‘We’ve all got something to prove’: Riders’ coach Naaman Roosevelt predicts bounce-back year for receivers Derel Walker, Jake Wieneke

Graphic: 3DownNation (Photos: Larry MacDougal)

The Saskatchewan Roughriders have bet big on a pair of American receivers coming off down years, but one of the franchise’s best recent pass catchers believes both could be in for a bounce-back season.

Offensive assistant Naaman Roosevelt, who was named a West Division all-star with the Riders in 2017, joined 620 CKRM’s The SportsCage this week to weigh in on the team’s receiving corps ahead of the 2023 season. The first-time coach raved about new signees Jake Wieneke and Derel Walker, pointing to the latter as a critical addition late in the free-agent process.

“I texted him when he signed and I told him we’re excited to have him because he’s a big-time player,” Roosevelt said of Walker. “He’s one of those guys that could take over games once he gets hot.”

The long-time member of the Edmonton Elks jumped to Saskatchewan in the offseason, bringing with him an impressive resume which includes 471 career catches for 6,653 yards and 33 touchdowns. The 31-year-old was named the CFL’s Most Outstanding Rookie in 2015 and was twice selected a league all-star, earning divisional honours on four occasions.

However, Walker has seen his production decline in recent years and has not crossed the thousand-yard mark since 2019 — his lone season with the Toronto Argonauts. He caught 44 passes for 531 yards in 11 games in 2021, posting a slight improvement when he hauled in 65 catches for 874 yards and a single touchdown in 16 games a year ago.

Walker has attributed some of those struggles to inconsistent quarterback play in Edmonton and Roosevelt believes he is capable of returning to elite form with the Riders.

“We’ve all got something to prove and I think he has something to prove too. He wants to be back at that number one spot where he feels he’s still young,” he noted. “He’s been around the game for a while but he’s still young. I think he wants to get back to that top spot, that top receiver spot.”

When Walker was signed on March 2, he joined a team that had already added one top target in Jake Wieneke. The former member of the Montreal Alouettes followed quarterback Trevor Harris to Regina, where he will also reunite with his former teammate Roosevelt.

“That’s my boy. I know he’s excited to be in Saskatchewan, especially being a kid from Minnesota,” the former receiver said. “It’s close to home for him and I’m like, ‘Once you get up here, it’s gonna be a college atmosphere. It’s gonna be like you’re back in college again.'”

Now in his fourth season as a pro, Wieneke was named a CFL all-star in 2021 after catching 56 passes for 898 yards and 11 touchdowns in 14 games. He struggled to repeat the feat last year, settling for 45 receptions and 589 yards with just two touchdowns.

Nevertheless, Roosevelt has a special affinity for how the South Dakota State product plays the game.

“He’s faster than people think he is, he gets on DBs fast. I think his route running is the best I’ve seen,” he said “I’ve been around him in Montreal; during the COVID year, we worked out during the offseason and also that year in 2021 when I went up there. Just seeing his game and seeing how crisp his routes are, how smooth he is, he catches everything. I think when he puts that all together, this year will be special for him.”

The Riders are expected to start the season without their top receiver from a year ago, Canadian Kian Schaffer-Baker, while he recovers from hip surgery. That means Walker and Wieneke will be especially critical to the team’s success early in the year, while the offensive staff also hopes to carve out roles for speedsters Mario Alford and Shawn Bane Jr.

Roosevelt is incredibly high on the group as a whole and believes it should be one of the team’s strengths.

“The people we brought in, man, it’s a bunch of playmakers that you’ve just got to figure out a way to get everybody the ball and get everybody to feel good about what we’re doing,” he insisted. “I think once you start doing that and showing in training camp that, hey, we are all gonna get the ball, we are all going to eat, just go out there and do what you’re supposed to do, it should be a good year.”