Fresh off a 12-6 season that lead to the first playoff game in the Nation’s Capital since 1983 (a wild home win over the Ticats in the East Final) and culminated in a narrow Grey Cup loss to the Edmonton Eskimos, the 2016 Ottawa Redblacks head into training camp with something no other Redblacks team has ever dealt with; the expectation to win.
In their inaugural season, R-Nation was simply happy to have football back and last year, even the most optimistic fans (such as myself) predicted that if things broke the right way, the team might make the playoffs as a crossover or low seed. Instead, Ottawa surprised everyone and stormed to the top of the East Division.
As much as player departures and changes in the coaching staff are compelling stories, one of the most interesting things to watch will be how this season’s team handles the pressure of being expected to win and how the team builds off last season’s playoff success.
With that in mind, let’s take a position by position look at the 2016 Redblacks as the team opens training camp.
While signing Trevor Harris was a major coup, let’s not forget that until Father Time or injury catches up to him, this is still Henry “Reigning MOP” Burris’ team. The soon to be 41 year old is once again in excellent shape and if mini-camp is any indication, his arm is as strong as ever. While the loss of Jason Maas will set back the offence as a whole, Burris shouldn’t experience a significant drop in production under new OC Jaime Elizondo. Where the signing of Harris does come in handy is that it provides crucial depth at the most important position in the game. Harris, himself an MOP candidate until late into last season, has proven beyond a doubt that is a capable CFL starter, throwing for a league high 33 TDs last year. The only real battle at this position in training camp will be for the 3rd string job, as the incumbent Danny O’Brien looks to hold off Brock Jensen, a promising prospect who spent 2015 hidden away on the one game injured list.
Historically, OC Jamie Elizondo teams have pounded the rock, and that bodes well for a big season out of lead back William Powell. Powell emerged late last year when Jeremiah Johnson (now property of the BC Lions) dislocated his foot. Powell averaged 5.9 yards per carry in the regular season and shone in the post-season, ending the year with a brilliant Grey Cup performance, where he lead all players in combined yards and averaged 6.6 yards per carry. When Powell needs a breather, expect the explosive Canadian Kienan LaFrance to touch the ball. LaVance Taylor and Travon Van round out the group.
Ottawa boasts a two headed monster at FB, with both Patrick Lavoie and the newly signed Brendan Gillanders able to punish defenders with heavy blocks and capable of catching passes out of the backfield. Both FBs figure to feature prominently on special teams.
With the top four spots locked down by last year’s 1000 yard receivers (Williams, Sinopoli, Jackson and Ellingson), the only real opening is at the number five slot, held once upon a time by Maurice Price. Depending on how the Redblacks chose to balance their ratio, they could look to fill the position with a Canadian like Jake Harty, Scott MacDonell or Alex Pierzchalski. Failing that, there are a number of intriguing Internationals who could step up. Khalil Paden is a name that often gets overlooked as he was injured for the majority of 2015 but who has shone in limited reps. Newcomers John Harris, Juron Criner and Tyler Shoemaker all have big frames and soft hands. The diminutive Casey Martin might not boast size, but his production while at Southern Miss (135 receptions for 1456 yards and 9 TDs) speaks for itself. Another name not to overlook is Jamill Smith, though he figures to be used primarily in the return game.
In 2015 the Redblacks lucked out on the offensive line. Not only did they avoid any serious injuries to their starting unit, but the same five guys suited up throughout the entire season. That kind of continuity is as rare as someone from Ottawa praising the Gliberman name; it just doesn’t happen. This year’s unit has already suffered a setback, as RT Colin Kelly’s departure to the NFL leaves a significant hole along the line. How the Redblacks handle the RT position will set the tone for the rest of the National ratio. Veteran Nolan MacMillan or 1st round pick Jason Lauzon-Seguin could slide into the position, or the team may choose to go American and let Jake Silas or Tommie Draheim fill Kelly’s shoes. If MacMillan does wind up at RT, it opens a spot for last year’s 1st overall pick Alex Mateas to start. Look for Mateas to battle J’Micheal Deane and Matt Albright for reps at guard.
Last season the Redblacks led the CFL in sacks and interceptions. This season they enter training camp with more questions than answers. While the departure of Keith Shologan at DT should be negated by Zack Evans and Andrew Marshall, the production and pressure lost when Shawn Lemons and Justin Capicciotti signed with the GREENWHITES will be much harder to replace. Nationals vying to replace Capicciotti are Arnaud Gascon-Nadon, Nigel Romick and Connor Williams. The release of DT Jonathan Williams leaves Moton Hopkins as a likely starter and if he ever gets medically cleared, Amobi Okoye could be a force. Ottawa seems to be heavily banking on a return to form from DE Aston Whiteside, who is coming off a nasty knee injury. If Whiteside struggles to re-gain his dominance, things might get ugly. LaDarius Owens, Cory Henry and Kendall Williams all figure to be regularly rotated onto the field but it remains to be seen who will distinguish themselves in the pre-season.
The LB corp doesn’t figure to see much change, as last season’s starting trio of Antoine Pruneau, David Hinds and Damaso Munoz are all returning. The one name that could push for a starting spot is Malik Jackson, who is once again healthy after missing the majority of last season to injury. As for the rest, Jonathan Beaulieu-Richard, Burton De Koning, Tanner Doll, Kevin Jackson, Arto Khatchikian,Manny Rodriguez, Nick Rosamaonda and Guillaume Tremblay-Lebel will distinguish themselves and earn their roster spots based on special teams performances.
2015 was D-Block’s coming out party, as they piggybacked off the pressure generated by the defensive line and picked off a CFL high 26 interceptions. Despite losing Jovon Johnson and Brandyn Thompson, D-Block should be fine. 3rd year vets Abdul Kanneh, Jerrell Gavins and Jermaine Robinson will anchor the secondary while Forrest Hightower, Brandon Sermons and the heavy hitting John Boyett continue to develop.
With Chris Milo coming off a season where he hit a spectacular 91.2% of his FGs and Ronnie Pfeffer now healthy and seemingly ready to hold down the punter position, Ottawa’s kicking game has never been in better hands…er feet.
The biggest difference on special teams isn’t a change of personnel but rather a new coach. Bob Dyce figures to completely overhaul the inept return game that has plagued the Redblacks throughout the past two seasons.