Not since their 2014 inaugural season have the Redblacks headed into training camp with this much uncertainty.
In the two years that have followed their incredibly frustrating 2019 campaign, general manager Marcel Desjardins’ roster has been thoroughly turned over.
The only head coach in franchise history asked to be released from his contract and was granted his wish. The offensive committee was mercifully disbanded. The defensive coordinator was fired. A young face of the future QB was signed, only to be released a year later without even taking a snap in favour of a healthy veteran. Nearly a dozen veterans retired.
Into their place steps a new head coach in Paul LaPolice and a coaching staff with decades of experience. A handful of impact free agents have been signed. Three draft classes have been added to the roster — two national, one global.
What it all means is that nearly every position group has starting spots up for grabs and intriguing storylines to follow. Some players will have used the pandemic to get in better shape, others will have let their conditioning slip. Those who lived in regions with continuous access to gyms and training facilities might be a step ahead of those who didn’t. Injuries are a real concern (see Saskatchewan). Opportunities are abundant.
With all that said, here are the storylines I will be monitoring the closest.
Was Nichols the right choice?
As goes Matt Nichols’ fortunes, so too will the 2021 Redblacks. A good quarterback hides a lot of warts but a strong supporting cast can’t overcome shoddy quarterback play.
During the 2020 off-season Ottawa signed Nick Arbuckle, believing the 27-year-old was the best available option at the game’s most important position. But when COVID-19 led to the cancellation of the season, LaPolice chose to release Arbuckle and target a more familiar face — Matt Nichols — whose shoulder was a further twelve months removed from season-ending surgery.
Desjardins has implied that had Nichols been totally healthy during the 2020 off-season, he might have been signed then, but since he wasn’t, Arbuckle was the route they chose to go. Part of the decision to move off Arbuckle may have been dictated by the fact that Nichols is deeply familiar with LaPolice’s offensive system, which should go a long way towards implementing the playbook in a shortened training camp.
Although Nichols isn’t considered to be among the upper echelon of quarterbacks in the CFL, there’s no denying that when LaPolice was calling his plays in Winnipeg, he was highly efficient. He won 38 games and lost 17, while throwing for 13,220 yards, 79 touchdowns and 35 interceptions.
The 34-year-old pivot will need to play at a high level to get the most out of an inexperienced receiving corps.
Who holds the clipboard and conducts QB sneaks?
Barring injury, Nichols will be the man under centre, but who will emerge as his primary backup? To put it lightly, Dominique Davis had a rough 2019 season. He peaked in Week 2 vs. Saskatchewan, completing 30-of-39 passes for 354 yards and three touchdowns, but never threw more than one touchdown in any game for the rest of the year.
To be fair to Davis, he wasn’t exactly put in a position to succeed, with an offensive play-calling committee that lacked situational awareness and receivers who struggled to create separation and hang onto the ball.
In theory, Davis’ two seasons as the backup quarterback in Winnipeg with LaPolice should give him the inside track on the job, but he’ll need to prove himself in training camp to hold off a trio of American rookie quarterbacks.
Although neither Taryn Christion, nor Chase Litton or Caleb Evans have ever taken a snap on a CFL field, all have signifiant experience at the quarterback position.
Christion had a stellar college career, throwing for 11,535 yards and 104 touchdowns on top of rushing for 1,515 yards and 26 touchdowns. He spent time on the practice rosters of the Seattle Seahawks, Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers.
Taryn Christion not going out without a fight. pic.twitter.com/TpYGtJTG8h
— Fat Patrick. (@PJGreenTV) December 15, 2018
Litton had stints in the NFL on Kansas City’s and Jacksonville’s training camps or practice rosters and in the XFL, with the Seattle Dragons and Tampa Bay Vipers.
Chase Litton's TD pass to @DeonYelder extends the @Chiefs lead to 31-10. #CINvsKC pic.twitter.com/KJiPFJAYQK
— NFL (@NFL) August 11, 2019
Evans has no pro experience but during his time at the University of Louisiana-Monroe, flashed dynamic play-making ability, racking up 9,520 yards and 58 touchdowns through the air in addition to 2,162 yards and 36 touchdowns on the ground.
I’m a big believer in Louisiana-Monroe quarterback Caleb Evans (@caleb_the_king1). Dynamic athlete both in a straight line and in short area… Easy thrower of the football. Ton of development possible going forward. pic.twitter.com/lElK4NNwf4
— Ryan Roberts (@RiseNDraft) December 2, 2019
Should LaPolice feel any of the above mentioned trio has potential to be his quarterback of the future, the grooming process could start in 2021 and come at the expensive of Davis.
Bell cow or by committee?
You’ll have to forgive R-Nation for cringing when they see the word committee — some wounds never fully heal.
2019’s leading rusher, John Crockett, and his 454 yards are gone. As a team in 2019, the Redblacks only averaged 4.4 yards per carry and failed to register a single touchdown by any running back on the roster. Each of Ottawa’s nine rushing touchdowns came off quarterback sneaks.
Given those putrid stats, it’s no surprise the only carry over from the position is Canadian back Brendan Gillanders. Americans Timothy Flanders, Akeem Hunt and Detrez Newsome round out the running backs Ottawa will have in camp.
Even though LaPolice used a Canadian as his feature back in Winnipeg, it would be a surprise to see Gillanders emerge as the team’s lead back. Flanders has the most CFL experience of the Americans, although Hunt and Newsome have NFL stops on their resumes.
Depending on the skillset of his backs (blitz pick up, receiving skills, etc.), it wouldn’t be a stretch for any single back to receive the majority of carries, but rather each be called upon in specific situations.
Will Canadians catch on?
Thanks to a slew of retirements which included a handful of Canadian starters such as Brad Sinopoli and Alex Mateas, the Redblacks might need to start two Canadians in their receiving corps — more on the ratio in a bit.
That means Daniel Petermann, Marco Dubois, Anthony Coombs, Michael Klukas, Nate Behar, Ryan Davis, Amba Etta-Tawo, and Wesley Lewis will likely be battling for two starting positions.
It’s worth noting that even those who fail to earn starting jobs can still nab roster spots with strong training camp performances simply because having two Canadian starters at the position necessitates depth. Soft hands and crisp route-running will matter, but those who stand out by demonstrating a prowess for making plays on special teams will have an edge.
It’s nothing more than a gut feeling but don’t be surprised to see third-year pro Marco Dubois emerge with one of the starting jobs.
The last time the Redblacks took the field, their offensive line looked like this: Mark Korte, Evan Johnson, Alex Mateas, Philippe Gagnon and Stephane Nembot. Korte remains on the team, while the rest have departed in free agency or retired.
At a position group where familiarity and cohesion are essential, so much turnover is the opposite of ideal.
The double whammy of losing Mateas to retirement and the news that 2019 first-round pick Alex Fontana won’t play in 2021 for personal reasons means Ottawa is staring down a massive crater in the heart of their offensive line. There’s often a lot of talk about the tackle protecting the quarterback’s blind side as the most important lineman, but arguably, it’s the centre.
A centre is responsible for not only reading a defence, calling out the protection scheme for those beside him, snapping the ball properly and making a block — dealing with a nose tackle or picking up the blitz on passing plays, chipping a defensive lineman and sliding to the second level to seal off a linebacker on a running play — but all those tasks must be performed in mere moments. Furthermore, if a centre gets easily pushed around, the quarterback is doomed, especially if he’s not mobile enough to escape a collapsing pocket.
Ottawa losing their all-star centre and his main backup this close to camp is a crushing blow because there is no clear replacement on the roster. Korte is their most athletic offensive lineman as demonstrated by his starts and high level of play at guard and tackle. He could be a candidate to be moved inside, especially if the team is truly committed to starting two American tackles. There’s zero doubt Korte starts, yet as to where he plays, your guess is as good as mine.
Andrew Pickett and Jakub Szott are two other potential Canadian options at centre. Both are big bodies — six-foot-four, 300 pounds and six-foot-five, 280 pounds, respectively — and spent their U Sports careers mainly playing guard, but if either demonstrates an ability to shotgun snap efficiently, they could be moved inside. 2021 third-round pick Connor Berglof could be an option given that he played centre in university with Saskatchewan, but it’s not yet clear if he’s fully recovered from a lingering back issue.
Questions remain beyond who fills Mateas’ shoes. With Nolan MacMillan confirming he’ll play in 2021, he is the only familiar face locked in a specific spot at right guard. MacMillan and Korte will be two Canadian starters, but it remains to be seen if the Redblacks choose to opt for a third.
If so, Daniel Omara, Ben Petrie, Kétel Assé and the aforementioned mentioned Pickett and Szott are all candidates. Assé tumbled to the bottom of the 2020 draft, going to Ottawa in the eighth round, despite being a consensus top-20 pick by draft gurus. With a huge six-foot-seven, 300-pound frame, long arms and quick feet, the Laval product is one to watch.
As for the Americans, Juwan Bushell-Beatty spent four years at right tackle for the University of Michigan Wolverines. Na’Ty Rodgers has CFL experience from stops in Montreal and Winnipeg. Tyler Catalina is a right tackle with nine NFL games under his belt.
Jamar McGloster is another right tackle who spent part of 2019 with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Joshua Dunlop played both tackle positions and guard over the course of 31 starts at UTSA. Chris Ferguson was selected by Ottawa in the Global Draft and was a captain at the University of Cincinnati where he played both tackle positions and guard.
Brandon Hitner is an interior offensive lineman and has bounded around the NFL with the Colts, Bills, Jets and Rams.
Linebacker left out?
Defensive coordinator Mike Benevides has an abundance of riches at his disposal when it comes to his linebacking corps. How he chooses to dish out playing time remains to be seen.
Avery Williams was Ottawa’s nominee for both Most Outstanding Player and Most Outstanding Defensive Player in 2019. In 28 career games with the Redblacks, Williams has 112 tackles, seven special teams tackles, two sacks, forced three fumbles and a defensive touchdown to his credit.
Jerod Fernandez had an outstanding rookie season as the Redblacks’ middle linebacker in 2019, making 53 tackles and forcing two fumbles.
Off-season additions Don Unamba and Micah Awe are a pair of proven veterans with a long history of production. Unamba is a prototypical SAM linebacker, boasting excellent cover skills, quickness and more than capable of making an open field tackle.
Ottawa is Awe’s fourth CFL team, but the 27-year old has a well earned reputation for delivering crushing blows. Although his 2019 season was cut short by a chest injury, he still managed to amass 44 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble and one interception in ten starts.
Figuring out which of those four to keep on the bench is tough enough, and that’s without even starting to considering the other fourteen linebackers hoping to catch a coach’s eye in training camp.
Who helps plug a leaky secondary?
Any way you slice them, Ottawa’s 2019 defensive pass statistics are atrocious. The Redblacks allowed opponents to complete 71 percent of the passes they attempted, surrendering an average of nine yards per completion. That resulted in opponents throwing for an average 314.6 passing per game. Additionally, Ottawa’s opponents had 29 completions of 30-plus yards and the Redblacks conceded 31 passing touchdowns while only picking off 12 passes.
Part of that can be chalked up to being on the field too often, the lack of a decent pass rush, injuries to key players (Antoine Pruneau), and so on, but the point remains, Ottawa has be better in 2021 if the team has any ambitions of playing competitive football.
Pruneau is now healthy. Corey Tindal is retired but Abdul Kanneh — he of Grey Cup ankle-tackle fame — returns. With a new defensive coordinator in town Sherrod Baltimore should finally be out of the doghouse. In his fourth year Randall Evans will be looking to prove he’s a capable starter. Assuming those four claim four starting jobs, that still leaves one spot to be accounted for in the secondary.
Is Carleton alum Justin Howell ready to step into a starting role in his third season as a pro? Will 2020 first-round pick Adam Auclair be limited to special teams or will the ultra-athletic all-Quebec Conference player for Laval in 2019 force the coaching staff to keep him on the field? It was a signing that flew under the radar this past April but perhaps Shamarko Thomas’s NFL experience, 66 games split among the Steelers, Jets, Bills, Colts and Broncos, allows him to carve out a starting role.
Retirements reorganize ratio
In the weeks leading up to training camp, R-Nation watched eleven players hang up their cleats; Jean-Philippe Bolduc, Danny Mason, Jalen Saunders, Dagogo Maxwell, Mickael Cote, Corey Tindal, Malcolm Willams, Gabriel Polan, Tanner Secord, Sinopoli and Mateas.
Each departure leaves a hole in the roster but in particular the loss of Sinopoli and Mateas — two Canadians penciled in as starters — will force Ottawa to rethink how they approach their Canadian ratio.
As mentioned earlier, let’s assume two Canadians start in the receiving corps, MacMillan and Korte on the offensive line get us to four, and Pruneau at safety brings that number to five.
The most likely scenario sees the Redblacks going with two Canadian starters at defensive tackle simply because of the numbers. Cleyon Laing is a lock (six) and if one of Thomas Grant, Clement Lebreux, Samson Abbott, Reshaan Davis, Ese Mrabure or Kene Onyeka can establish themselves, there should be enough depth to back them up.
Of course, if another Canadian starts on the offensive line or in the secondary, it frees up a roster spot for someone like Davon Coleman to pair up with Laing and form a devastating duo at defensive tackle.