The Redblacks’ road to repeating

With the Ottawa Redblacks set to raise their Grey Cup banner and kick off their season against Calgary, the team they beat to win it last November, here’s one last look back at off-season transactions, a glance at the challenges ahead, a depth chart dive and six bold predictions.

Key departures:

Henry Burris (QB), Brock Jensen (QB), Kienan LaFrance (RB), Ernest Jackson (WR), Chris Williams (WR), Khalil Paden (WR), J’Micheal Deane (OL), Moton Hopkins (DL), Cleyon Laing (DL), Damaso Munoz (LB), Mitchell White (DB), Abdul Kanneh (DB), Forrest Hightower (DB), Jeff Richards (DB), Jamill Smith (KR) and Ray Early (K)

Key additions:

Drew Tate (QB), Ryan Lindley (QB),  Kenny Shaw (WR), Dionate Spencer (WR), Joshua Stangby (WR), Jason Ankrah (DL), Steven Miller (DL), Jake Cersena (DL), Avery Ellis (DL), Khalil Bass (LB), Ron Omara (LB), Kevin Brown (LB), AJ Jefferson (DB), Adam Berger (DB), Corey Tindal (DB), Sherrod Baltimore (DB) and Brett Maher (K)

2017 draft class:

OL Evan Johnson, University of Saskatchewan

FB Anthony Gosselin, Université de Sherbrooke

DL Eli Ankou, UCLA

LS Louis-Philippe Bourassa, Université de Montréal

DL Mathieu Dupuis, Université de Montréal

WR Austen Hartley, University of Calgary

RB Ed Ilnicki, University of Alberta

OL Jordan Filippelli, University of Calgary

Hurdles ahead

A suspect schedule

With the sky high expectations running rampant in R-Nation, Ottawa can’t afford to start the season on a sour note. That’ll be easier said than done given the fact that the Redblacks open with a home and home vs the Calgary Stampeders, a team that’s earned their reputation as regular season juggernauts.

Things won’t get any easier as the year goes on, with 3 games in a brutal 10 day stretch in July (14th-24th). Furthermore, Ottawa’s bye weeks won’t happen until Week 18 and 20, meaning they’ll be resting (and/or rusty), right as other teams peak for a playoff push.

Under the gun

Pressure weighs on each person and team differently. Whether it’s on an individual level (will Trevor Harris live up to the winning standard set by Henry Burris, can William Powell bounce back and play at his previous level, is AJ Jefferson the playmaker he was signed to be), or a group one (did the 8-9-1 Redblacks just get hot at the right time last year), there’s more than enough pressure to go around the nation’s capital.

But what it all boils down to is the fact that 105th Grey Cup will be played in Ottawa, at TD Place, in front tens of thousands of members of R-Nation. What remains to be seen is if those fans be cheering for their own team.

Depth chart observations

– A healthy William Powell and Mossis Madu give the Redblacks a strong 1-2 punch at the running back position. Both are capable of making defenders miss in space and are viable pass options coming out of the backfield.

– After two seasons spent mainly in a backup role, Alex Mateas finally has a chance to show he was worth the 1st overall pick in the 2015 draft. His play will not only dictate how long he’ll start, but also how much money he’ll make in the off-season as it’s a contract year for him

– Evan Johnson’s strong training camp has clearly paid off, given the fact that the coaches trust him enough to make him the only backup offensive lineman dressed for Friday night’s contest

– For now, Jason Lauzon-Séguin is at right tackle, but once Jake Silas gets healthy, Lauzon-Séguin likely moves back to guard

– Although they lack the pedigree of the men they’re replacing, Ottawa’s receiving corps is still fearsome with Kenny Shaw and Dionate Spencer

– Much has been made of the departures in the secondary but with Jerrell Gavins moving back to his natural position (after filling in admirably at SAM LB), the addition of AJ Jefferson and Imoan Claiborne looking poised for a sophomore breakout, things might not be as dire as many believe

– Spencer and Stangby as returners could be a thing for this week only, as pre-season standout Daje Johnson was added to Ottawa’s practice roster on Thursday

– For now, Tanner Doll remains the Redblacks long snapper, but it’s interesting that the team has chosen to allocate a game day roster spot to rookie Louis-Philippe Bourassa as his backup

Bold predictions

Here’s half a dozen predictions for the Redblacks’ 2017 season.

1) Harris goes off

For all the talk of Harris slumping at the tail end of the 2015 season and losing the starting job to Burris in 2016, the reality is when healthy he’s put up ridiculous numbers. In fact, he lost his starting job last year after a 485 yard performance. Furthermore, in 9 the 12 games Harris started last season, he threw for over 270 yards and averaged 10 yards a pass. While his tendency to cool off in the fall can’t be ignored, perhaps much of it can be chalked up to playing nervous with healthy Hall of Famers (Ricky Ray and Henry Burris) breathing down his neck. With a full 18 game schedule in front of him, 4500 yards and 30 TDs is not out of the question.

2) Anthony Gosselin will star in Ottawa’s short yardage package (by the end of the year)

The bruising 6-foot-1, 250 pound back runs a 4.7 40 yard dash. Though he’ll feature prominently on special teams and as a blocker, when the weather gets colder, R-Nation should get used to seeing the Sherbooke product trot out in short yardage situations. A backfield of Patrick Lavoie lead blocking for Gosselin will lead to first down after first down.

3) Juron Criner will lead all receivers in yardage

Despite his small sample size, Criner has proven he’s a reliable target, as demonstrated by his stunning 22.4 yards per reception average. Of the eight games that he played in 2016, four times he had more than 85 receiving yards.

4) New guard, same standard

There’s no denying Ottawa’s receiving corps took a huge hit when it lost the sure-handed Ernest Jackson and speedy Chris Williams in free agency. And although 1000 receivers don’t grow on trees, Kenny Shaw and Diontae Spencer are no slouches. That’s why the Redblacks will become the first team in CFL history to feature four 1000 yard receivers for three straight seasons.

5) Canadian double double; DL Arnaud Gascon-Nadon & Zack Evans will each finish with 10+ sacks

The Redblacks defensive line rotation is shaping up to one of the deepest in the league and head coach Rick Campbell is already on record saying the team will rotate guys more than in seasons past. Instead of hindering sack production, this will actually help keep guys like Gascon-Nadon and Evans fresh late in the 4th quarter, when opposing offensive linemen will be tired and half a step too slow.

6) Home cooking

Riding the rabid wave of passion that will be on full display from R-Nation throughout the season, the Redblacks will earn the right to host the East Final after winning the East Division for the third straight year. Ottawa will also complete a hat-trick of Grey Cup appearances, playing at home for the right to defend their title on Nov. 26th.

Santino Filoso is originally from Ottawa and has written about the Redblacks since 2013. He is the only CFL writer currently living in Brazil (as far as we know).