‘I’m not going to bail out on Mason Fine’: TSN’s Jim Barker backs Riders evaluation of backup QB

Photo courtesy: Saskatchewan Roughriders/Electric Umbrella/Liam Richards

The Saskatchewan Roughriders shocked their fan base when they elected to sign quarterback Mason Fine to a two-year contract extension this offseason, letting presumptive backup Jake Dolegala walk out the door.

One man standing behind that move is TSN panellist and long-time CFL talent evaluator Jim Barker, who believes no one is better suited to assess whether Fine can make it in the CFL than the staff in Regina.

“I’m not going to bail out on Mason Fine,” he told the Rod Pedersen Show this week. “Jeremy O’Day is the one guy who has stayed there and watched him through his development and made the decision to re-sign him over re-signing Jake Dolegala. They know more than anybody, and I will cede to them when they believe Mason Fine has more of ‘that’ than Jake Dolegala.”

Fine entered 2023 as the Riders’ second-stringer, taking over the top job after veteran Trevor Harris went down with a season-ending injury in Week 6. He made four starts and finished the year having completed 94-of-136 passes (69.1 percent) for 1,043 yards, three touchdowns and five interceptions, but lost his job after suffering a hamstring pull.

Dolegala stepped in to finish Week 10 and never relinquished starting duties, going 216-of-333 (64.8 percent) for 2,641 yards, 11 touchdowns, and nine interceptions. With both players on expiring deals, it seemed clear to most that Fine would be gone as a result but the new staff of Corey Mace and Marc Mueller instead bet on the man who lost the gig under the previous regime.

According to Barker, accurately assessing passers involves much more than most fans may realize.

“So much of a quarterback’s success is not only what he does and what he has inside of him, but also the coaches that he’s around, the system that he’s in, the players that are around him, the injury situation — there’s a lot of things that go into that,” he explained, pointing out that Fine has not had it easy in the CFL.

“New coordinator every year. Last year, Kelly Jeffery, it was his first year as a coordinator. There’s a lot of things that go into it. Offensive line injuries; I felt like when they lost Phillip Blake, it kind of threw a wrench into their whole plan up front. How much does that play into the whole Mason Fine thing? It’s just hard to know.”

The Riders have been extremely high on Fine since he joined the club ahead of the 2021 season. The five-foot-11, 190-pound passer was deemed too small and slight for the NFL but lit the college football world on fire at the University of North Texas, twice winning Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year. He graduated as the school’s all-time record holder in passing yards (12,505), passing touchdowns (93), passer rating (140.7), overall touchdowns (100), completions (1,039), pass attempts (1,655), and 300-yard passing games (18).

Many of the CFL scouts who made their way through Denton during his time with the Mean Green saw Fine as a perfect fit for the Canadian game. Barker was no exception.

“I thought he had ‘it’ when I saw him,” he recalled. “When I scouted him, I thought he was a great guy for our league, I really did, and I don’t know that that’s not true because he’s been in tough situations.”

Through three seasons in Saskatchewan, Fine has dressed for 32 games and completed 166-of-247 passes (67.2 percent) for 1,797 yards, six touchdowns and eight touchdowns. The clock is ticking for the 26-year-old to prove he can be a viable succession plan to the aging Harris, though Barker does not believe franchise quarterbacks develop on a predictable timeline.

“I don’t know that there’s a length of time, I think you just know. You know whether this is a guy who’s going to be able to do it or not. You get the feeling from the locker room and you get the feeling from everywhere,” he explained.

“This is going to be, obviously, a huge year for Mason Fine to prove that he does have the chops and the internal things you need.”

Saskatchewan will open their 2024 regular season on Saturday, June 8 when they visit the Edmonton Elks at Commonwealth Stadium.