Riders free agent pickup, LB Darnell Sankey not afraid of competition with Larry Dean

Photo courtesy: CFL

The Saskatchewan Roughriders used free agency to dive head first into the deep end of the linebacker pool.

Signing former Rider all-star Derrick Moncrief to a two-year contract to be their starting strong side linebacker in 2022 was only a prelude to inking the CFL’s leading tackler from last season, Darnell Sankey, away from the Calgary Stampeders.

It caught some Rider fans off guard only because the Riders just re-signed the man who was supposed to be their prized free agent pickup one year earlier, Larry Dean — both Dean and Sankey are American middle linebackers.

The Roughriders couldn’t possibly have room for both of these guys unless they both fit into a 3-4 defence or one of them gets hurt, like Dean did by tearing his achilles tendon which ended his season before training camp last summer. Sankey swears he isn’t worried about any of it.

“I haven’t really heard much about [Larry Dean] but from what I understand, he’s coming off an achilles,” Sankey said from San Jose, California after signing with the Roughriders.

“I don’t really know too much about that but competition doesn’t shy me away. It makes it more fun, if that’s what it has to come down to, may the best man win — I hope he’s ready.”

It’s fitting how less than a week before Valentine’s Day, Sankey made a decision with his heart.

“I had quite a few teams interested and we just looked at all of the rosters and looked at all of the teams and I just kind of felt drawn to [Saskatchewan] to be honest.”

He credits his experience of two games at Mosaic Stadium last season including the Western Semi-Final as a big factor in his decision to choose the green and white.

“That vibe just reminded me so much about being down south and the fan base looked crazy — the games looked amazing. I’ve done a lot of research, I’ve looked at the coaching staff, I’ve looked at the fan base and the team and I just loved it,” Sankey said.

“Something about them that I just had chills being in that stadium. Once I found out Sask was interested, I said: ‘Oh, okay. Let’s see what they’re talking about.’ I’m just ready to come in there and do my thing and prove a point and contribute — let’s win a Grey Cup.”

Sankey promises Rider fans they’ll get a lot more out of him than just the tackle machine that led the league in 2021.

“I’m a very aggressive, relentless pursuit downhill linebacker. I play with 100 percent effort every single play, you could turn on the tape and there won’t be a play where I’m not running to the ball,” Sankey said.

“I love chasing dudes down — I’m a playmaker. I came in there [to Calgary in 2021] and did my thing and led the league and that’s what I plan to do again.”

Sankey admits talks with the Stampeders didn’t go as planned, which led to the CFLs leading tackler from last season getting to free agency.

“I guess the number one thing is just the business side, I won’t get too much into it, I don’t want to start any controversies,” Sankey said.

“Sometimes business overrules everything so things happen and there’s no bad blood, no animosity, but things just didn’t line up and we didn’t really come to the best agreement and decided to move on.”

“There was definitely a lot of interest but I just wanted to do what was best for me and I felt like something in my heart just told me Sask. We started really looking into it a little bit more once I found out they were interested. I actually told my lady a couple of days ago: ‘I wonder if Sask is interested?’ And here we are.”

The Riders were very interested and if he lives up to the expectations laid out from his rookie campaign, all of Saskatchewan will become very interested in Sankey, too.

Brendan McGuire has covered the CFL since 2006 in radio and print. Based in Regina, he has a front-row view of Rider Nation.