Eight intriguing battles at Redblacks’ training camp

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

As the Ottawa Redblacks get set to commemorate their tenth anniversary of existence, head coach Bob Dyce and his coaching staff will need to whittle the 85 men reporting for training camp into a 44-man roster capable of leading the organization back to respectability, and more importantly, the playoffs.

To say things have been rough in the nation’s capital since the team’s 2018 Grey Cup appearance would be putting it lightly. R-Nation has been left frustrated and dismayed as their team became annual cellar dwellers, missing the playoffs four consecutive seasons.

This past off-season saw general manager Shawn Burke retain players who should be part of the solution while cutting ties with those who weren’t. High-profile additions that addressed areas of need came in free agency and valuable Canadian depth was added in the draft.

Optimism is always in the air during training camp, and these next few weeks at Lansdowne will be no different. Although some veterans are assured of their jobs, opportunities are abundant.

Here are eight positional groups worth keeping a close eye on.

Quarterback

Is Dru Brown ready to lead a franchise? After being traded to the Redblacks and signing a two-year contract extension through the 2025 season, the 27-year-old will be given every chance to prove he can.

The fourth-year passer heads into camp pencilled in as the team’s number one at the game’s most important position, but a strong showing in training camp and through Ottawa’s two pre-season games is a must, as sophomore pivot Dustin Crum will be pushing him hard.

It’s unheard of for a CFL quarterback to go from 4th stringer to starting 14 games in the same season, but that’s exactly how Crum’s rookie year unfolded. There were electric highs and disappointing lows to learn from, but the 25-year-old will be looking to show coaches that he’s progressed significantly in his development.

Although Tyrie Adams and Jeremiah Masoli aren’t yet fully recovered from their ACL and ruptured Achilles injuries, both will be in camp working with strength and conditioning coaches and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see one of them return before the end of camp.

To ensure the team has four “live” arms in camp, Jake Dunniway is back and six-foot-four, 212-pound Matthew McKay — an American rookie out of Elon University — round out the group.

Running back

With DeVonte Williams set to miss 2024 after tearing his Achilles in offseason training and the recent retirement of Canadian Jackson Bennett, no job is more up for grabs than running back.

There is a trio of American rookies with varying degrees of NFL and XFL experience in Ryquell Armstead, Kylin Hill and T.J. Hammonds and plus Canadians Amlicar Polk, Ottawa’s seventh-round pick from the 2023 draft, and Jared Chisari.

Historically, the running back position has been American for the Redblacks and it would be a surprise to see Polk emerge as the team’s lead back. Instead, he could see occasional snaps on second down while he transitions into life in the CFL by playing on special teams.

Offensive coordinator Tommy Condell’s system demands a lot from its running back, so winning the job will require one of the Americans to show they can not only run the ball, but also excel in pass protection and have soft hands on screens and check downs.

Receiver

There aren’t many open jobs in Ottawa’s receiving corps, as it’s arguably the deepest position on the team. You can go ahead and pencil in Dominique Rhymes, Jaelon Acklin, Justin Hardy and Bralon Addison for starting roles.

Furthermore, there are five other rookie American receivers in camp — and that’s without counting the explosive DeVonte Dedmon. Speaking of explosive, don’t overlook Kalil Pimpleton. The 25-year-old Central Michigan product boasts impressive speed and even if he doesn’t immediately crack the line-up as a receiver, he should be a factor in the return game.

With the team likely to start the season with only one Canadian pass-catcher, one will need to distinguish themselves to earn the job. Marco Dubois and Keaton Bruggeling are the veterans, but don’t ignore sophomores Daniel Oladejo and Daniel Perry. The former is a physical specimen, while the latter is a smaller but explosive route runner. Both boast excellent hands.

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

However, Nick Mardner, the second overall pick in the 2024 draft, instantly vaulted into contention for the job after failing to stick with the NFL’s New York Giants and signing with Ottawa on Monday. Tipping the scales at six-foot-six and 208 pounds, Mardner will force other teams to account for him in the red zone.

It would be a surprise for Jahquan Bloomfield, the 35th overall pick in this year’s draft, to earn the role, but he’ll get plenty of pre-season work to make his case.

Offensive line

Barring injury, Dino Boyd, Drew Desjarlais and Cyrille Hogan-Saindon will resume their roles at left tackle, left guard and centre, respectively. The right side of Ottawa’s offensive line is where things get interesting.

Right guard Jacob Ruby was released on January 31 before a roster bonus was due and on the same day, the Redblacks signed Dariusz Bladek, seemingly to fill Ruby’s shoes. But on February 12, Ruby re-signed with Ottawa. Both are experienced veterans, yet there is only one spot available. Whoever misses out on becoming the starter immediately vaults into contention for the sixth offensive lineman role and will see action in jumbo packages.

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

The right tackle position is also wide open and will be a battle of former first-round picks. Zack Pelehos was drafted second overall in 2022, while Dontae Bull was the first overall pick in the 2023 draft. Both are coming off underwhelming seasons. The former struggled to stay healthy, and the latter struggled to adjust to life in the pros.

Given the team’s preference to start four Canadian offensive linemen, both the six-foot-six, 300-pound Pelehos and the six-foot-seven, 326-pound Bull will get long looks. That said, if neither impresses, there are Americans in the mix who could fill the spot.

It should be noted that Bull had to be helped off the field during practice on Monday and his health status is unknown.

Linebacker

At first glance, it seems the linebacker positions are all accounted for by veterans. Star free agency addition Adarius Pickett will start at strongside linebacker, Jovan Santos-Knox returns to his role at middle linebacker and fourth-year pro Frankie Griffin slots into the weak-side linebacker spot.

And yet, football is a game that constantly asks “What have you done for me lately?” Rookie American Davion Taylor is a former third-round NFL pick and will be looking to make his mark on the Canadian game. Gary Johnson Jr. played mainly special teams in 2023, but constantly laid thunderous hits. He thrives on physical play and might force the coaches to give him more snaps.

A year after struggling with injuries and being buried on the depth chart behind Adam Auclair, Lucas Cormier will want to make the most of the opportunity in front of him. The Sackville, New Brunswick native was a highly regarded prospect coming out of the 2023 CFL draft, and the 22-year-old’s speed, football intelligence and nose for the ball should result in some pre-season splash plays.

Defensive back

Ottawa’s secondary is a nice blend of experience with Brandin Dandridge, Monshadrik “Money” Hunter and Damon Webb and promising youth. By allowing veterans Abdul Kanneh, Sherrod Baltimore and Cariel Brooks to walk in free agency, the Redblacks created opportunities for fresh blood in the defensive backfield.

Tobias Harris and Deandre Lamont head into their sophomore years after rookie seasons that boasted highs and lows, but both were trending upwards in their development as the campaign ended. Alijah McGhee also heads into his second season after wetting his feet during Ottawa’s final few games of the 2023 campaign.

Photo courtesy: Scott Grant/CFLPhotoArchive.com

A new name worth tracking is 25-year-old American rookie Adrian Frye. Frye spent part of 2023 with the New Orleans Saints following a five-year career at Texas Tech that saw him make 101 tackles, seven interceptions, and 26 pass knockdowns.

Safety

We know that a Canadian will play safety, that’s simply how the Redblacks have always done things. What we don’t know is if it will be Justin Howell, Alonzo Addae, or Ty Cranston.

Howell — a former Carleton Raven — is perhaps the team’s best open-field tackler, but he’s struggled to healthy the past few seasons. Addae has flashed dynamic play-making ability but is exposed at times by taking poor angles in coverage. Cranston isn’t as dynamic as Howell or Addae, but he’s stayed healthy and is a fundamentally sound player.

Regardless of who wins the job, all three will be called upon as significant special teams contributors.

Long snapper

It’s not a sexy competition for casual fans, but whoever emerges as the team’s long snapper will be a huge part of Lewis Ward and Richie Leone’s success. Long snappers have flown under the radar in the nation’s capital, mainly because fans have been spoiled by Louis-Philippe Bourassa, Tanner Doll, and Kevin Malcolm. When the average fan doesn’t think twice about the guy starting every field goal or punt, it’s a sign of excellence.

Two men will be fighting for the right to keep that streak going. In one corner, there’s the 24-year-old Peter Adjey, who recently arrived in town following a trade with the Elks. He has 36 games of pro experience. In the other is Simon Chaves, who currently has none.

In 2022, the Guelph Gryphon alum spent training camp with the Blue Bombers after going undrafted. He was signed by the Redblacks last November, following the conclusion of the Gryphon’s season.

Santino Filoso is originally from Ottawa and has written about the Redblacks since 2013. He is the only CFL writer currently living in Brazil (as far as we know).