Offensive lineman Chris Van Zeyl is one of the Toronto Argonauts’ senior statesmen, having been with the club since 2008, and having taken just about every snap with Ricky Ray at quarterback ever since Ray joined the club in 2012.
Starting in Montreal on Friday night, Van Zeyl will be protecting a new quarterback — Jeff Mathews.
The Argos confirmed Thursday the offence will have Mathews taking the snaps to start their game in Montreal, where they will try and halt a two-game losing skid.
“Jeff has played here (in Montreal), he’s had success here, he has a bit more experience,” Argos coach Marc Trestman told reporters in Montreal on Thursday, referring to his decision to start Mathews over Cody Fajardo.
“But they both had good training camps. . . . It’s a situation where it’s better for the team to start Jeff right now.”
For Van Zeyl, the presence of a new face at quarterback won’t likely be a long one.
Ray, who suffered a shoulder injury in last Thursday’s loss to Calgary, could be back at his regular position next week. His shoulder is sore, but the good news is an MRI came back negative and his status will likely come into better focus once he starts taking practice reps next week.
But the challenge with Mathews at the helm is certainly a big one for Van Zeyl and the Argos’ offensive line. Not only is that line trying to improve upon something of a sore point — Ray has been sacked a CFL-leading 20 times through seven games — but they must also protect an untested Mathews, the former Hamilton Tiger-Cat who is making his season debut.
“It’s going to be a challenge for us, but it’s a challenge for our team as well. It’s a team game,” Van Zeyl said.
Mathews started five games for the Tiger-Cats in his rookie season in 2015, posting 1,458 yards with six touchdowns and one interception. He was in one game last season in Hamilton, against Montreal, where he completed 18 of 29 passes for 201 yards and a touchdown.
“You practice and hopefully put yourself in a position to play,” said Mathews, who did not dress for the game against Calgary last Thursday.
“But the big thing is this is a big game for our team. We’re excited to get out there.”
Trestman is making his return to Montreal, where he was head coach from 2008-12, and won a pair of Grey Cups as well as the CFL’s coach of the year award in 2009. He left in 2013 after being offered a chance to the Chicago Bears.
“I have many good memories here and many good friends,” said Trestman, who is joining Bear Woods, S.J. Green, GM Jim Popp, and other Argos who are making Montreal returns Friday.
“We’ve always loved the city, the culture, and I’ve said it in the past, and we return here every year for a week in the off season to see the city again. We say it because it’s in our hearts.”
Trestman said there is a chance Fajardo, who was the backup to Ray through seven weeks, will get into the Montreal game as well. Fajardo has been used primarily on short-yardage situations, but he took over from Ray in the third quarter last Thursday against Calgary and completed six of 11 passes for 75 yards.
Fajardo also rushed eight times for 55 yards and a touchdown, and his running ability could be an option for an Argos team that rarely runs the ball and is facing a Montreal team that is rated tops in the CFL against the rush.
“They’re both capable quarterbacks in our league, I believe that. They both can be starters,” Trestman said.
Van Zeyl said his “heart broke” when Ray left last Thursday’s game after taking a hard hit to the right shoulder. The 33-year-old lineman has seen Ray take tremendous blows to his shoulder in the past.
Ray was driven to the turf at the Rogers Centre in 2013, tearing the teres major muscle in his shoulder and missing the next six games. Ray also underwent surgery at the end of the 2014 season to repair a torn labrum and rotator cuff, a procedure that forced him to miss the first 16 games of the 2015 season.
“He won’t complain, and he never has,” Van Zeyl said of Ray, who has attempted a CFL-leading 292 passes for a league-best 2,421 yards this season.
“But its my job to protect him and it’s the (offensive line’s job). . . . We don’t want him to miss any time, but even though you do your best to prevent sacks, the CFL, you start in training camp, then there’s so many different looks you see from the opposition defence as the first weeks go by. It’s not the same thing, obviously.
“I don’t know if I respect anyone on the team as much as I do Ricky,” Van Zeyl added. “Over the five or six years we’ve been together, I’ve seen him get hit and I’ve never heard him complain once. He comes in, he keeps to himself a lot, but he’s a pro. He’s ice cold when it comes to complaining, like a pro is. That’s who he is.”
With Mathews behind the ball to start Friday’s game, Van Zeyl knows the offensive line must tighten its performance as a unit.
“It’s really cohesion,” said Van Zeyl, a native of Fonthill, Ont.
“You try not to make it a group of individuals. That’s the biggest thing, making sure you’re all on the same page. The best offensive lines in the league are not ones who are individually the best, they are the ones playing best together. . . . We’re building towards that. You face different teams for the first part of the season, and there’s always wrinkles to work out. You work through it. You want to perform well all the time, but the main thing is you want to be the best offensive line in the league by the end of the season, that’s what you are building towards.”