I know everyone has the Ottawa Redblacks finishing last — not just in the East — but the entire league.
Most pundits believe not only will Ottawa be bad, but some even argue Paul LaPolice’s squad might go winless.
Experts are quick to hedge their bets on good teams that need to prove themselves, yet have no qualms about designating others as certain basement dwellers. Prognosticators across the country have looked into their crystal balls and seen nothing but more pain and suffering in store for R-Nation.
But maybe that doesn’t have to be the case. After all, nobody had played a game in twenty months entering Week 1. There hasn’t been a pre-season. At this point, teams are game-planning using film from 2019. All that to say that if there was ever a season for the unexpected to occur, it’s this one.
If the Redblacks are going to shock the league and make the playoffs, here’s six men who will big reasons why.
It’s cliche but true, the most important player on any CFL team is the quarterback. If you’ve got a guy, you’re competitive. If you don’t, you’re the 2019 Redblacks, and nobody deserves that.
The only way Ottawa makes the playoffs in 2021 is with No. 16 under centre. R-Nation has seen what a season of Dominique Davis as a starter looks like and at this point in his career, it’s not like there’s a ton of untapped potential waiting to be exploited. He is what he is. As for the others quarterbacks on the roster, Caleb Evans and Taryn Christion are rookies who need time to grow into the CFL game.
General manager Marcel Desjardins put his job security on the line when he decided to cut Nick Arbuckle loose and bring in the 34-year-old veteran pivot. Although he doesn’t boast the biggest arm, isn’t the most mobile and doesn’t have the star appeal of a Bo Levi Mitchell, when healthy, Nichols has been an extremely effective starter.
But that caveat is huge; when healthy. Arbuckle was swapped for Nichols because with an extra year to heal up from shoulder surgery, he was supposed to be fully healthy and ready to roll. However, he spent long periods of training camp taking mental reps from the sidelines. It’s one thing to ease him back after such a long period without daily throwing sessions, it’s another to have your quarterback on a pitch count to preserve his arm before Week 1 kicks off.
If Nichols’ shoulder can hold up, he and LaPolice should be able to work some magic. Ignore the fact that the Redblacks’ receiving corps is unproven, Nichols excels at getting the ball out quickly and letting his playmakers do exactly that; make plays. When LaPolice was orchestrating his offence in Winnipeg, Nichols averaged 9.5 wins per season and threw for 79 touchdowns and 35 interceptions.
There’s no reason that production can’t continue in the nation’s capital.
Since being selected fourth overall in the 2018 CFL Draft, Korte has consistently been in the conversation as Ottawa’s best offensive lineman. He’s played guard, left tackle and now, centre.
The six-foot-two, 293-pounder is athletic, strong and has good feet, but how he transitions to the quarterback of the trenches will go a long way to determining the success of the entire offence. It really doesn’t matter who is throwing, catching or running the ball; if your centre doesn’t call out the proper protection, or get off a good snap, or chip the defensive tackle and get to the second level to seal off a linebacker, the play probably won’t be a good one.
Korte had some growing pains in the form of bad snaps during training camp as he settled into a new position but he overcame those, holding off two American centres brought in to challenge for the spot. The Spruce Grove, AB native has always been a stalwart on the line and if he can maintain the standard of play he’s shown in the past, Ottawa’s offensive line won’t be an issue. That will allow the offence as a whole to run smoothly.
Mike Benevides’ defence boasts a multitude of experienced defensive players. The group should be solid, but if Laing is at his disruptive best; collapsing the interior of the pocket, commanding double teams to free up blitzing linebackers, and getting his hands up to knock down passes, the ripple effect through the rest of the defence will be massive. It’ll lift the unit from good to great.
In 89 career games Laing has notched 145 tackles, 33 sacks and forced three fumbles. Ottawa initially acquired the four time East All-Star late in the 2016 season and he was a crucial part of their Grey Cup-winning defence. By all accounts, Laing had a great training camp and looks primed to pick up where he left off in 2019 when he was named the Argos’ Most Outstanding Canadian and Defensive Player.
Even if he’s often overlooked by national media, a healthy Pruneau makes a world of difference to Ottawa’s secondary. Look no further than the fact that in six of the nine games he missed in 2019, the team allowed 33 or more points.
In 93 career games, the six-foot, 200-pound safety has amassed 321 tackles, 56 special teams tackles, four sacks, nine interceptions, four forced fumbles and one defensive touchdown. Pruneau remains one of the top defensive Canadians in the CFL and sets the tone as leader both on and off the field.
The injuries that plagued the 30-year-old in 2019 are in the rearview mirror. Pruneau will be leaned upon to not only generate splash plays on the field, but to help bring young Canadians like Adam Auclair, Treshaun Abrahams-Webster, Dan Basambombo and Brad Cowan up to speed.
With a veteran front seven in front of him, Pruneau will have plenty of opportunities to make plays in 2021.
R-Nation first took note of Dedmon when he become the only player in Ottawa pro football history return to two kicks for touchdowns in the same game. In 130 years of football in the nation’s capital, no Rough Rider, Renegade or Redblack had ever achieved that feat. That breakout game against the Alouettes in 2019 also resulted in an Ottawa record with 377 total return yards.
Unfortunately for Dedmon, he was never able to properly build off that performance as the injury bug bit hard, limiting him to just five games the rest of the season. Still, as he bounced in and out of the lineup, the College of William & Mary product did enough to flash his potential as a game-breaking returner. Dedmon averaged 15.4 yards per punt return and 33.9 yards per kick return in his rookie season.
While some have high hopes for him as a receiver, I think featuring him heavily in the offence would be a mistake. To truly maximize what he brings to the table, the Redblacks would be better served having him save his best for full-time return duties. Bob Dyce is an elite special teams coach and his units are always amongst the best in the league. 2021 could be the year Dedmon becomes a household return name.
Yep, the long-snapper makes the list. Why? Simply put, if Bourassa isn’t perfect at his job, Lewis Ward and Richie Leone don’t get to be all-stars. Too often long snappers are only recognized on the occasions when they screw up. That’s unfair and shouldn’t be the case. It’s a thankless job but a crucial one.
Having a long snapper capable of snapping the ball back to the holder or punter in a tight spiral — so it arrives quickly — in all types of weather, is a massive advantage to any team fortunate enough to boast such a player on their roster. Bourassa is that type of guy. He’s been nothing but fantastic since joining the team as a fourth round draft pick in 2017.
If the Redblacks are going to make the post-season, it likely means the majority of R-Nation will need to continue to be unaware of his existence, signalling a job well done.