After two weeks of grinding practices that have featured everything from two-a-days, heavy rain, scorching sun, and a water-balloon fight, some themes are beginning to emerge from Ottawa’s training camp.
In a year without pre-season games to show what they can do in real pressure situations, strong performances in practices are more important than ever for players hoping to earn a roster spot. The trick for Ottawa’s ten man coaching staff will be to determine if guys are merely practice stars or truly capable of being impact players when the lights are on and stakes are highest.
Here are six things we’ve learned so far from camp following discussions with several on-site sources.
1) Matt Nichols comes as advertised
He’s efficient with the ball, makes good reads and is way ahead of every other quarterback on the roster because of his familiarity with Paul LaPolice’s offensive system. His accuracy has been excellent, and it needs to be given that he’s throwing to a relatively inexperienced group of receivers.
What is somewhat concerning, aside from the multiple rest days he’s been given, is that he’s the least mobile of any of the four quarterbacks currently in camp and his passes lack the zip some of the balls thrown by the other signal-callers demonstrate. With that said, Nichols has never been the type of passer known for throwing bombs and that’s never limited him before, as demonstrated by the 13,220 yards and 79 touchdowns he’s thrown for in his career.
2) No. 2 QB remains a mystery
As for the other quarterbacks on the roster, 2019 starter Dominique Davis has repeatedly shown off his cannon of an arm and seems to be making better decisions about where to go with the ball, but accuracy remains an issue. Too many overthrown balls have resulted in easy defensive picks.
Taryn Christion and Caleb Evans look like CFL rookies but both seem to have skill sets suited to the Canadian game. Christion in particular has made a number of positive plays and might finally be a quarterback the Redblacks can develop for the future, something they’ve failed to do since joining the league in 2014.
3) Flanders & Gillanders
It’s a shame that Canadian running back Brendan Gillanders seems to be nursing an injury — he’s missed multiple practices but was back on the field Wednesday — because until that point, he was receiving a fairly equal amount of work with the starters as American Timothy Flanders.
With Akeem Hunt returning to the U.S. for personal reasons and Gillanders and Detrez Newsome out with injuries, Flanders seems like the clear favourite to be the opening day starting back.
4) Good reception
Of the 100 players on the roster when camp kicked off, nineteen were receivers. With so much competition, guys were bound to quickly separate themselves. In terms of Canadians, Daniel Petermann has distinguished himself, typically taking reps with the first unit. Carleton Ravens alum Nate Behar and 2019 sixth-round pick Wesley Lewis have also been solid and a healthy Anthony Coombs has gotten reps at a variety of positions.
In terms of Americans, R.J. Harris, Rafael Araujo-Lopes and Jordan Smallwood have caught nearly everything thrown their way. Joe Walker, Kendrick Rogers and Jerminic Smith have also been notable — in a positive sense.
5) Blocking the haters
In my training camp primer I highlighted some of the uncertainty the Redblacks faced along their offensive line. I mentioned how the team might move their most athletic offensive lineman — Mark Korte — to centre to replace Alex Mateas following his retirement.
Up to this point in camp, Korte has indeed gotten the majority of reps at centre but there are signs that the team might not be sold on the idea. Although Korte has admirably stepped into a new position, and the difficulty of doing so on the eve of camp cannot be overstated, as can be expected, there’s been some growing pains in the form of bad snaps. If he doesn’t start at centre, expect Korte to shift over to left guard. For now though, Jakub Szott, Ottawa’s fourth round pick in 2020, is currently getting most of those reps.
As insurance, GM Marcel Desjardins has added a pair of American centres to his roster in Nick Buchanan and Jack Kramer. Both lack pro experience but were dependable starters in college for the Florida Gators and Bowing Green Falcons, respectively. The pair have yet to step on the field, but their quarantine period ends on July 24th, so R-Nation should see them in pads soon.
It’s extremely rare for a CFL team to use an American at centre, but perhaps Desjardins and LaPolice will juggle their ratio — starting an extra Canadian on defence — and go against the grain. Given that the team seems to be leaning towards Na’Ty Rodgers and Jamar McGloster for the tackle positions, although both missed practice Tuesday. For the first time in franchise history, the Redblacks could be looking at three American starters on their offensive line.
The more time Rodgers and McGloster miss, the more reps Juwann Bushell-Beatty gets. If the Derek Dennis situation in Edmonton gets ugly, it might be worth seeing if a late-round draft pick can pry him from the Elks and give Ottawa a proven, experienced starter at tackle.
6) The D is mighty
At this time of year it’s normal for the defence to be ahead of the offence; the timing and cohesion needed to run an effective offensive attack simply takes more time to build. And yet, if early indicators are to be believed, Ottawa’s defensive group, led by defensive coordinator Mike Benevides, might be the strength of the team.
The group has been loud; chirping, hooting and hollering every session, and veterans and newcomers alike have been making splash plays. Unsurprisingly, the front seven in particular has been dominant. Cleyon Laing and Stefan Charles eat up the middle of field. Linebackers Avery Williams, Micah Awe and Don Unamba will be a special trio if all can stay healthy. And speaking of energy, Abdul Kanneh is exactly as R-Nation remembers him — a spark plug of animation.