With training camp kicking off, the Ottawa Redblacks can finally turn the page on an off-season of departures and begin laying the foundation for the 2019 season.
Since losing the Grey Cup, the Redblacks have watched their starting quarterback, running back, left tackle and two All-Star receivers walk out the door. But as always in football, every exit creates an opportunity.
As head coach Rick Campbell and his staff use the coming weeks to install schemes and preach their philosophies, 81 hopefuls will be trimmed into a roster of 46 (plus a practice squad).
Here’s a look at what to expect from each position group:
Quarterbacks: Battle Royale
After choosing to move on from Trevor Harris, the Redblacks are about to find out exactly what they have under centre. While there’s much to be said for having a settled starter, a healthy quarterback competition could provide a shot in the arm to the entire roster.
In one corner, Dominique Davis enters camp as an early favourite to win the starting job. 2019 will be his second year in a system that figures to be extremely similar to last year’s offence, despite the departure of Jamie Elizondo. Davis wasn’t called upon often in 2018, but delivered when needed, throwing for 220 yards and a touchdown in a Week 18 win over the Argos.
In the other corner, Jonathan Jennings will be looking to return to his 2016 form, where he threw for 5226 yards and 27 touchdowns as he led the Lions to a playoff berth. It hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing for Jennings since then, as he’s actually regressed in recent seasons, but without the spectre of Travis Lulay hovering over his shoulder, perhaps a fresh start is just what the doctor ordered.
Both quarterbacks are mobile and boast big arms. With neither being able to afford an off-day, this battle should run the length of camp and could hinge on a strong pre-season game performance.
Regardless of who wins the starting job, if the Redblacks struggle out of the gate, the calls for the backup will be swift.
Running backs: Import or domestic?
In all likelihood, Ottawa will tap an American running back to replace William Powell. Mossis Madu has struggled with injuries and only played in nine games the past two seasons, but will be given the first crack at the lead back job.
But don’t ignore local talent. Former GeeGee standout Brendan Gillanders hasn’t been given many touches, but has impressed in limited action. If Ottawa were to start a Canadian at running back, they’d have decent depth. Gillanders and Greg Morris are both pure running backs, and Anthony Gosselin, J.C. Beaulieu and 2019 third round draft pick Gabriel Polan are fullbacks capable of running over (or around) defenders if needed.
Fullbacks: Who’s more than a special teamer?
Speaking of fullbacks, although it’s not a position typically emphasized or worked into Ottawa’s attack, whoever winds up atop the depth chart will need to be capable of picking up the blitz, running the ball and catching the occasion swing pass.
Beaulieu figures to have the inside track, but don’t write off Gosselin or even Polan, who led the RSEQ in rushing in 2018.
Receivers: Holdovers vs Newcomers
Even with the loss of Greg Ellingson and Diontae Spencer, the Redblacks still boast a strong crop of pass catchers.
Fresh off a season that saw him crowned the league’s Most Outstanding Canadian, Brad Sinopoli leads the way among the Nationals. With Julian Feoli-Gudino, Nate Behar, Marco Dubois, Jacob Scarfone, Tyrone Pierre and Wesley Lewis behind him, Ottawa has more than enough depth to start two Canadian receivers. The battle for reps behind Sinopoli will be cutthroat, as there are only so many passes to go around.
In terms of Americans, R.J. Harris will look to build off an impressive rookie campaign that saw him average 14.2 yards per reception. Seth Coate, Caleb Holley, Ryan Lankford, Taj Williams, Dominique Rhymes and Noel Thomas II bring a mix of speed and height to the table. Despite Rhymes and Thomas being holdovers, they won’t be handed a roster spot.
How Ottawa chooses to manage their ratio and which receivers also prove capable of blocking well on edge plays (think screens or sweeps) and doing extras like handling return duties, will go a long way towards determining who makes the final roster.
Offensive line: Musical chairs
The number of Canadians the Redblacks choose to start in their receiving corps will directly impact who starts on the offensive line.
Evan Johnson, Jason Lauzon-Séguin, Nolan MacMillan, Alex Mateas are all veterans with plenty of starting experience under their belts. Mark Korte was mainly used as an extra blocking tight end his rookie season but should be ready to start if called upon. Off-season addition Philippe Gagnon is a steady presence capable of starting but has had a tough time staying on the field.
The battle to protect the quarterback’s blind side likely boils down to Americans Chris Martin and DeVondre Seymour.
The Redblacks value versatility, so those capable of playing multiple positions will be prioritized.
Defensive line: Rotation order
Jonathan Newsome, J.R. Tavai, Avery Ellis and Danny Mason will be the edge rushers. The Redblacks believe in rotating their defensive linemen, so earning a starting role doesn’t mean much, as all will play. Keep an eye on former Carleton Raven Kene Onyeka, who may surprise if given the opportunity.
Michael Klassen, Ettore Lattanzio, George Uko and Michael Wakefield will ply their trade in the heart of the trenches, occupying double teams and clogging running lanes. Zaycoven Henderson and Shaneil Jenkins are two massive tackles with NFL experience also in the mix.
The Redblacks typically dress eight to ten defensive linemen on game day, so the competition will be fierce among the 18 currently in training camp.
Linebackers: Familiar faces
Barring injury, go ahead and pencil Kevin Brown, Avery Williams and Anthony Cioffi into starting roles. The trio was impressive in 2018 and should look to continue their stout play in 2019. Canadian Nicolas Boulay is a thumper who provides depth and will be a force on special teams.
Secondary: Mostly set
Similar to their linebacking corps, R-Nation can expect to see plenty of familiar faces in the secondary. Jonathan Rose, Corey Tindal and Sherrod Baltimore are all back. As is Canadian Antoine Pruneau. Chris Randle likely earns the final starting position, but will have to hold off challengers such as Troy Stoudermire, Randall Evans and Josh Jenkins.
Kickers: Old Faithful
It’s not fair to expect Canadian Lewis Ward to maintain his 94.8% success rate when kicking field goals, but given how magicial his last season was, the job is his, even if the Redblacks brought in another (Mexican) kicker for a symoblic competition.
Richie Leone completes the kicking team and will again be Ottawa’s punter. Long snapper Louis-Philippe Bourassa also returns, which is fantastic news given how reliable he is.