The Ottawa Redblacks took just two seasons to build a winning team. Now their task is maintaining the form that got them all the way to last year’s Grey Cup final.
While the Redblacks were a surprise success last year – advancing to the championship game one year after a dreadful inaugural campaign – they’ll be on every team’s radar this season after their hard-fought 26-20 loss to Edmonton in the 2015 Grey Cup. They will have to contend with their newfound notoriety, and some early injuries, as they try to lay the groundwork for continued success in Ottawa.
“From the get-go in year one we wanted to grow up as fast as we could and just become another team in this league that competes like everybody else,” said head coach Rick Campbell. “We’ve always wanted to have a winning culture.”
Last season the Redblacks went 12-6 and led the league in net offence, fewest yards allowed, total sacks and interceptions.
While the Redblacks parted ways with a number of players integral to the team’s success, a strong core remains. That group includes veteran quarterback Henry Burris, voted the CFL’s most outstanding player last season.
Burris was instrumental to the Redblacks successful run, and at 41 he appears healthy and determined going into the season.
“My age is what it is,” said Burris. “I’ve put my body in the position to be able to play this young man’s game through my training. I might not be as quick as I was, but I’ve found other ways mentally to get the job done.
“I find ways to take care of my body, use the weapons that are around me and understanding how to create the offence and execute within the offence and that’s what allows me to be much better when I step on this field is knowing how to manage this game and making good decisions.”
Burris is expected to carry the workload, but management added insurance by signing Trevor Harris. The former Toronto quarterback was widely considered a top free agent after the 30-year-old took the reins from an injured Ricky Ray and threw for 4,354 yards and 33 touchdowns.
While Harris may be insurance for the upcoming season, he’s seen as the Redblacks QB of the future.
Whether Burris or Harris at work they will have familiar targets in receivers Ernest Jackson, Brad Sinopoli, Chris Williams and Greg Ellingson who each connected for 1,000 yards last season.
The Redblacks were fortunate to get through much of 2015 without many injuries, but this year the team has already suffered a major setback.
Running back William Powell is done for the season after suffering a ruptured Achilles during Ottawa’s first pre-season game. Powell had a breakout year last season rushing for 447 yards through seven games, while catching 19 passes for 158 yards and his loss will undoubtedly be felt.
Travon Van will be given the opportunity to take on the starter’s role to open the season. The Redblacks have some insurance in rookie Travis Greene, who was released by the Redblacks on Sunday but was added to the team’s 10-man practice roster.
The Redblacks will also be without right guard Nolan MacMillan, who will be sidelined two months with a wrist injury, and fullback Brendan Gillanders, who is out with a knee injury.
Jaime Elizondo takes over as offensive co-ordinator from Jason Maas, who moved to Edmonton for his first opportunity as head coach. Bob Dyce comes in as special teams co-ordinator.
The Redblacks defence is minus five starters from last season, leaving big holes to fill for a team that led the league with 62 sacks. Much of the workload will fall on defensive lineman Zack Evans, linebacker DaMaso Munoz and lineman Arnaud Gascon-Nadon, who signed as a free agent. The Redblacks will once again be looking for big contributions from third-year defensive back Antoine Pruneau, who has improved each year.
Despite the early injuries, the Redblacks core will have valuable big-game experience from last season’s playoffs.
“One of the things that helped us last year was the fact we were able to stay healthy and that’s something we just can’t control,” said running back Patrick Lavoie. “We have high expectations for ourselves. We haven’t forgotten what it was like to lose at the Grey Cup. We had some great games on the way, but that last one still hurts.”