Editor’s note: With CFL training camps set to open on Sunday, 3DownNation is running previews on every team. Be sure to check out our Saskatchewan Roughriders preview coming later today.
Something feels a bit different this time around.
Following another 8-9-1 record (and a busy off-season) the Ottawa Redblacks head into training camp looking to lay the foundation for a team that contends straight out of the gate, to late November.
Head coach Rick Campbell and his staff will be trying to eliminate the maddening inconsistencies that have plagued the team the past few seasons. To do that, they’ll use the coming weeks to install their schemes, preach their philosophies and trim 85 hopefuls into a roster of 46 (plus a practice squad).
While some jobs are guaranteed, this year’s edition of training camp features fierce battles at every position.
Here’s a look at what to expect from each position group.
Quarterbacks: Battle of the backups
Trevor Harris is firmly entrenched as Ottawa’s starting quarterback. Nothing (barring injury) will change that. Things get interesting in this group behind him.
Dominique Davis was signed to be Harris’ backup, but his lack of experience (with only 33 career completions to his name), opens the door to the possibility of Will Arndt or Danny Collins overtaking him on the depth chart.
With limited opportunities to showcase their skills, an excellent (or poor) showing could quickly lead to a depth chart shuffle.
Running backs: Battle of the backups (Part Two)
William Powell was re-signed this off-season to be the Redblacks’ lead back. In theory, he should hang onto the job, but perhaps a motivated Mossis Madu will have something to say about that. Furthermore, after dealing with injuries the past few seasons, both will need to prove they can stay on the field.
An interesting name to keep an eye on is Ed Ilnicki. Last year’s Hec Crighton winner set a Canada West rushing record with 1468 yards and had eleven touchdowns. If given a chance, he could push for Madu’s primary backup role.
Fullbacks: Who fills Patrick Lavoie’s shoes?
Will it be J.C. Beaulieu, the player he was traded for? Will it be Ottawa native Brendan Gillanders? Will it be 2017 second round pick Anthony Gosselin?
Although in the past the fullback position has not typically been emphasized in offensive coordinator Jamie Elizondo’s attack, it’s worth wondering if a trio of big, athletic backs change his mind.
Whoever emerges from this group will need to prove themselves as a reliable blocker and showcase soft hands as a safe check down option for Harris.
Receivers: Depth roles up for grabs
Greg Ellingson, Brad Sinopoli and Diontae Spencer will be Ottawa’s three main pass catchers. The intrigue builds when you look beyond them.
After watching the likes of Juron Criner, Quincy McDuffie, Kenny Shaw, Josh Stangby and Jake Harty leave town, Desjardins replaced them with five American rookies and Canadian Julian Feoli-Gudino. The later will tentatively be pencilled in as a starter but a strong showing from someone like Richard Mullaney or RJ Shelton, combined with a Canadian emerging on the defensive line (more on that in a minute), could quickly change things.
Offensive line: Musical chairs
While you can probably go ahead and figure out who will be starting on Ottawa’s line, when it comes to nailing down their exact positions, things get more complicated, especially on the interior.
SirVincent Rogers and Jason Lauzon-Séguin seem like locks at the tackle positions. Veterans Jon Gott, Alex Mateas and Nolan MacMillan should all be starters, but perhaps 2017 first round pick Evan Johnson will have something to say about that.
Personally, I’m extremely interested to see where Gott and Mateas line up. In 2017, Mateas split playing time between guard and centre and the results couldn’t have been more different. At guard, Mateas often struggled. In the wake of Gott’s injury, Mateas moved to centre (his natural position) and played at an All-Star level. Given that Gott played guard before coming to the nation’s capital, it might be a wise move to put him back there and allow Mateas to start the season at centre.
Defensive line: A Canadian melee
Much like the offensive line, the biggest question along the other side of the trenches is in the interior. After losing both of last year’s starting defensive tackles in Zack Evans and Jake Ceresna, the Redblacks need someone to step up.
Cameron Walker, Andrew Marshall, Ettore Lattanzio, Daryl Waud and Michael Klassen are all Canadians capable of playing defensive tackle. If one of them could seize a starting role, it would do wonders for the Redblacks’ ratio, giving the team more flexibility at another position (think receiver).
Speaking of Canadians, keep an eye on Connor Williams. After missing all of last season with concussion issues, he’ll be looking to prove his worth.
Linebackers: Outside openings
At 37-year-old, Kyries Hebert will man the middle of Noel Thorpe’s defence, but who keeps him company?
Veteran free agent acquisition Rico Murray seems like a good bet to man one of the outside linebacker spots. His experience, versatility and big-play ability will be all be valuable assets to a defence looking to cause more turnovers than last season’s league-low 22.
Sophomore Kevin Brown is a strong candidate to round out the linebacking corps. Coming off a rookie season in which he saw limited action (playing in 11 games, starting one), Brown has plenty of speed and is a reliable open field tackler. That said, he won’t be handed the job and will have to earn it over American CFL rookies like Darien Harris, Avery Williams and Chris Santini.
Secondary: Holdovers vs Newcomers
The Redblacks’ secondary can be split into three distinct camps. Those guaranteed a starting position (Antoine Pruneau, Sherrod Baltimore, Loucheiz Purifoy), those looking to bounce back after subpar seasons (Jonathan Rose, Corey Tindal) and those new to the team (Josh Johnson, Brandon Stewart, Aarion Penton, Damian Swann, Anthony Cioffi, Jules Dornevil).
Rose will be given every opportunity to keep his starting role. That leaves one spot up for grabs. Although any newcomer is only a few pre-season interceptions away from stealing a starting job, in all likelihood it’ll come down to a battle between Corey Tindal and ex-NFLer and B.C. Lion Josh Johnson.
As for those who don’t wind up as starters, special teams play will determine if they make the final roster.
Kickers: Who can do it all?
Two Canadians (Lewis Ward, Mathieu Hebert) and two Americans (Sergio Castillo, Richie Leone) enter the ring. It’s not exactly Hell in a Cell but at the end of this scrap there will likely only be one kicker remaining.
On paper, the more experienced American kickers would seem to have the early edge. But here’s the caveat, if Ottawa chooses to use an international at the kicker position, said kicker would need to be capable of handling both the punting and placekicking duties. As demonstrated in 2017, Castillo is able to do both at a high level, but he’s coming off a torn ACL. As for Leone, although widely acclaimed for his huge leg and massive punts, his placekicking has been at best, shoddy. Connecting on just 72 per cent of his career field goal attempts, he’ll need to be much better to win the job.
At this point, Canadians Ward and Hebert are clear underdogs. Both have completed five-year USports careers (Ward with the Gee-Gees, Hebert with Sherbrooke) and both punted and place kicked for their respective teams.