The Toronto Argonauts begin the 2016 season under new ownership and in a new stadium. But perhaps the biggest reason for optimism is the healthy return of Ricky Ray.
The veteran quarterback says his surgically repaired right shoulder feels better now than it has over the past three years. Ray played through shoulder pain for two seasons before undergoing an operation following the 2014 campaign.
But Ray missed most of last season recovering from the procedure, starting Toronto’s final two regular-season contests and its 25-22 East Division semifinal loss to Hamilton. But Ray worked this off-season with Tom House, a former major-league pitcher who now tutors NFL quarterbacks, and had no issues with his arm in training camp.
“Just not having to go through those mental hurdles every day of getting through the pain to warm up and not being able to trust it and not knowing how it’s going to feel play to play is great,” Ray said. “It feels good just being able to go out there play to play focusing on the playbook and not how the arm feels.”
A healthy Ray is crucial for Toronto as backup Trevor Harris _ who posted a 9-7 record with Ray sidelined _ is now with the Ottawa Redblacks. Logan Kilgore secured the backup job in camp ahead of rookie Cody Fajardo and Mitchell Gale.
“Logan won the position, it’s up to him to determine whether he can hold on to it,” Milanovich said. “He needs to continue to prove he’s the next-best guy to lead this team if something happened to Ricky.
“Ricky’s arm looks better than it has in two years to me. It’s back to the way it was when he first got here (in 2012).”
Vidal Hazelton anchors a young receiving corps, registering 70 catches for 803 yards (both team highs) and four touchdowns last year. Also back are Tori Gurley (58 catches, 791 yards, 10 TDs), Kevin Elliott (50 catches, 642 yards, eight TDs), and Diontae Spencer (36 catches, 502 yards, three TDs) while third-year slotback Anthony Coombs had 57 catches for 486 yards and a TD.
“Chad was our main focus offensively (but) sometimes it was hard to move him around and get him involved all the time,” Ray said. “With the guys we have here, anyone can be a threat at any time so you don’t have to worry about trying to move one guy around to get him involved.”
The Argos have more to feel good about than just Ray’s return.
Larry Tanenbaum, the chairman of Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment, and Bell begin their first full season as principle owners. They shared ownership with Hamilton businessman David Braley last year before taking over on a full-time basis this off-season.
Following 27 seasons at Rogers Centre, the Argos will play at a refurbished BMO Field. Capacity there will be roughly 28,000, about 24,000 less the domed facility but the expectation is being outside and in cosier confines will provide fans with a better in-stadium experience.
That appeared to be the case June 11 in Toronto’s 25-16 exhibition win over Hamilton there. The stadium was roughly half full but a noticeably younger crowd was very much engaged throughout the contest.
“Having a home-field advantage will be something our players don’t know (much about),” head coach Scott Milanovich said. “I kind of feel like we’ve weathered the storm and now we’re going to see the fruits of what we’ve been through.”
The Argos lost four home dates at Rogers Centre last year due to the Pan-Am Games and baseball playoffs. And in 2014, they were forced to practise at various fields before finally securing a permanent facility at Downsview Park.
Toronto’s defence will also sport a new look as longtime CFL coach Rich Stubler returns as defensive co-ordinator after two seasons with Calgary. This marks his third stint with the Argos.
“Stubs is Stubs,” veteran defensive end Ricky Foley said. “You can’t show him anything he hasn’t seen before.”
And while the Argos will miss defensive end Tristan Okpalaugo’s 11 sacks (he’s currently with the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals), the defensive line features former Ticats Brian Bulcke, Justin Hickman and Bryan Hall. Former Calgary standout Keon Raymond signed with Toronto as a free agent but cornerback A.J. Jefferson (knee) will miss the start of the season.
Former Winnipeg Blue Bomber Lirim Hajrullahu assumes kicking duties with the off-season departure of American Swayze Waters (Carolina, NFL).