Heading into the season, many pundits predicted a step back in the standings for the Redblacks, a so called “crash to Earth” for a team that “got lucky last season and played over their heads”. One of the big reasons given for this predicted regression was the fact that in the off-season, Ottawa’s defensive line underwent extensive turnover, losing three of four players who started November’s Grey Cup loss. DEs Shawn Lemon and Justin Capicciotti both wound up in Saskatchewan (though Lemon didn’t even last until the regular season before being traded to the Argos) and DT Keith Shologan signed with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Though each of those players was a significant contributor to last season’s 12-6 record and ensuing run to the Grey Cup, the loss of two starting Canadians was thought to the biggest problem.
To fill the void left by their departures, GM Marcel Desjardins decided to sign a few key free agents (mainly rookies) and trust his younger players buried on the depth chart to step up and produce given more playing time.
Seven games into the 2016 season, it looks like once again, a Desjardins off-season decision has paid off in spades. What was perceived as and expected to be a team weakness has instead turned into a strength.
Heading into their bye, the Redblacks were the best team in the CFL at stopping the run, conceding just 50.9 yards per game on the ground and sat 3rd in the league with 15 sacks. While those numbers are impressive on their own, they become even more so when you take into consideration the fact that for the first five games of the season, Ottawa started three Canadians on their defensive line, which is practically unheard of in today’s CFL.
Since losing Gascon-Nadon to an ankle injury (sustained while returning a kickoff), the Redblacks have been forced to juggle their lineup, yet Canadians continue to feature prominently on the defensive line. Connor Williams and Zack Evans carry on as starters, while Ettroe Lattanzio and Andrew Marshall remain important cogs in the defensive rotation, often subbing in and making impact plays.
One big reason the Canadians on the defensive line are flourishing is due to the outstanding work of DL coach (and Hall of Famer) Leroy Blugh. The focus on technique that Blugh preaches in practice has led to a unit that is rock solid on the ground and extremely opportunistic in their ability to collapse the pocket at crucial moments in the game.
While it’s important to note that Americans such as Mike Moore, Landon Cohen and Aston Whiteside have all been producing as well, the heart and soul of the defensive line, at least to this point in the season, has been maple flavoured.
Let’s take a closer look at how each Canadian defensive lineman has performed to date:
Zack “Beastmode” Evans: 15 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 fumble recovery, 3 pass knockdowns
In his first season as all full time starter, Evans has quickly emerged as one of the premier defensive tackles in the CFL. Evans consistently blows up running plays in the backfield and his ability to pressure QBs and get penetration, even when it doesn’t lead directly to a sack, has been invaluable.
Connor “The Barbarian” Williams: 5 tackles, 1 sack
The biggest testament to how well Williams has played this season is the fact that even when DE Aston Whiteside was moved to the one game list and DT Moton Hopkins returned from injury, Williams retained his starting roster spot, being shifted from the interior of the defensive line to the edge.
Arnaud Gascon-Nadon: 8 tackles, 3 sacks
After a slow start to his time in the nation’s capital, Gascon-Nadon was just starting to heat up (with a two sack performance vs the Argos) when he got hurt. His return to the lineup as the Redblacks enter the final half of the season will provide a boost to Ottawa’s pass rush.
Ettore Lattanzio: 12 tackles, 1 sack
The former Ottawa University product has settled into a productive role as a rotational player. Despite being smaller than a prototypical DT at just 6’0, Lattanzio’s ability to leverage his 252 pound frame and get lower than offensive linemen allows him to routinely snuff out running plays for a loss.
Andrew Marshall: 1 sack, 1 forced fumble, 2 pass knockdowns
The only extended playing time Marshall received was against Saskatchewan when Gascon-Nadon left with an injury, and he responded in fine form, compiling all of his season stats in just over three quarters of football.
*Nigel Romick (Six game injured list)*
Yet to take a snap for the Redblacks in 2016 due to a torn bicep, the earliest Romick could return is mid-September.