‘We’ve got the horses’: Riders’ OC Kelly Jeffrey committed to improving run game, teases open backfield competition

Photo courtesy: Saskatchewan Roughriders

The Saskatchewan Roughriders may have a shiny new franchise quarterback in Trevor Harris, but offensive coordinator Kelly Jeffrey believes an improved running game will be the key to the team’s success in 2023.

The Riders were the only team with two running backs in the top six of rushing yards in 2022. However, the green and white finished the year ranked fifth in rushing yards per game (96.5) and eighth in points on the ground (72) last season. Then-offensive coordinator Jason Maas faced consistent public criticism for not committing to the ground game enough.

Now that the team’s former running backs coach has taken over playcalling duties, a more balanced attack is top priority.

“I think it has to happen. If the offence is what we want it to be, we’ve got to be able to run the ball,” Jeffrey said in an exclusive interview with 3DownNation.

“I’m a big believer in attacking on a broad front but it also starts with the run game. If you can’t run the ball, your play-action stinks, your screens all kind of stink, and it hurts your pass concepts because the backers are out of there so quickly. If we do not have that running game, the rest of it is not going to flourish the way we want it to.”

Maas was fired after the Riders finished outside the playoffs in 2022 with a 6-12 record. Despite his relative inexperience at the CFL level, Jeffrey earned his promotion after an extensive search in part due to success with the team’s ball carriers.

Saskatchewan rushed the ball an average of 18.4 times per game last season — second-fewest in the league — but generated an average of 5.2 yards per carry to finish tied for third in that category.

Third-year running back Jamal Morrow had a break-out campaign in 2022, rushing 126 times for 666 yards and three touchdowns while catching 43 passes for 366 yards and a major. Meanwhile, rookie Frankie Hickson’s strong play forced the team to carry two American backs for much of the season, finishing with 85 carries for 533 yards and a score while adding 17 receptions for 109 yards.

Both players remain under contract for 2023 and have great relationships with the Riders new play-caller.

“We’ve got the horses in the backfield with Morrow and Hickson. Those guys character-wise are awesome, athletic, and they bring something different too,” Jeffrey said.

“Morrow, he’s kind of half receiver, half running back. We need to do a better job of getting him into some matchups on the perimeter in the passing game and screens. Hickson’s just this downhill beast. You pray you’re not in his way when he’s got the ball with a full head of steam. There are different things they add. They’re not the same back and that’s a lot of fun to play with and invent some new stuff for.”

The team’s potent backfield tandem will be eager for increased opportunities next season, but they may not be the only ones to benefit. In addition to veteran Canadian backup Kienan LaFrance, who is entering his eighth CFL season, and 2023 fourth-round pick Thomas Bertrand-Hudon from Delaware State, the Riders have four rookie American running backs on the roster entering training camp. Each will be given a fair shot to earn playing time.

“We’ve signed some guys that are explosive, just beasts. It might be the heaviest competition that we have in training camp because we’ve got some serious dudes back there,” Jeffrey insisted. “Our vision of how we want to run the ball is going to be perfect for the kind of skill set we’ve got coming.”

Returning after a brief stint on the practice roster last season is six-foot, 220-pound power back B.J. Emmons, who spent time with the Seattle Seahawks, Las Vegas Raiders, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Houston Texans after distinguishing himself as a goal line specialist at Florida Atlantic and Alabama. He is joined by offseason signees Javian Hawkins, Rodney Smith, and Jace Jordan.

Hawkins rushed for 2,355 yards and 16 touchdowns on 399 carries during three seasons at the University of Louisville, trailing only NFL MVP Lamar Jackson in the school’s single-season rushing record book. The five-foot-nine, 196-pound back spent time as an undrafted free agent with the Atlanta Falcons and Tennessee Titans, prior to winning a Super Bowl as a member of the Los Angeles Rams’ practice roster in 2021.

Smith was a dominant player at the University of Minnesota, collecting 4,125 yards and 29 touchdowns on 879 carries in five seasons with the Golden Gophers. At five-foot-11 and 210 pounds, he signed with the Carolina Panthers in 2020, running 41 times for 156 yards and a touchdown as a rookie before practice roster stints with the Tennessee Titans and Detroit Lions.

Jordan began his collegiate career at Lenoir-Rhyne University, rushing for 595 yards and five touchdowns on just 67 carries in 2019. He transferred to West Georgia and posted 446 yards and 10 touchdowns on 73 carries, averaging 7.4 yards a pop for his career.

“We might have to put in the wishbone to get all these backs involved, it’s an impressive group,” Jeffrey joked. “For what is essentially one starting spot, there are some really gifted ball carriers we’ve signed so it might be the biggest competition. In some of the other positions, you have an idea of where people will fall and settle, but right now this is a loaded position. They’ve done a great job scouting and finding these guys.”

Unseating Morrow or Hickson will be a challenge, but the Riders are committing to fielding the best backfield possible. No matter who earns their way onto the roster, pounding the rock will be the catalyst for everything that Jeffrey wants to do as a first-year OC.

Justin Dunk is a football insider, sports reporter and anchor.