Former Riders’ assistant coach Stephen Sorrells defends offensive line following departure

Photo courtesy: Edmonton Elks

Stephen Sorrells is no longer the offensive line coach of the Saskatchewan Roughriders but he’s not done defending a unit that was a lightning rod for criticism this past season.

“I hate it for those guys because they have to get up even right now and see every day the negative things that are said about those guys. I wish people would just keep blaming me instead of those guys because those guys don’t deserve a lot of the criticism that they’re getting right now,” Sorrells recently told 3DownNation via telephone.

“If people want to blame me, that’s fine, I can take it. But those guys in that room have taken a lot of criticism and blame for things that truly wasn’t their fault. Everybody wants to talk about all the sacks that were given up. Ultimately, the offensive line in Saskatchewan was only responsible for 42 percent of those.”

The Riders allowed 77 sacks this past season, which was 24 more than any other team in the CFL. Franchise quarterback Cody Fajardo took 61 of those sacks before being benched late in the season and is currently planning to test free agency.

Fans often hold the offensive line at fault when a quarterback faces pressure but Sorrells doesn’t believe that’s completely fair.

“There’s a lot of things that go into pass protection. There’s the offensive line, of course, but there’s time’s the running back’s involved in protection. There’s seven-man protection where the receivers are involved. There’s times where maybe the primary read didn’t run the right route and had a mental error. There’s a lot of reasons and as a unit, I guess we weren’t able to get on the same page consistently this year, but there’s a lot of factors that go into that.”

Saskatchewan’s offensive line faced a number of injuries over the course of the 2022 season, starting 10 different offensive linemen over 18 games. Veteran centre Dan Clark was the most notable loss as he missed 12 games due to a broken leg he suffered in Week 2. The 34-year-old Regina native has dressed for 131 career games with the Riders and has ties to the club dating all the way back to 2009.

“He’s not only the leader in the o-line room, he’s the leader of the football team — offence, defence, special teams. He’s the alpha in that building and him going down early (was tough). Logan Bandy played I thought really well while Dan was out, but I think that was just trying to develop younger guys and the injuries didn’t help on top of that,” said Sorrells.

“We weren’t able to get really a cohesive group. We didn’t have the same group play all five positions week in, week out. There were some other factors that go into it but I just felt like not having that that leader this year consistently kind of derailed us a little bit.”

The native of Greenville, Ala. first joined the Riders in 2017 under then-head coach and general manager Chris Jones when the team allowed 44 sacks, ranking seventh league-wide. That number fell to 27 the following year when Saskatchewan tied Calgary for the fewest sacks allowed in the CFL. The unit allowed 37 in 2019, finishing tied for fourth.

Sorrells believes that one of the reasons the offensive line was more successful during his first few years with the club was its level of experience. The unit featured a number of talented veterans, including Clark, Brendon LaBatte, Peter Dyakowski, Derek Dennis, Thaddeus Coleman, and Philip Blake.

“The first three years, our average age of the starting offensive line was around 33 to 34 years old. You had a lot of guys that had a lot of games under their belt and played a lot of football at a high level. And then the management side decided to go younger at a lot of those positions and we were going through some growing pains from trying to develop some young tackles and developing some younger guys across the board,” he said.

Sorrells did not have his contract renewed by the Riders following the season, though he doesn’t appear to be upset with his former club. He thoroughly enjoyed his tenure in Regina and met his long-time girlfriend, Daphne, in the prairie city. He also wasn’t out of work for long, having recently been hired as the offensive line coach of the Edmonton Elks.

“I felt like my body of work was good enough to be brought back but that was out of my control. If I’m being honest, if I was offered a contract, I don’t know if I would have signed it anyway. I’m extremely excited about the opportunity I have right now. Chris Jones is a guy that’s always gonna have my back and I’m tickled to death about this opportunity to work in Edmonton with Jones and the rest of those guys,” said Sorrells.

“Sometimes when you’re at a place for so long, you feel like maybe, ‘Hey, there’s a time I should move on and be open to a new challenge.’ There were some things that I felt like there might be something better in front of me that I needed to pursue for myself.”

John Hodge is a CFL insider and draft analyst who has been covering the league since 2014.