After two years of bitter disappointment, R-Nation will be praying that the franchise is finally turning over a new leaf.
The Redblacks’ official 2022 slogan seems to be Flip the Script, which is fitting given that general manager Shawn Burke has spent his five months on the job overhauling Ottawa’s roster.
— Ottawa REDBLACKS (@REDBLACKS) May 13, 2022
Within 48 hours of free agency kicking off, Burke had landed 17 new free agents and retained the few who actually contributed in 2021. Many of those will enter training camp lightly penciled into starting roles as this is the time of year when depth charts aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.
Rookies will push veterans, some marquee signings will disappoint, an under-the-radar addition will become a camp star and it’s inevitable that the injury bug will rear its ugly head.
The offence could feature as many as 11 new starters. The defence may have up to five.
In his second camp as head coach, Paul LaPolice begins the year with more talent than ever at his disposal. That bodes well for the season’s prospects, but leaves him with no wiggle room if things go south.
It’s not fair to say expectations are high in the nation’s capital, but the difference between this year and the previous couple are that they exist in the first place. Training camp is simply the opening step of a journey that OSEG desperately wants — and needs — to conclude in the playoffs.
R-Nation won’t accept another basement-dwelling season and frankly the front office has amassed enough quality players to avoid that scenario.
Still, so much will ride on the next few weeks.
With that in mind, here are eight intriguing storylines to monitor as the Redblacks kick things off.
Who is No. 3?
Jeremiah Masoli is firmly entrenched as the team’s starting quarterback. He was their marquee free agent acquisition, helped recruit others to the team, is featured in all the important marketing, and is the veteran presence the coaching staff believed they needed to return to respectability.
LaPolice has had the entire off-season to plan how he’ll tailor his offence to maximize Masoli’s talents. All of this is to say that Masoli isn’t competing with anyone in training camp — he’ll be under centre when the regular season kicks off.
As such, Caleb Evans — last season’s breakout player — will be relegated to short yardage situations and backup duties. A month ago Evans would have been in a fierce battle with Devlin Hodges for the No. 2 spot but following ‘Duck’s’ sudden retirement, the job belongs to Evans barring a disastrous showing in camp.
With Hodges out of the picture and Taryn Christion also retiring, Burke was forced to scramble to add depth at the game’s most important position. To that end, the Redblacks signed Tyrie Adams and David Moore in recent weeks.
Of the two, Adams boasts the more impressive resumé. The 24-year-old is West Carolina’s all-time leader in passing yards, completions and touchdowns. In 2021, he played for Salina Liberty in the Indoor Football League, going 8-1 as a starter while throwing for 944 yards, 25 touchdowns and three interceptions.
David Moore played at Central Michigan and in 2019 — his lone season as the team’s starter — completed 57 percent of his passes for 1143 yards and 5 touchdowns. Moore’s college career was cut short after being banned by the NCAA for failed drug tests.
Can Powell hold off Father Time?
William Powell wasn’t signed just because he’s a fan favourite, but rather because Burke and LaPolice believe that the 34-year-old still has gas left in the tank. Clearly, they think last season’s 4.4 yards-per-carry average — a career low — was an anomaly and more reflective of Saskatchewan’s poor offensive line play as opposed to a deterioration of his speed or skills.
Still, there’s a reason you don’t see many football teams with starting running backs at his age. Devonte Williams, Byron Marshall and Sirgeo Hoffman may be CFL rookies, but all are significantly younger American options. They will be gunning for Powell’s carries.
Furthermore, should the Redblacks be willing to consider the possibility, they have enough National depth to start a Canadian at running back.
Brendan Gillanders and Jackson Bennett have career averages of 4.6 and 4.8 yards-per-carry, respectively. Ottawa also added Laval back Luca Perrier in the eighth round of the 2022 draft. He averaged 9.8 yards per carry in the RSEQ in 2021.
The idea isn’t so outlandish when you remember that LaPolice ran his offence with Andrew Harris at running back during his most recent stint as Winnipeg’s offensive coordinator. That isn’t to imply Gillanders, Bennett or Perrier are on Harris’ level, but instead to demonstrate that unlike some coaches, LaPolice has no qualms handing the ball off to a Canadian back.
Who LaPolice settles on as his lead back matters because the insistence on trotting out Timothy Flanders in 2021 repeatedly handcuffed the offence. The Redblacks finished the season without a running back crossing the goal line. Not. Even. Once. That can’t happen again.
Canadians clogging the trenches
Even if Burke signed Jacob Ruby, Hunter Steward and Darius Ciraco in free agency to be his starting guards and centre — and despite conventional wisdom saying experience trumps youth — don’t be surprised if one of the interior starting positions is ultimately claimed by a second-year player.
In particular, Steward will be pushed by Jakub Szott and Kétel Assé. Both cut their teeth in 2021, with Szott making 14 starts and Assé playing in five games.
Overall, Ottawa boasts excellent depth along their offensive line, with Connor Berglof, Andrew Pickett, Eric Starczala, Zack Pelehos and Cyrille Hogan-Saindon all backups for the interior positions.
No position on the roster underwent such a complete makeover as Ottawa’s pass catchers and deservedly so when you recall that no receiver cracked 600 yards or had more than 55 catches in 2021.
With 19 receivers currently on the roster, players will need to make every rep count.
Burke added a number of proven vets and rising stars to the Redblacks’ receiving corps. Jaelon Acklin, Darvin Adams, and B.J. Cunningham highlight a group of Americans that also sees R.J. Harris and Ryan Davis returning. Sophomore Jordan Smallwood — who looks like he’s put in work this off-season — and Terry Williams are part of the other eight Americans trying to crack the roster.
In terms of Canadians, Shaq Johnson, Nate Behar, Llevi Noel, Marco Dubois and 2022 third-round pick Keaton Bruggeling will be vying for one spot — unless LaPolice juggles his roster to start two pass catching Nationals, which sources have indicated is a strong possibility.
Where does Deshawn Stevens line up?
After exhausting NFL interest, Stevens signed with the Redblacks earlier this month. Ottawa’s first-round pick in the 2021 draft, the six-foot-two, 255-pound Toronto native boasts explosiveness and an ability to quickly change direction.
A two-time team captain with Maine, Stevens made 211 tackles, 21 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, forced a fumble, recovered three fumbles and had an interception during his time with the Black Bears.
After transferring to West Virginia in 2021, he wasn’t quite as productive, notching just 12 tackles through 12 games.
Now that he’s committed to the CFL game, it’ll be interesting to see how defensive coordinator Mike Benevides chooses to use him. On one hand, he’s got the size and speed to play defensive end, but Ottawa doesn’t have an established starter at weak-side linebacker. If Stevens’ coverage skills are up to snuff — even if he plays mainly on first down and rotates out on obvious passing downs for someone like Adam Auclair — it would provide the Redblacks with even further ratio flexibility.
Otherwise, at defensive end he could spell Kwaku Boateng and Kene Onyeka.
Does Pruneau keep his job?
Since early in the 2014 season, whenever he’s been healthy, original Redblack Antoine Pruneau has been a starter for Ottawa. But at 32 years old, does the veteran have enough left in the tank to hold off the handful of talented young Canadians pushing for his spot?
There’s no denying Pruneau’s production — 104 starts have resulted in 356 defensive tackles, 61 special teams tackles, four sacks, ten interceptions, four forced fumbles and a defensive touchdown — but even if his mind is as sharp as ever, are his feet still quick enough to make sure he’s in position?
Justin Howell, Treshaun Abrahams-Webster, Jordan Beaulieu, and Ty Cranston can’t match Pruneau’s track record or experience, but they are younger and hungry.
Demoting or cutting a fan favourite like Pruneau will upset a significant portion of the fan base, so this situation will need to be handled delicately depending how it plays out.
Who does the best Dedmon impression?
With DeVonte Dedmon now with the NFL’s Miami’s Dolphins, Bob Dyce’s return units need a new go-to guy. Terry Williams didn’t do much returning in 2021, but he’s got plenty of speed and averaged nine yards per punt return last season. Ryan Davis also fielded kicks for the Redblacks in 2021.
Given the crowded group at receiver, if either Williams or Davis emerges as a reliable returner, it would go a long way towards securing their roster spot.
It’s a snap (off)!
Louis-Philippe Bourassa is the oft-overlooked piece of Ottawa’s special teams holy trinity — if not for him, Richie Leone has no snaps to catch to hold for Lewis Ward — but competition if never a bad thing. Jobs need to be earned, not given out based on previous years accomplishments.
To that end, 2021 fifth-round pick Keegan Markgraf will head into training camp looking to push Bourassa, although it’s honestly hard to see him unseating the veteran.