When a team has hung out at the bottom of the league standings for three consecutive seasons, change is inevitable.
For the Ottawa Redblacks, the journey back to respectability begins on Sunday with the start of training camp. The last time this team made the playoffs was back in 2018. Trevor Harris was the quarterback, former Ottawa Renegade Kyries Hebert was playing linebacker, Rick Campbell was the coach, and Marcel Desjardins was the general manager. Clearly, much has changed since then.
In 2023, anything short of returning to the postseason will be considered a failure for this team. Before the team can play meaningful games in November, the roster must first take shape and that begins with players battling for jobs and carving out useful roles for themselves in camp.
Here are the six position battles to watch as the Redblacks open camp.
American Devonte Williams averaged five yards per carry in the eight games he started for the Redblacks in 2022. Although he’s the presumptive favourite to earn the lead back role, the way in which Shawn Burke has constructed his roster means Ottawa could choose to go Canadian at the position.
Ottawa native Jackson Bennett wasn’t given many carries last season but ran hard and generated positive yardage when the ball was in his hands. In free agency, Burke added the powerful Ante Milanovic-Litre from the Elks and with the 58th pick in the draft, he selected Amlicar Polk out of the University of Ottawa.
With other rookie American ball carriers in camp, things are wide open. But should a Canadian emerge as the starting back, it would provide significant ratio flexibility.
Of the 21 pass-catchers in camp, you can go ahead and pencil two into starting roles: last year’s leading receiver Jaelon Acklin and Canadian slotback Nate Behar. As for the rest, that will come down to who performs best in practice and the preseason as well as who can contribute on special teams.
For the Americans, veterans Quan Bray and Shaq Evans have flashed explosive, game-changing potential in the past but are seeking to get their careers back on track after being derailed in recent seasons. Bray ran into legal trouble while playing for Montreal, while Evans had a rash of injuries in Saskatchewan.
Justin Hardy and Siaosi Mariner will be looking to build off promising rookie seasons. There’s also the question of how much offensive coordinator Khari Jones wants to incorporate the always-dangerous DeVonte Dedmon into the passing attack. Keep an eye on Emmanuel Butler, who averaged over 17 yards per catch while at Northern Arizona.
As for the Canadians, Behar was on pace for his first 1,000-yard season before being injured. Veteran Tevaun Smith is a proven deep threat but he’ll be pushed by sophomore Keaton Bruggeling. Lemar Durant’s retirement means more opportunity for 2023 draft picks Daniel Oladejo and Daniel Perry to show what they can do.
Barring injury, the interior of the offensive line is set. Prized free agent addition Drew Desjarlais figures to slot in at left guard with second-year blocker Cyrille Hogan-Saindon at centre and veteran Jacob Ruby, fresh off a contract extension, at right guard. Where things get interesting is on the edges.
Dino Boyd was excellent at right tackle last season. He’ll be looking to retain a starting role but will be pushed by the likes of Justice Powers, who would have likely earned a starting job coming out of last year’s camp if not for injury, as well as American rookie Frank Ball.
It’s possible that Boyd and Powers anchor the two tackle spots, but the retirements of Terran Vaughn and Uzoma Osuji in recent weeks means the team is lacking American depth at the position.
Keep an eye on a pair of recent first-round picks, Zack Pelehos, the second overall pick in the 2022 CFL Draft, and Dontae Bull, the first overall pick in the 2023 CFL Draft. The duo will be battling to prove that they handle things at right tackle.
Pelehos shone at the position with the Gee-Gees and was named a first-team OUA all-star in his final U Sports season. Bull is working his way back to full health after a broken leg cut his 2022 season with the Fresno State Bulldogs short, but the six-foot-six, 322-pound blocker started 33 games at tackle during his time in the NCAA.
Pelehos or Bull winning the starting job at right tackle would mean four of Ottawa’s seven ratio spots being accounted for along the offensive linemen.
In theory, the job is Frankie Griffin’s to lose, but he will be challenged by Canadian Adam Auclair and free agent addition Gary Johnson Jr. In 2022, Griffin and Auclair both made starts at the position and rotated in for specific packages when they were backups.
All three players are fast, physical, and possess the ability to quickly diagnose plays, which are essential traits for effective weak-side linebackers. If Auclair winds up winning the job, the 10th overall pick in this year’s draft, Lucas Cormier, could help back him up.
This is perhaps Ottawa’s deepest position in terms of young Canadian talent. Coming out of camp last year, fifth-year pro Justin Howell earned the starting job over Antoine Pruneau, but struggled with injuries for much of the season and was replaced by Alonzo Addae.
Addae boasts excellent speed and instincts but at times his propensity for failing to wrap up when attempting big, knock-out style hits has resulted in missed tackles. Danny Valente might not have the biggest frame, but his ball-hawking ability is second to none. Finally, if Cormier isn’t used as a linebacker, he could figure to be into the mix for this job as well.
With so much depth and talent at the position, whoever emerges as the starting safety won’t be able to rest on their laurels as they’ll constantly have someone nipping at their heels if their performance falls off.
In recent seasons, the one thing R-Nation could always count on was perfect long snaps from Louis-Philippe Bourassa but he is no longer with the team after walking in free agency.
Looking to continue Ottawa’s streak of five years without a botched long snap will be Keegan Markgraf, Connor Ross and the recently-signed Blaise Barber.
The six-foot-three, 232-pound Markgraf was the definition of consistency during his time with the Utah Utes. Fullback Connor Ross snapped well last preseason and Barber was with McMaster University and has long snapped since high school.