‘He don’t got a lot of players to throw to’: undermanned Riders look for third-string QB Jake Dolegala to manage game in first career start

Photo courtesy: Saskatchewan Roughriders/Electric Umbrella/Liam Richards

The Saskatchewan Roughriders are placing their faith in third-string quarterback Jake Dolegala for Sunday’s delayed matchup with the Toronto Argonauts, but don’t expect a QB controversy to be on the horizon.

“It would be great but he don’t got a lot of players to throw to, I’m gonna be honest with you,” head coach Craig Dickenson admitted to the Regina media on Saturday. “There’s not a lot of receivers on that roster but there’s enough. There’s enough to make some plays.”

Ravaged by a COVID-19 outbreak that caused this game to be postponed from its originally scheduled kickoff on Saturday, the Riders will be forced to field a makeshift roster, especially when it comes to the passing game.

With starting quarterback Cody Fajardo already questionable heading into the week due to a knee injury, both he and backup Mason Fine came down with the illness. That made the 25-year-old Dolegala the only quarterback left at practice this week and the team’s de facto Week 7 starter, with Fine listed as a game-time decision behind him.

His projected receiving corps is no healthier. Star pass-catcher Duke Williams is slated to serve his one-game suspension for a helmet toss in warmups last week, while fellow big-name Americans Kyran Moore and Shaq Evans have been on the six-game injured list for weeks. Starter Jakob Prall and jack-of-all-trades Mitch Picton will be out injured, while Canadians Justin McInnis and Wesley Lewis reside in COVID protocol.

That leaves second-year man Kian Schaffer-Baker as the player with the most game experience remaining, having played in just 18 contests. Rookies Samuel Emilus, Tevin Jones and Dieuly Aristilde Jr. will be thrust into the spotlight, while kick returner Mario Alford rounds out the starting five.

There is not a single healthy backup currently on the depth chart, leading to some creative problem-solving attempts from Riders management. Running back Jamal Morrow is the likely candidate to flex out if needed but rest assured that 51-year-old receivers coach Travis Moore will not be coming out of retirement for this game.

“He’s got two new knees, so he’s not going to play receiver,” Dickenson laughed. “I told the receivers nobody’s allowed to get injured in this game. They said, ‘Okay Coach, we got you.'”

In something of a fortuitous twist, the ramshackle receiving corps may actually be a net positive for Saskatchewan’s first-time starting quarterback. Stashed on the one-game injured list for the entire year thus far, reps with the starting unit have been few and far between for Dolegala. When he has seen time, it has been with the backups and practice roster players who now make up the first-team offence.

“We had some reps in the preseason games, which is fantastic,” Dolegala told reporters following walk-through. “We’ve built on that in these past couple of weeks where we’d get extra reps in after practice. The chemistry is there.”

While Rider Nation might have hoped for it to come in a game without bearing on the standings, the rare opportunity to get a sneak peek at Dolegala offers value in and of itself.

The team has been high on the six-foot-seven, 240-pound Central Connecticut State product since his draft year in 2019, but were forced to wait while multiple NFL teams took a crack at polishing the diamond in the rough.

Dolegala made the 53-man roster of the Cincinnati Bengals as an undrafted rookie and spent another year on the practice squad of the New England Patriots, with cups of coffee with the Green Bay Packers and Miami Dolphins along the way.

His eye-popping frame and arm strength are fodder for scouts but, as recent history reminds us, — see Lynch, Paxton — those traits don’t always translate. Nevertheless, Dolegala has a simple expectation for himself come kickoff.

“To win, to be honest,” he said flatly. “It doesn’t matter that it’s my first start, I prepare every day like I’m going to be the starter. The fact that I get the opportunity now, I’ve just got to go out there and prove it to myself and to everybody else that I belong.”

His head coach has far simpler hopes for the young pivot.

“I just expect him to manage the game well. No time counts, get the guys in and out of the huddle. If we have a negative play, move on to the next,” Dickenson said.

“Do what he’s done all year in practice, honestly, which is just move the team and then distribute the football, try to play in rhythm and take care of the ball. That’s one of the things we emphasize is take care of the football. If we’ve got to punt, we punt but we don’t want to give it up.”

That may be easier said than done against a full-strength Argos’ defence that intercepted Cody Fajardo three times last week — including the game-winning pick-six.

Few will bet in favour of the inexperienced Dolegala and his improvised group of pass-catchers, but the man that Cam Newton once nicknamed “State Farm” is more than happy to play the emergency insurance role.

“It’s an opportunity, right?” Dolegala grinned. “No matter how we got to this point, it’s an opportunity for me to play and I’m looking forward to it.”

J.C. Abbott is a University of British Columbia graduate and high school football coach. He covers the CFL, B.C. Lions, CFL Draft and the three-down league's Global initiative.