Riders aren’t necessarily locked into John Ojo at boundary corner

John Ojo was an excellent addition to an already strong Saskatchewan Roughriders secondary and while conventional wisdom has him slotted in at boundary corner, it may be too soon to anoint him the starter in that key spot in the defensive backfield.

Ojo did not receive any signing bonus from the green and white upon signing his two-year pact worth under $100,000 per season. The obvious assumption is that Ojo steps in and fills the boundary cornerback spot vacated by Kacy Rodgers II who signed with the New York Jets, which could certainly happen – but only if he earns the job: it’s worth noting that Ojo has only played live CFL snaps on the wide side.

Back in 2015, Ojo played all 18 games in what was his rookie CFL season, quickly getting comfortable in Chris Jones’ man-heavy coverage defence. He lined up at field corner, which is the longest throw – horizontally – for quarterbacks to make leaving more time for defensive backs to read routes, break and attempt to make plays on the football. Ojo took advantage of those extra seconds by intercepting five passes – tied for second-most in the league – and taking one back for a touchdown. The Tallahassee, Florida native was a factor in the Eskimos allowing the least amount of points (341) on the way to winning the 2015 Grey Cup.

When training camp came around in 2016, Jones was in Saskatchewan and Ojo was competing for Edmonton’s boundary corner job. Mike Benevides was the Esks defensive coordinator who runs a different system than Jones. Disaster struck when Ojo tore his Achilles, which thwarted any opportunity for the 28-year-old to play on the short side and that ultimately was the last time he set foot on a field in Eskimos colours.

Ojo has missed two entire seasons, which should have provided plenty of time to recover from the Achilles. Jones, who was the head coach in Edmonton when Ojo signed late in 2014, clearly feels he has a chance to regain the form that made him an all-star in 2015. But that doesn’t have to come at a position where Ojo has never lined up in a regular season CFL game.

Many of the players who made up the defensive backfield in 2017 are under contract for the Riders heading into mini-camp scheduled for late April at IMG Academy in Florida: Jovon Johnson started all 18 games at field corner, Crezdon Butler was the mainstay at field halfback, Mike Edem, Jeff Hecht and Marco Olivier-Brouillette are the Canadians at safety, CFL all-star Ed Gainey mans the boundary halfback position and the corner spot beside him is open. That’s where Ojo could be in the mix.

Although, each season brings change – consider Johnson is 34 and currently the smallest defensive back on the roster – Ojo could vie for a spot elsewhere in the secondary too. Jones wants size, length and athleticism among all of his defensive backs, which is why Patrick Watkins came with the defensive guru from Toronto to Edmonton. But trust trumps those physical traits. Jones had faith in two players to man the boundary corner spot in 2017: Rodgers and Duron Carter.

Carter has more meaningful reps at the boundary than Ojo – just ask Bo Levi Mitchell. Personnel men in the CFL believe Ojo is best suited for Jones’ system which goes some way to explain why the market for Ojo didn’t yield enough bidding to get him a signing bonus. Whether or not Ojo can play boundary corner must be proven and don’t rule out Carter who – albeit in a small sample size – displays the traits Jones covets at the highly important boundary corner position.

Before Rodgers earned the blessing as the full-time starter at the most demanding cover spot, he toiled on the practice roster for a season in Edmonton and came to Saskatchewan with Jones. There is a similar-sized player – Melvin White – who was on the Riders practice squad to end the 2017 season. White stands 6-foot-2, 215 pounds and brings NFL experience with 30 games, 17 starts, 11 knockdowns and three interceptions during the 2013 and 2014 seasons in Carolina.

White, Carter and Ojo are the names to consider – not to mention as-yet-to-be-named players Jones has unearthed at tryout camps – in the discussion for manning the boundary corner. One guarantee exists: the job won’t simply be given to Ojo.