And just like that, Week 1 is in the books!
It’s good to be back for another season and we had lot to sink our teeth into during the first week of 2023. As a new year is underway, we always like to throw out a few early predictions.
We’re going to kick off this week’s MMQB by taking a stab at three major individual awards.
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In full disclosure, the plan was to get these out BEFORE we got started in 2023 but then I got sidetracked with the last week of the preseason. I promise, however, that I selected these three players prior to the season getting going.
Most Outstanding Player: Zach Collaros, Winnipeg Blue Bombers
I don’t think I’m going out on much of a limb here. Collaros has taken down the league’s most prestigious individual award the last two seasons, so picking him here isn’t what you’d call controversial. In saying that, a third straight MOP nod for Collaros would have him breathing the most rarified of air.
Only one player in league history has completed the MOP three-peat. That would be Doug Flutie who rattled off four in a row with BC and Calgary between 1991 and 1994. As it is, Collaros is one of just five players to win back-to-back MOP’s, joining Flutie, Anthony Calvillo, Dieter Brock, and Jackie Parker.
What we saw from Collaros in Week 1 has him on track. Collaros was electric in Winnipeg’s 42-31 win over the Ticats. He finished with three touchdowns and 354 passing yards in the victory; those stats could have been even more impressive had the Bombers not gotten understandably conservative with their play calling in the second half with a big lead.
Collaros looked every bit an MOP frontrunner on Friday.
Most Outstanding Defensive Player: Jameer Thurman, Hamilton Tiger-Cats
I’ve been huge on Hamilton’s addition of Thurman in free agency since it was made official in mid-February. For me, Thurman is one of the league’s best pure athletes and is the most well-rounded and versatile player at his MIKE linebacker position. With how he touches every facet of the defensive game, I thought Thurman was a huge add for the Tiger-Cats.
Thurman is a devastating but sure tackler and is hard to get past on initial contact. He’s rangy and tracks extremely well, which makes running on him specifically difficult. His ability to drop into coverage at a high level adds an extra element to the Thurman package. I really feel like 2023 is the year Thurman’s impact is fully realized across the league.
Most Outstanding Canadian: Ben Hladik, BC Lions
Hladik burst onto the scene last July when teammate Bo Lokombo went down with injury. Initially starting on the weak side, it didn’t take long for Hladik to slide into the middle linebacker role for the rest of the season. Hladik was great upon cracking the starting lineup; he finished 2022 with 59 defensive tackles, two sacks, two interceptions and one forced fumble.
Hladic, now entrenched at the top of BC’s depth chart, is a cool local story. Born and raised in Vernon, BC, Hladik played his U SPORTS football at the University of British Columbia before going in the third round of the 2021 CFL Draft.
Both Hladik and Lokombo looked great in BC’s Week 1 win over the Stampeders and, honestly, they were neck-and-neck for me on this prediction. Hladik had three tackles on Thursday night, while Lokombo racked up seven to go along with a sack as the Lions held Calgary to 250 net yards of offence.
BC’s offence sure did look good Thursday night in Calgary. The play of Vernon Adams Jr. at quarterback was encouraging, as he looked even more comfortable than he did in his strong spot duty last season. But it was the connection with Dominique Rhymes that popped the most, as he and Adams hooked up on eight catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns. Rhymes was a breakout star in 2022 and wasn’t any less contained in Week 1.
Speaking of receivers, I shudder to think what the position will look like in Winnipeg when Kenny Lawler rejoins the team. Even without Lawler, the Bombers put on an aerial display Friday night, led by six catches, 113 yards, and a touchdown from Nic Demski. Also getting in on the act with big plays were Dalton Schoen, Rasheed Bailey, Drew Wolitarsky, Carlton Agudosi, and Brady Oliveira. Adding Lawler down the line seems unfair.
I was interested to see who was going to star early on in Montreal’s new look offence and it was one of the absolute freshest faces that featured the most. Receiver Austin Mack, who was signed just before training camp, had a stellar CFL debut as the Als opened with a 19-12 win over Ottawa. Mack busted off a pair of big gainers and finished with four catches and 120 yards in his first regular season action since January 2021 when he was with the New York Giants.
Finally, there was a lot to like from Saskatchewan in their 17-13 win in Edmonton on Sunday. The thing I was most excited about was how the Riders protected quarterback Trevor Harris in his regular season debut. Yes, Jake Cersena got to Harris twice, but that Sask offensive line held up well in the face of lots of pressure packages from the Elks. It was especially impressive knowing free agent signing Philip Blake is starting the year on the six-game injured list. It’s an encouraging sign knowing how much of a struggle that area was last season.