Breaking Down the Redblacks Positional Battles

After a busy off-season spent overhauling the offence, training camp is finally here. No one can accuse GM Marcel Desjardins of sitting back or not being aggressive enough. The Redblacks targeted and acquired numerous players that addressed their main weaknesses last year, offensive line and the wide receiver position. Here’s a quick look at some of the major changes.

Key Departures:




OC Mike Gibson (Fired)

WR Dobson Collins (Signed with Montreal)

OL Alex “Truckstick” Krausnick (Signed with Edmonton)

WR Wallace Miles (Signed with Edmonton)

RB Jonathan Williams (Free agent)

LB Jasper Simmons (Traded to Calgary)

OL Joe Eppele (Retired)

LB/LS Kevin Scott (Retired)

FB John Delahunt (Retired)

LB Jason Pottinger (Retired)

K Brett Maher (Released)

Key Additions:

OC Jason Maas (Hired from the Argos)

OL Coach Brian Chiu (Hired from the Argos)

WR Maurice Price (Acquired from Calgary)

OL SirVincent Rogers (Free agent signing)

WR Brad Sinopoli (Free agent signing)

WR Ernest Jackson (Free agent signing)

WR Greg Ellingson (Free agent signing)

WR Chris Williams (Free agent signing)

OL Alex Mateas (1st overall draft pick)

WR Jake Harty (2nd round draft pick)

LB/LS Tanner Doll (4th round draft pick)

K Johnny Mark (Free agent signing)

Just like last year, the Ottawa Redblacks will once again be holding training camp at Keith Harris Stadium, at Carleton University. Once again, every practice will be open to the public. For the complete training camp schedule, click here.

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Training camp is always a time of competition but this year promises several fierce positional battles. Let’s break it down by position.

*Denotes a National player

QBs: Henry Burris, Thomas DeMarco, Danny O’Brien, Brock Jensen, Derek Wendel*, Hugo Richard*

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Make no mistake about it, Henry Burris will have to play himself out of the starting job and while unlikely, with a now healthy Thomas DeMarco, Burris’ leash will be much shorter than last season. In 2014, Burris mostly got a free pass, as things like inexperienced wide recievers running the wrong routes, terribly play calling, a weak offensive line and 50+ drops did nothing to help his production. That said, Burris also skipped or overthrew a fair number of balls. With OC Jason Maas’ new, QB friendly system and a plethora of new wideouts, the pressure is squarely on Burris’ 40 year old shoulders to perform.

Though coming off major knee surgery, from all appearances DeMarco is 100% and has the inside track on the backup spot. The real battle at this position should be between O’Brien who was average in limited action last season, against the newcomer Jensen, who led his college team to three consecutive national championships, for the 3rd string spot.

Wendel, the Ottawa Gee-Gees’ starting QB, and Richard, Laval’s starter, are both in camp as part of the CFL’s internship program.

RB: Chevon Walker, Jeremiah Johnson, Akeem Shavers, Torrance Hunt, Guillaume Bourassa*, Patrick Lavoie*, Jefferson Court*, Kienan Lafrance*, Jordan Verdone*

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Before breaking his arm last season, Walker was one of the best all around backs in the CFL. Now fully healthy, he’ll be looking to pick up where he left off. Fortunately for the running back group as a whole, Mike Gibson is gone, which means the Redblacks will undoubtedly average more than 10 runs a game. Walker projects to be the starter but Johnson proved extremely capable in limited action, averaging 6.3 yards per carry. Shavers and Hunt both have NFL experience, while Bourassa and Lafrance boast productive university careers and provide National depth.

Fullbacks didn’t get a lot action last season, but expect Lavoie and Court to be involved in Jason Maas’ offensive system, both in terms of blocking and in the passing game. Though still listed as a LB on the Redblacks site, Verdone worked at FB during April’s mini-camp.

WR: Maurice Price, Ernest Jackson, Khalil Paden, Jamill Smith, Jake Harty*, Marcus Henry, Chris Williams, Greg Ellingson, Scott Macdonell*, Michael Campbell, Matt Carter*, L.J Castile, Brad Sinopoli*, Lanear Sampson, Phillip Enchill*, Jordan King*

wr

With last season’s dismal production, something had to give at the WR position. Newcomers Price, Jackson, Ellingson, Sinopoli, Williams, Harty, Castile, Campbell, Sampson, Enchill and King will duke it out with holdovers Henry, Macdonell, Carter, Paden and Smith. The battle for jobs will be fierce and hopefully competition brings out the best in each player. Ottawa should easily be able to piece together one of the best WR groups in the CFL from this batch of players. The only question is, will there be enough balls to go around in training camp?

Names like Price, Jackson, Williams and Ellingson jump out but don’t be surprised to see Paden raise eyebrows as he builds off his strong performance in 2014. Henry is a bit of question mark, as he started out so strongly last season before fading down the stretch. Likewise, Smith returned kicks but got almost no action at WR, so it’ll be interesting to see how he fares.

In terms of Nationals, 2nd year player Macdonell shone in limited action in 2014 and look for that trend to continue as his reps grow. With the addition of Sinopoli and Harty, Carter will need an extremely strong performance at camp to keep his job. 2014 Vanier Cup winner Enchill and Ottawa Sooner product King round out this deep group.

OL: Alexandre Laganiere*, Jake Cotton, Aaron Wheaton*, Matthew Albright*, SirVincent Rogers, Alex Mateas*, Anthony Barrette*, Hugo Desmarais*, Jon Gott*, J’Micheal Deane*, Nolan MacMillan*, Colin Kelly

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The addition of Rogers should finally provide a stable presence at left tackle, which was a rotating door last season. After being thrown into the fire his rookie season, last year’s growing pains should pay off in spades for MacMillan. MacMillan has the potential to start at guard or tackle, a flexibility which makes him that much more valuable.

One of the main questions around the offensive line is if a) Mateas can earn himself a starting spot and b) Where that spot is. With both Mateas and Gott capable of playing centre and guard, it’ll be interesting to see who ends up where. It’s worth noting that Mateas is more of a natural centre and Gott was an all-star last time he played a full season at guard. How that plays out will have a ripple effect on the rest of the line.

Kelly and Deane were starters at the end of last season, but expect guys like Desmarais, Wheaton and newcomer Cotton to make a push for playing time. Obviously it’s much too early to predict with any accuracy, but if I had to guess as to the starting OL group for the season opener on June 25th, I’d go with Rogers, Gott, Mateas, Deane and MacMillan.

DL: Matt Acree, Vincent Desloges*, Keith Shologan*, Jonathan Williams, Cory Henry, Andrew Marshall*, Chase Baker, Zack Evans*, Justin Capicciotti*, Moton Hopkins, Eric Harper, Kalonji Kashama*, Marlon Smith, Connor Williams*, Nigel Romick*

dl

The defensive line was a strength for the Redblacks in 2014, despite finishing last in the league with 37 QB sacks. With cogs like Keith Shologan and Jonathan Willams fully healthy, and guys like Zack Evans and Justin Capicciotti looking to build off strong seasons, plus the addition of a player like Chase Baker and the re-signing of Moton Hopkins, look for sacks to come more frequently in 2015.

Kashama, Smith, Romick, Marshall and Connor Williams all return with a year of experience under their belts and are rotational players with the ability to stuff the run and pressure the QB. Newcomers Desloges, Henry and Acree all produced at the college level and will be looking to transition that success to the CFL.

LB: Malik Jackson, David Hinds, James Green*, Justin Cudworth, John Kanongata’a, Travis Brown, Damaso Munoz, Tanner Doll* Antoine Pruneau*, Justin Phillips*

lb

In 2014 the theme of the linebacker corp was surprises. Canadian rookie Antoine Pruneau earned a starting job in Week 6 and never looked back, finishing second on the team with 69 tackles. Travis Brown also enjoyed a strong year, racking up 56 tackles, 3 sacks and 2 INTs. The biggest question mark facing the LB group is who replaces traded MOP Jasper Simmons’ production. Whether it be by committee, or if someone such as Munoz can slide right in, the Redblacks need results. Free agent signings Jackson, Cudworth, Kanongata’a will go head to head for playing time and special teams roles against Hinds, Jackson and a now healthy Phillips, the holdovers from last season.

The battle for starting LB positions figures to be second only to the battle for starting WR positions and is definitely worth keeping a close eye on.

DB: Jovon Johnson, Abdul Kanneh, Hugo Lopez*, Brandon McDonald, Korey Lindsey, Jerrell Gavins, Brandyn Thompson, Jeremaine Robinson, Fred Gaines, John Stevenson, Jacques Washington, Brandon Sermons, Forrest Hightower

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The good news is that every starter from last season is back and will be another year wiser. Led by the veteran Johnson, second year players Kanneh, Gavins, Robinson and Thompson will look to build off the potential this unit flashed in 2014. While Johnson is no longer the player he was in 2011, what he’s lost in speed is made up for in experience. Robinson played DB last season but is apparently being moved to safety, and his knack for big hits should cause opposing WRs to hesitate coming over the middle.

Journeymen McDonald and Lopez were added to the roster halfway through last season and didn’t look out of place. Expect a strong push for playing time from them and new additions Gaines and Hightower.

Though it might seem like certain players are shoo-ins as starters, keep in mind that with the new no contact after 5 yards rule, jobs might be won and lost based on who can adapt the quickest.

K/P: Trey Barrow, Zack Ramirez, Johnny Mark*, Delbert Alvarado

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With Brett Maher’s off-season hip injury and subsequent release, the kicking job is wide open. In early February, the Redblacks traded a conditional 2016 pick to Saskatchewan for the rights to Mark, but were unable to reach deal before free agency kicked off. Fortunately the two sides were eventually able to come to terms on a two year deal. Ramirez was with the Redblacks last season but saw limited reps as Maher’s backup. Barrow signed with the team on May 15th, making it a three-way competition.

In April’s mini-camp, reports gave Mark the edge in field goals over Ramirez but Ramirez the edge in punting over Mark. In a recent interview with TSN1200, Head Coach Rick Campbell didn’t rule out the idea of keeping both players on the roster, each for one aspect of the kicking duties.

That being said, if Mark can lock down both the kicking and punting jobs in training camp, his National status would provide the Redblacks with incredible ratio flexibility.

***UPDATE***

Early Friday morning Ramirez and Barrow were released and Alvarado was signed.

KR: Chris Williams, Jamill Smith, Chevon Walker

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Last season, kick returning duties were mainly split between Smith and Walker. Smith handled all of the punt duties (averaging 8.6 yards per return) and until he broke his arm, Walker was a staple on kickoff returns. With the addition of Williams and his history of dynamic, explosive plays, look for him to get the majority of touches returning kicks. With the CFL’s new rules, Williams figures to pick up right where he left off in 2012, when he led the league with five kick return TDs.

What positional battle are you most looking forward to? Who do you think is a dark horse candidate to emerge as an impact player? Will you be heading down to Keith Harris Stadium to watch any practices live? Let me know by leaving a comment below!

@RedBlackGade

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