Before the Saskatchewan Roughriders can find their franchise quarterback, they need to figure out who will be calling their plays.
It is the most pressing question facing the CFL’s flagship franchise this offseason, the domino which must fall before all others. After an abysmal season, head coach Craig Dickenson and general manager Jeremy O’Day saved their jobs by firing offensive coordinator Jason Maas but their longevity will be determined by how strong a replacement they can find for him.
According to Dickenson, the Riders have six candidates lined up for interviews and several intriguing names have been reported as contenders. Many in Rider Nation are pulling for Stampeders’ quarterbacks coach Marc Mueller, a local product on the rise and the grandson of the great Ron Lancaster. Others would prefer the proven success of former Alouettes’ head coach Khari Jones, while Argos’ receivers coach Pete Costanza and Bombers’ offensive line coach Marty Costello both bring with them a pedigree of success.
However, many around the league believe that a far less familiar name has the inside track on the position, someone within the Riders’ own building. Running backs coach Kelly Jeffrey has emerged as the dark-horse candidate to control the team’s offence next season, leaving a weary fanbase scratching their heads.
There is no denying that the Riders are high on Jeffrey, that much is evidenced by the fact that he was the only offensive coach not shown the door after the season. Even when the team opted not to renew offensive line coach Stephen Sorrells or receivers coach Travis Moore, their running backs coach was quietly retained and deservedly so.
Despite Maas calling the second-fewest running plays of any offence in the league, their backfield still mustered 96.5 yards per game thanks to some outstanding play from Jamal Morrow and Frankie Hickson — both of whom finished top six in CFL rushing. That’s a credit to their position coach.
Still, the prospect of a man who has just two CFL seasons under their belt taking over such a crucial position is enough to send shivers down the spine of any reasonable Saskatchewanian. Jeffrey’s resume is eclectic, but how does it translate to this level of competition?
A former quarterback at Southern Oregon, Jeffrey coached receivers at Dickinson State and running backs at Northern State before getting his big break as quarterbacks coach for the University of San Diego in 1998. He coached three seasons there — two of them under then-offensive coordinator and long-time CFL assistant Greg Quick — helping a kid named Mike Stadler break every school passing record and adding special teams coordinator to his job title in his final year. In 2001, he jumped to UNLV and worked under the employ of College Football Hall of Famer John Robinson for a season.
Beginning in 2002, Jeffrey took over as head coach at Mayville State, a school in the NAIA — a level below the NCAA. His offences were unusually productive for the struggling program but he was still fired after four seasons, posting a dismal 6-34 record at the helm. It was then that Jeffrey headed to Canada, serving as quarterbacks coach, offensive and special teams coordinator for Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick.
In 2008, he was elevated to head coach, a position which Jeffrey held for eight seasons. He posted a 26-38 record but the Mounties peaked towards the end of his tenure. The team won consecutive Loney Bowl titles as the AUS conference champions in 2013 and 2014, coming up just short in 2015. After an undefeated 2014 regular season, he was honoured with the Frank Tindall Trophy as the U Sports coach of the year — an award for which he was nominated three times.
Toronto Argonauts head coach Scott Milanovich gave Jeffrey his first CFL shot in 2016, pegging him as special teams coordinator. The Boatmen did not score a return touchdown and finished near the bottom of the league in terms of net average when kicking, finishing the season 5-13.
Jeffrey was not retained when Milanovich left for the NFL but stayed in his former boss’ Rolodex, as he would have been part of his staff with the Elks during the cancelled 2020 season. Jaime Elizondo went a different direction in 2021 but the well-travelled coach landed on his feet with the Riders a year later.
Now the question becomes whether he is the right man to fix a disjointed Saskatchewan attack that has holes along the offensive line and a serious question mark at quarterback.
Jeffrey has punched above his weight class with a number of struggling programs in his coaching career but has never quite ascended to offensive guru status. His candidacy has emerged from the ether without warning and may yet disappear into it again, but it seems that he checks several of the boxes Dickenson is looking for.
The Riders’ bench boss has been vocal about his desire to find a play-caller that matches him philosophically, one whose temperament is well-balanced in high-pressure situations. The fact that Jason Maas is gone and Jeffrey remains would indicate that he and the head coach are on the same page in that regard. Behind the scenes, the running backs coach is highly respected by those who have worked with him and few have truly balked at the suggestion of his name.
In a league that has frequently been criticized for its nearly incestuous approach to coaching hires, taking an outside-the-box swing on a bright up-and-comer should hardly be criticized. For some, that would be the allure of chasing after the 33-year-old Mueller, though he stems from a branch on the coaching tree that has been pruned before and one far more likely to attract a franchise pivot like Bo Levi Mitchell.
Boldly going in a new direction with a relative unknown in Jeffrey could pay off accordingly for the Riders or it could fail spectacularly. If the latter proves true, Dickenson won’t be around to hire the next offensive coordinator — a fact that will almost certainly give him pause through the interview process.
Should he settle on Jeffrey for the job anyway, you can be certain the head coach will have far more confidence in the hire than his fan base.