With the arrival of rookies on Wednesday to open training camp, the euphoria of last season’s championship has finally faded. On Friday players, coaches and management basked in that warm glow one last time as they received their Grey Cup rings.
But with such formalities out of the way, their total focus must be on the now. Many key players a part of last year’s magical season are gone, either headed for greener pastures in the NFL or to divisional rivals. In their place step a new wave of free agents looking to carve out their own story in Ottawa CFL lore.
As this year’s Grey Cup takes place at Lansdowne, R-Nation’s expectations are high. Yet before anyone in the nation’s capital can even think of repeating, the Redblacks must first get through training camp, where the foundations of all great teams are created.
Here’s a closer look at some of the most interesting storylines and positional battles that will play out over the next few weeks.
Hall of Famer (and 2016 Grey Cup MVP) Henry Burris is gone, and into his place steps Trevor Harris. While it might be strange for some in R-Nation to consider the prospect of heading into a season without the iconic #1 under centre, the reality is there shouldn’t be a discernible drop-off with Harris. Over the past two seasons, the-soon-to-be 31 year old pivot has dominated the league in injury duty. But while starring in spot duty is impressive, it’s an entirely different thing to enter the season as a starter, with the full weight of expectations squarely on your shoulders. The CFL regular season is an 18 game grind, and in this league, as your QB goes, so does your season. If Harris can rise to the moment, there’s no reason not to count the Redblacks among the league’s elite. If he falters, so does Ottawa’s chance of defending their title at home.
The backup QB battle
Barring a disastrous training camp, Drew Tate will be Ottawa’s primary clipboard holder. The eight year CFL vet, provides the Redblacks with an experienced pivot who is capable of stepping under centre in a pinch and winning games.
But things really get interesting when you look beyond further down the depth chart. The other two QBs on Ottawa’s roster are Brock Jensen and Ryan Lindley. The former, heading into his 2nd year, flashed glimpses of potential in extremely limited reps. The latter, an NFL castoff with underwhelming career numbers, is learning the three down game and its nuances, but impressed at mini-camp with his arm.
No clear cut #1 at RB
Of the seven running backs on the Redblacks’ roster, three are Canadian (Patrick Lavoie, Anthony Gosselin, Ed Ilnicki) and figure to feature mainly as fullbacks, lead blockers, in the short passing game and on special teams. That means that an American starter will need to materialize out of a group featuring William Powell, Shakir Bell, Mossis Madu and Marion Grice. Of the four, Powell, Madu and Bell are returning from injuries, while Grice, who has bounced around NFL practice rosters the past few seasons, is a CFL rookie. Short of any serious injury setbacks, the smart money is on Powell or Bell to emerge as Ottawa’s lead back, though Head Coach Rick Campbell could also chose to adopt a running backs by committee approach.
Just because Ottawa won the Grey Cup without the mammoth 6-foot-4, 319 pound SirVincent Rogers protecting the QB’s blind side, doesn’t mean he wasn’t missed. Rogers’ return solidifies the Redblacks’ offensive line, providing experience, reliability and another perennial All-Star.
Speaking of the offensive line, it’ll be fascinating to see who replaces the departed J’Michael Deane at guard. Much will depend on where the Redblacks choose to play Jason Lauzon-Séguin. If the coaching staff decides to roll with four Canadians on the offensive line and slot in him in right tackle, the battle for Deane’s old spot boils down to Alex Mateas and Matt Albright. If not, it’s likely Lauzon-Séguin takes the spot, leaving right tackle for an American, and Mateas and Albright as backups.
Which receivers will step up?
There’s no sugarcoating the fact that the Redblacks took a risk letting Chris Williams and Ernest Jackson walk out the door in free agency. With their departures, Ottawa loses one of the fastest players in the league, one of the most sure handed and their combined 165 catches, 2471 yards and 20 touchdowns. To offset their departures, GM Marcel Desjardins has stockpiled receivers, with 16 currently under contract. Of those, Greg Ellingson, Brad Sinopoli and Juron Criner are locks to start, meaning there are just two open spots for 13 players.
Although any player is just a stellar camp performance away from starting, it’s likely the dogfight for regular reps boils down to three free agent additions; former Argos Kenny Shaw, Dionate Spencer and Tori Gurley. Due to their time in Toronto, the trio is familiar with QB Trevor Harris and offensive coordinator Jamie Elizondo’s playbook.
Open spots in the secondary
If there’s one position that took a hit more so than any other this off-season for the Redblacks, it was the secondary. Of the five DBs that started the Grey Cup, three left for the NFL. Though Desjardins added A.J. Jefferson, no other household CFL names were signed. That means the team is banking on someone such as Nick Taylor, Imoan Claiborne and Keelan Johnson to go from a rotational player to an every down starter. The secondary could be stabilized if 4th year pro Jerrell Gavins moves back to DB from the SAM LB role he assumed last season, but there’s no guarantee that change gets made.
During their brief existence, the Redblacks have proven extremely adept at turning American rookies into starters, so potentially a complete unknown comes out of camp atop the depth chart. Something else worth considering is that Grey Cup hero Forrest Hightower was released by the NFL’s New Orleans Saints this week, so perhaps Desjardins gives him a call.
Turnover in the LB corps
Aside from the surprising addition of Khalil Bass in free agency (which indirectly lead to the retirement of Damaso Munoz), the biggest storyline in Ottawa’s linebacking corps is what happens with Jerrell Gavins. Despite his small stature, Gavins is a heavy hitting playmaker in the SAM role. But given the lack of star power in the secondary, it may be wise to move him back to his natural position. If that happens, look for Serderius Bryant to take over his spot. In limited playing time last season Bryant demonstrated a nose for the ball and good closing speed. A LB corps consisting of Bass, Tank Reed and Bryant would be a force.
(Long) Snaps away
While no position on a football is immune from competition, it was a bit surprising to see Desjardins use a 4th round pick in the draft to select 6-foot-3, 231 pound long snapper Louis-Philippe Bourassa. Bourassa, who was absolute money with his snaps during his four years with the Montréal Carabins, will face off with Tanner Doll, Ottawa’s incumbent long snapper. Doll, who had a strong year snapping for the Redblacks, excels in kick coverage. Despite not being the sexiest positional battle in camp, it’s a highly important one for a role that most fans don’t pay much attention to.
Kicking off the kicking battle
Although Ray Early took over place kicking duties from Zack Medeiros in Week 19 last year and never missed a field goal (all the way through the Grey Cup), he isn’t being handed the starting job. Just like last season, Early will have to earn the job the hard way. Also in the mix is Canadian Ronnie Pfeffer, who is finally healthy again after missing the entire 2016 season with a fractured tibia. In spite of Pfeffer’s big leg, Early’s versatility may give him an edge, as he is capable of both place kicking and punting.
With only three natural defensive ends (Connor Williams, Arnaud Gascon-Nadon and John Biewald) under contract, it’s clear the Redblacks are expecting some of the other 14 defensive linemen listed on their roster to be converted to end. Defensive line coach Leroy Blugh is a Hall of Famer with a knack for coaching up his players, so don’t be surprised to see an unfamiliar name emerge. As for Ottawa native Biewald, best case is that the 22 year old becomes a rotational player and provides some depth behind Williams and Gascon-Nadon.