‘Proactive’ approach to RB talent leaves Redblacks comfortable despite loss of Devonte Williams, Jackson Bennett

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

The Ottawa Redblacks are staring down a major question mark at the running back position entering training camp, but general manager Shawn Burke believes his team can overcome the loss of Devonte Williams.

“(Re-signing) Devonte was a huge part of our free agency. We thought he was a big play player for us and we thought he was going to continue to progress like he had,” Burke told TSN 1200 when asked about the 27-year-old, who is out for the season after suffering a torn Achilles in training last month.

“Without a doubt it’s a loss for us but we have three quality American running backs and they’re gonna get more of an opportunity.”

Williams rushed for 1,002 yards and three touchdowns in 2023, his second season in Ottawa and first as a full-time starter in the CFL. He also caught 37 passes for 327 yards to be named the team’s candidate for Most Outstanding Player. That led to a two-year extension with the club this offseason that was expected to pay him over $115,000 next season, including a $20,000 signing bonus.

With their top back unavailable, the Redblacks are expected to have a three-way battle for the starting job between a trio of Americans. Ryquell Armstead, who rushed for 188 yards and scored two touchdowns over three years with the Jacksonville Jaguars, returns after spending last season on the practice roster and is viewed as the frontrunner. He’ll face competition from former Green Bay Packers draft pick Kylin Hill and North Dakota back Tyler Hoosman.

According to Burke, the fact that all three competitors were under contract before the Williams situation arose was entirely by design.

“I think one of my biggest roles as a GM is to always try to be proactive and not reactive at every position,” he explained. “It’s funny, I talk to guys about this at the start of camp every year. Personnel guys are bringing in guys that think they can take other players’ jobs and that’s our job to have those beliefs in the young guys we’re bringing in. The veteran players are supposed to sit here and say, ‘No, these young guys aren’t ready yet, I still got it and you ain’t taking my place.’ We want to have an uber-competitive camp.”

That philosophy has worked out well at the running back position, where the Redblacks will need to find more than one new contributor. Reliable Canadian backup Jackson Bennett announced his retirement in April after a five-year CFL career, but the team was already a step ahead in replacing him.

“Canadian-wise, I can’t say enough about Jackson, I worked with him for all six years of his career, but we drafted Amlicar Polk last year who had an outstanding training camp (in 2023), Burke said, referencing the team’s seventh-round pick from the University of Ottawa.

“We wanted him to go back to school last year because he was gonna get the opportunity to be the lead rusher for his team for the first time. He ran and seized that opportunity to the point where he probably would have been considered for OUA Player of the Year if he didn’t get injured the last couple of weeks, all while losing his quarterback and everyone knowing he was going to run the ball a lot.”

The Redblack have since added the player who beat out Polk as the OUA’s top running back, signing undrafted Queen’s ball carrier Jared Chisari. The two Canadians and the three American contenders will each get an unexpectedly long look in training camp, with a chance to earn their way onto the roster and potentially into the starting job.

However, Burke insists that an opportunity is all that anyone will be granted and that the team is willing to do whatever is necessary to shore up the position if left unsatisfied.

“Opportunity comes for these guys and as pro athletes, that’s all you can ask for. It’s up to them to seize the opportunity,” he said.

“At the end of the day, they’re gonna get a lot more reps than they might have gotten at the start of camp and it’s gonna be a very big competition. At the same time, if we feel they’re not ready at some point in camp, we will have other means of looking at that position.”

The Redblacks will open rookie camp on Wednesday, May 8. They have a bye during the first week of the 2024 regular season before hosting the Blue Bombers on Thursday, June 13 at TD Place Stadium.