On the eve of the Ottawa Redblacks’ season opener in Winnipeg, we’re all about to see how an off-season of complete roster turnover plays out.
With as many as eleven new starters on offence and up to five on defence, this version of the Redblacks couldn’t be more different than the group that took the field last November.
Will the pieces general manager Shawn Burke assembled take time to click or will they burst out of the gate firing on all cylinders? Hope springs eternal in pro sports and there’s plenty of optimism in R-Nation that this is the season the franchise gets back to its winning ways.
Nothing is a given — and plenty of strong rosters on paper have failed to live up to their hype — but this is the time of year where it’s okay to dream a little.
With that in mind here are six bold — and I do mean bold — predictions for the Redblacks’ 2022 season.
Caleb Evans leads the team in rushing touchdowns
Veteran quarterback Jeremiah Masoli and head coach Paul LaPolice should bring out the best in each other. As such, the Redblacks’ offence figures to be potent.
It’s one thing to march the ball up and down the field but it’s quite another to finish off drives, as R-Nation learned the hard way during the 2018 season.
Ottawa’s 2022 squad will frequently find themselves in short and goal situations and when that happens, Caleb Evans will be under centre, sneaking the ball across the line or scampering off the edge into the end zone on a Read Option.
Jackson Bennett will be the feature back by Week 5
The 34-year-old William Powell didn’t take a single practice snap during training camp or the pre-season. Going into Week 1, he’s still limited with an Achilles injury. Although he’ll work his back way onto the field at some point, it’s hard to picture a scenario where he’s an every-down, bell-cow back.
Rookie American back Devonte Williams will get the start in the season opener against the Blue Bombers and although he flashed good vision and speed in the pre-season — averaging 6.3 yards per carry — multiple sources tell me the most well-rounded back throughout camp was Canadian Jackson Bennett.
As he gets more touches, his case for the starting job will become impossible to ignore. The Gee-Gees product only suited up for Ottawa’s home pre-season match but turned seven carries into 62 yards.
— Ottawa REDBLACKS (@REDBLACKS) May 28, 2022
Bennett’s ability to lower his shoulder and break through first contact would provide balance to Masoli’s aerial attack and help keep defences from cheating to stop the passing game.
Given that the Redblacks have another Canadian running back in Brendan Gillanders and overall strong national depth — providing them positional flexibility in how they meet the ratio each week — there’s nothing stopping them from starting a Canadian tailback.
Jaelon Acklin shatters the 1,000-yard mark
Despite the fact that the third-year pro has never put up more than 708 yards in a season, the 26-year-old Acklin will benefit immensely from being Masoli’s favourite target, becoming a true #1 receiver and leading the East in receptions and yards.
A large part of the reason Acklin will be so successful in 2022 is because opposing defences won’t be able to focus on him thanks to the rest of Ottawa’s dangerous receiving corps; Darvin Adams, Justin Hardy, Shaq Johnson and R.J Harris will need to be reckoned with as well.
Randall Evans leads the secondary in tackles and interceptions
The Redblacks added a pair of proven veterans to their secondary in the off-season with the likes of Patrick Levels and Money Hunter joining the team, but the most impactful defensive back in 2022 will be the 30-year-old Kanas State product Randall Evans.
The fifth-year pro has quietly become one of Ottawa’s most dependable defenders and is coming off a season in which he played every game (14), making 70 tackles, four sacks, two interceptions and a pair of forced fumbles.
Alonzo Addae will be the team’s rookie of the year nominee
Given the players in front of him on the depth chart, it’s unlikely Addae becomes a full-time starter in Mike Benevides’ defence, but that’s not to say he won’t have a role.
The versatile and athletic West Virginia product is a natural playmaker who relishes contact. Look for Addae to be subbed in often in a variety of pressure and coverage packages and when he is on the field, he’ll frequently stand out.
Ottawa wins the East and represents the division in the Grey Cup
Led by Masoli’s right arm and an opportunistic defence, Ottawa wins the East division for the first time since 2018. The Redblacks are undefeated when they host the East Final — boasting a 3-0 record — and that streak continues in 2022.