Riders’ GM Jeremy O’Day focused on improving offensive line but believes issue ‘not as bad as we think it is’

Courtesy: Brett Holmes/CFL

The fixes can’t come fast enough for fans in Saskatchewan, but Roughriders’ general manager Jeremy O’Day is not blind to the team’s needs along the offensive line.

“It’s not a coincidence that our year went the way it was with the season that we had up front,” O’Day told 3DownNation at the CFL winter meetings. “What’s a little more difficult is really evaluating them as individuals, making sure that we don’t paint them all in the same picture. Because as a group we struggled but I do think we still have some good offensive linemen up front that we have to make some tweaks to.”

The big men up front have shouldered much of the public blame for a disappointing 6-12 season in 2022, costing the Riders a shot at the playoffs and a home Grey Cup. The team surrendered a record 77 sacks — 24 more than any other group — en route to posting the lowest offensive yardage in the league.

Saskatchewan made major changes following the season, firing offensive coordinator Jason Maas and opting to let the contract of offensive line coach Stephen Sorrells expire. Kelly Jeffery and Anthony Vitale have been tapped to replace the pair and there will more than likely be a new quarterback at the helm in 2023 as well. None of those changes will prove fruitful unless the blocking improves with them.

As a former offensive lineman who played 14 years in the CFL himself, O’Day takes the unit’s struggles personally. However, the extent of the problem might not be quite as large as most of Rider Nation believes.

“I think that one of the things we learned going through our coaching hires this year and talking to coaches from other teams is it’s probably not as bad as we think it is,” he explained. “It wasn’t like our offensive linemen were getting manhandled in certain positions and beat on a consistent basis, but they were all taking turns. And the reality is, as an offensive lineman if you have two or three bad plays in a game, you’ve had a bad game.”

“It just needs to be consistent. They need to play at a more consistent level and not take turns. There’s a lot of factors that go into it but there’s no doubt that we need to be better up front.”

The majority of Saskatchewan’s struggles came without the services of veteran centre Dan Clark, who missed much of the season with a broken leg. Rookie Logan Bandy took over in the middle, flanked by local junior football product Logan Ferland and U of S alumnus Evan Johnson at the guard spots. Americans Terran Vaughn and Na’Ty Rodgers began the year as the team’s tackles, but Andrew Lauderdale, Kooper Richardson, and Canadian Jamal Campbell all saw considerable playing time. Former first-overall CFL Draft pick Josiah St. John also chipped in.

Rodgers was cut in August for poor performance and Lauderdale automatically became a free agent after finishing the year on the practice roster. Clark, Campbell, Vaughn and St. John are all scheduled to hit the open market in February.

With few marquee offensive linemen expected to hit free agency, the team will be forced to find impact newcomers by scouting south of the border.

“We’ve got off to a good start. We’ve signed a couple of NFL draft picks that we’re excited about,” O’Day said. “Really excited about Jerald Hawkins that we signed that’s an NFL vet of four or five years that played at LSU and we’ve got a couple of those guys signed.”

More signings will be coming soon, but fixing an offensive line is no easy task in this day and age. Impact players are far too few and competitors for their services are much more numerous than ever before.

“We’re concentrating real hard on our negotiation list, trying to get offensive linemen, but it’s no secret that all the other teams are doing the same thing. It’s a position that the supply doesn’t really fit the demand and not necessarily just in our league, but in all leagues,” O’Day noted, referencing the USFL and XFL.

“It’s certainly a challenge with the other leagues coming in, they’re filling their rosters as well and guys are making decisions to stay in the States but we’re all in the same boat. It’s our job to improve in that area. It’s certainly an area that we’re trying to get better at.”

Improvement will be required for the Riders to return to CFL relevance, but also for O’Day’s own job security. Entering the final year of his contract, the 48-year-old is unlikely to survive another 70-sack season.

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.