For the Saskatchewan Roughriders 2023 was a long, arduous and often difficult campaign. Despite holding third place in the CFL’s West Division for much of the season, that final spot now goes to the Calgary Stampeders after the Riders faltered down the stretch.
Much of the narrative around Saskatchewan will discuss the big picture disappointment, but there are bright spots throughout the team to be rallied around moving forward.
The first, and largest to me is that all is not lost at the game’s most important position. As the Riders were reeling after Labour Day, what they needed was consistency, accuracy, high efficiency and above all veteran leadership to pull the reins back and set a new course.
They already have that on the roster and under contract for 2024 in Trevor Harris. Unfortunately for the team and Harris, a July knee injury meant they barely got to see what the offence was capable of before he was gone. With a healthy Harris in training camp and a motivated group surrounding him, Saskatchewan should be able to see through their 2023 potential, albeit a year too late for many fans’ liking.
From a team perspective, despite not having Harris for much of the season Saskatchewan led the CFL in plays from scrimmage per game with 57.5 and came third in passing yardage per game with 280.4. Unfortunately much of that was offset by a league worst 49 turnovers made, but individual stories capable of inspiring weren’t lost on the discerning eye through adversity.
In fill-in duty QB Mason Fine finished the season with the CFL’s third best completion percentage (69.1 per cent). Many of those were headed for free agency addition and 2023 revelation Shawn Bane Jr. who leads the CFL entering the final week of the regular season in both targets (139) and catches (93).
No matter which quarterback was playing alongside him, Bane embraced his upgraded role from last season in Calgary and has shown to be worthy of planning next season around with plenty of other valuable pieces expected to be back around him in the offensive skill group.
On special teams, Guelph Gryphons alumni and 2020 35th overall pick A.J. Allen has grown into a significant role on the coverage teams. Ahead of this weekend he ranks fourth (19) in league wide special teams tackles behind only Winnipeg’s Nick Hallett (20), Calgary’s Darius Williams (21) and Hamilton’s Carthell Flowers-Lloyd (30) who has had one of the more memorable seasons in recent CFL special teams history.
Alongside Allen, Mario Alford once again proved to be one of the CFL’s best return men when healthy, finishing second in the CFL for kickoff return yards and combined yards (2,266) behind only BC Lions dynamo Terry Williams while Riders punter Adam Korsak leads the league in average punt distance at 47.9 yards per attempt.
With Samuel Emilus stepping up in meaningful ways alongside Fine, Bane and the underrated development of many young National linemen there is still only one story that takes the cake in positive notes for Riders’ fans to remember a difficult 2023 season by.
Larry Dean is superhuman.
Playing alongside Darnell Sankey in 2022 it was stunning to see Dean rack up more than 100 tackles for just the second time in his career while adding three sacks, two interceptions and a pair of forced fumbles. This season without the undeniable influence on offences that Sankey provided in the box, Dean has once again cleared the 100-tackle plateau while adding a pair of sacks and interceptions.
Achilles injuries like the one dean suffered in July 2021 are potentially career threatening for any athlete, especially those who explode their body weight into opposing players as often as an All-Star linebacker like Dean does.
Despite that, he has made play after play after play in 2023 to set the tone for Saskatchewan’s future if they are able to keep him come February free agency. He would be No. 1 on my big board running the Riders in terms of players to lock down before Christmas in what would be a clear message to all involved that if you produce your efforts will be rewarded.
The more Larry Dean-like players the Roughriders can add, the better chances they’ll have to turn their fortunes around in 2024.