and a host of unknown Americans could be called upon in a moment’s notice.
OTT | Offensive tackle
I know he’s coming off a broken leg, and I know GM Shawn Burke has said he has no interest in rushing the first overall pick into game action but Dontae Bull — when healthy — has a legitimate case to start at tackle for the REDBLACKS this season.
He wants to get on the field and show he’s worthy of the first overall selection and potential NFL looks down the road. When healthy, motivated and up to speed on the REDBLACKS schemes, Bull could be in the lineup challenging American tackles Dino Boyd, Justice Powers and more sooner than later.
MTL | Strong side linebacker
If you’ve been on social media at all this off-season you know Adarius Pickett has been doing freaky athletic things in preparation for his Argos debut. With Pickett gone, the Alouettes have an interesting choice to make as former Ottawa MLB Avery Williams comes to town and multifaceted outside backer Tyrice Beverette readies to prove 2022 wasn’t an anomaly.
The top overall pick from 2022, Tyrell Richards is also set to lineup fully healthy as camp opens, creating a question of whether the Als will go smaller (Beverette) or National (Richards) to replace Pickett with the knowledge that 2023 first round pick Jonathan Sutherland from Penn State could be the perfect fit if and when he comes North.