Riders training camp preview: more answers than questions

For the first time since the 2012 season, the Saskatchewan Roughriders head into training camp with more questions than answers.

After a dismal 2015 season, president and CEO Craig Reynolds cleaned house. The entire coaching staff and management, save for assistant general manager Jeremy O’Day were out and in came Chris Jones, John Murphy and most of the Eskimos Grey Cup winning coaching staff.

With training camp set to open, we’ll soon get our first glimpse of what the new Riders will be all about.

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Whether Darian Durant is a quarterback a team can win with is no longer in question. Durant forever silenced his critics by winning the 2013 Grey Cup on home soil. There is no questioning Durant’s abilities on the field. Now, the questions are about his health.

Since the mid-point of the 2014 season, Durant has played just under 30 minutes of regular season football due to an elbow injury and a torn achilles. His health is the single biggest question for the team this season. Without Durant, there’s no question this season could go sideways in a hurry again.

The job behind Durant appears to be wide open at this point. Sophomore Brett Smith might have the upper hand having played last season. B.J. Coleman is the only other pivot on the roster at this point, however Jones told reporters in his season preview news conference that more will be brought in for camp.


Running Backs

If Durant is the one consistent for the Riders, the running back position has not been. The Green and White have not had a stable backfield since Kory Sheets signed with the Oakland Raiders after the 2013 season. Since then the team has brought in the likes of Anthony Allen, WIll Ford, Jerome Messam and so on.

Once again this season, there does not appear to be a clear cut favourite to carry the rock for the Riders in 2016. Curtis Steele joins the team after three seasons in Toronto. The other guys fighting for the job are first year players in the league other than Canadian Matt Walter who also signed with the team over the winter. Walter would have to put on quite the show to get number one reps with no apparent Canadian running back on the roster to back him up. Starting Walter would require some creative ratio juggling if he were to get injured.

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Other than the first half of the 2014 seasons, Durant won’t have two of his favourite targets at his disposal in Weston Dressler and Chris Getzlaf.

Durant does have Rob Bagg, Nic Demski, Seydou Junior Hadaira and Naaman Roosevelt back. After that, it’s a bunch of new faces on the depth chart including the likes of John Chiles, Shamawd Chambers, Kendial Lawrence and Clarence Denmark.

Barring injury, Bagg is a lock to start. Demski and Chambers will likely battle to be the second starting Canadian receiver. That leaves Denmark, Chiles and Roosevelt likely to fill out the starting five.


Offensive Line

At this point, the only question surrounding the Riders offensive line is who will start at both tackles positions. The left tackle spot might have been filled this week when Jones announced the team has re-signed last season’s starter in Xavier Fulton. Fulton struggled in 2014. Fulton admitted to me last season that he took his status with the team for granted that season. He took his offseason workout seriously heading into 2015 and packed on the pounds to return to his previous form as one of the best tackles in the league.

What happens at right tackle could be an x-factor for this team. If they can get first overall pick Josiah St. John under contract, he’s an option to flip the ratio there, otherwise a bevy of American talent will fight for that job. Brendon LaBatte, Dan Clark and Chris Best are fairly safe in their positions.


Defensive line

Whether it was the scheme, age, ability or some combination of everything, the Riders defensive line did not produce last season. Because of that, it should come as no surprise that other than Rory Connop none of the team’s starting defensive line from opening day last year is back.

Jones’ defences have been known to get pressure on the quarterback and the group last year simply could not do it on a consistent basis.

Shawn Lemon and Justin Capicciotti will be on the wings. There is the possibility for openings at tackle. Should they want to go Canadian, Connop will be battling former Huskie Tim Agbaje for that job. Word is Agbaje has packed on some serious muscle in the offseason. Markus White is also back from last season and could be in the mix to fill Eric Norwood’s void until he’s back from injury along with Johnathan Williams and a number of first year players.



Like much of the defence, the Riders second line of defence needed a lot of work in the offseason.

Not surprisingly, Jeff Knox Jr. is the only starter that’s back. Knox had a huge year last season leading the team in tackles with 107, setting a new team record in the process. Whether that was a product of someone having to make a tackle on a bad defence or not has yet to be seen. Either way, plenty will be expected of Knox in his second CFL season. Knox could be shifted to WILL this season, where he started last year, to make way for former Argo Greg Jones to patrol the middle.

Otha Foster joins Jones in Saskatchewan coming over from the Eskimos. He played in just about every game or the Eskimos last year at SAM linebacker. No reason to believe he wouldn’t do the same this year.


Defensive Backs

Not surprisingly Jones ripped apart his new team’s secondary. Tyree Hollins and Matt Webster are the only names of note that are back. Neither were starters for much of last year. How they line up at this point is up for debate but one battle that is definitely forming is starting safety. Previously, Corey Chamblin did not want to start a Canadian there. That changed when he was fired and is likely to continue this year. Graig Newman is back after a couple of seasons in Winnipeg and is likely the favourite to start. Webster is likely to push him. Dan West provides depth but is mostly a special teamer. Kwame Adjei was drafted in this year’s draft. Canadian Tevaughn Campbell is an interest prospect to keep an eye on, but other than being fast, he hasn’t proven anything in the league yet. Ed Gainey brings some experience, other Americans in camp are new or have little experience in the league.


Special Teams

Many of the bolts and pieces of the cover units are back from last season. The team’s cover units were basically the team’s bright spot not allowing a touchdown all season. New/old special teams coordinator Craig Dickenson has a solid base to build off of.

Tyler Crapigna is likely to be the team’s starting field goal kicker. Draft pick Quinn Van Gylswyk could push Crapigna but is more likely to push veteran punter Josh Bartel who returns to the team after not playing in 2015. Bartel has decent punting numbers but his inability to kick-off could hurt his chances.

Joel Gasson is a Regina-based sports writer, broadcaster and football fanatic. He is also a beer aficionado.