All-star RB A.J. Ouellette first recommended to Riders by ex-head coach Chris Jones

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With his flowing locks, downhill running style, and God of Thunder persona, new Riders’ running back A.J. Ouellette has generated palpable excitement throughout the province of Saskatchewan.

The high-profile free agent signing seems like a match made in heaven but general manager Jeremy O’Day can’t take all the credit. Though he was the one to ultimately pull the trigger on bringing Ouellette to Regina, it was a far more controversial figure who first conceived of the idea five years ago.

“I actually had the chance to see him when he was in camp with the Browns when Chris Jones was there as a defensive coach,” O’Day told the media following free agency. “I got to see him there and I believe that Chris actually recommended him while I was there.”

Jones, who currently serves as head coach and general manager of the Edmonton Elks, spent three seasons in Saskatchewan with those same titles from 2016 to 2018. While he posted a 27-27 record and twice made the playoffs, the 56-year-old rubbed some in Riderville the wrong way with his cut-throat roster management and questionable ethics. His image in the province was irreparably scarred when he bolted to the NFL’s Cleveland Browns ahead of the 2019 season, just one week after inking a contract extension with the Green and White.

It was in The Land that Jones first met Ouellette, an undrafted free agent out of Ohio University trying to make the roster in training camp. Despite the long odds, his toughness and physicality stuck out enough for the coach to point him out to his former understudy. Unfortunately for the Riders, O’Day was beaten to the punch by the Argonauts, who scooped up Ouellette two weeks after he was cut.

After four seasons in Toronto, the five-foot-nine, 210-pound back has finally made his way to the prairies and is already bringing the attitude that Jones promised.

“He’s big into social media and he’s an excitable guy but you meet him, he’s different than what he’s perceived on the field and a little different in person,” O’Day remarked. “He’s a guy that lives in the weight room and spends a lot of time preparing to be a football player and his work ethic is very strong.”

Jones eventually followed Ouellette to Toronto mid-way through the 2021 season, becoming the team’s de facto defensive coordinator. When he left for Edmonton that offseason, it opened the door for another young coach who thought the world of the team’s running back: Corey Mace.

The Riders’ newest head coach made the running game a focal point in his interview with the team and spearheaded the effort to acquire the two-time East Division all-star.

“Obviously, having someone that worked with him in the past in Coach Mace and him speaking to his character and what he brings to the field was a big part in the decision to try to target him in free agency,” O’Day acknowledged.

In 37 CFL games, Ouellette has rushed 322 times for 1,782 yards and 10 touchdowns while adding 59 receptions for 552 yards and four majors. He went over the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his career in 2023, helping the Argos to become the winningest regular season team in league history.

After a pair of disappointing 6-12 seasons, that is something the Riders hope he can help them replicate.

“I felt like we needed to improve running the ball and that’s something that Corey and Marc (Mueller) believe a great deal,” O’Day said. “You have to have success running the ball, especially later in the year when it starts to get a little bit colder. You have to have a good run game and he certainly fits what we’re looking for in the locker room and he’ll fit real well in the community as well.”

Saskatchewan begins the 2024 season on Saturday, June 8 when they travel to Edmonton to take on Jones and the Elks.

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.