By Eric Wilkins, Staff Writer
The long off-season is over and done with. Training camp has finished up. The preseason is in the rear-view mirror. Rosters are set. The CFL regular season is set to kick off.
There were some big moves over the break that have given several teams a new look, so, without further ado, here’s your cheat sheet for the start of the regular season.
For years and years, the name synonymous with the Als has been Anthony Calvillo. This year is no different. The ancient gunslinger is hanging in there for another season or two yet, and didn’t seem to be slowing down last year at all, putting up the most passing yards in the league and tying for the touchdown lead. He has lost one of his top wide receivers, Kerry Watkins, to retirement, but the Montreal offence still looks to be as explosive as ever. With the ever impressive Jamel Richardson catching passes and the league’s leading rusher from last year, Brandon Whittaker, in the backfield, defences will have to be wary.
On defence, the Als have said goodbye to several familiar faces, most notably along their d-line. Anwar Stewart and Eric Wilson were disruptive forces in the trenches, but Montreal did manage to bring in former BC Lion Aaron Hunt to plug the hole. The rest of the defence has the potential to be solid, but they need to avoid last season’s injury disasters if they want to stand any chance.
How do you go from cellar dweller to Grey Cup contender? Add an all-star pivot. In the most curious move of the off-season, the Argos managed to get their hands on ex-Edmonton Eskimo Ricky Ray for essentially nothing. One can’t help but think that owner David Braley was throwing his weight around to get this deal done. Cynicism points to the league forcing this trade through in order to make Toronto relevant again. If any QB can make the double blue look like a football team again, it’s Ray. Coming with him from Edmonton is wideout, Jason Barnes, who should help Ray settle in. With Andre Durie and Chad Owens catching the ball, and Cory Boyd carrying the rock, the offence has a chance to be something special. But again, it all comes down to Ray. If the o-line collapses on him, or he can’t find his form, it’ll be another long season in the centre of the universe.
On defence the Argos have the impressive Ricky Foley and Ronald Flemons as the focal points of their line. Jason Pottinger will need to have a great season in the linebacking corps to hold the D together since the secondary is almost entirely brand new. Outside of Jordan Younger, the Argos look set to employ several CFL rookies. Could be a train wreck.
Hamilton Tiger Cats
The Ti-Cats have a fresh (or different, at least) face at the helm. The aging Henry Burris joins the team in a switcheroo with the Stampeders that sent Kevin Glenn the other way. The other big name featured on offence is big-name free agent, Andy Fantuz. While the other huge signing for Hamilton, Martell Mallett, is injured for the year, Avon Cobourne will step right in to fill the hole in the backfield. Burris can be a streaky QB, but he has the weapons in Hamilton to turn this offence into a juggernaut. Look for him to be jacked up for all the Stamps games this year.
The defence’s strength once again will be its linebackers. Jamall Johnson, Renauld Williams, and Markeith Knowlton are joined by former Argo, Kevin Eiben. As usual, be prepared for commentators to be noting all season long, “…and Johnson and Knowlton are former BC Lions…” No, really? The secondary looks to be set, with Geoff Tisdale joining the club in a trade. The d-line may be a bit suspect at the moment, but can lean on the outstanding linebacking unit as a crutch.
Winnipeg Blue Bombers
Last year’s Grey Cup finalists face a real mountain to climb if they want to get back to the big dance. As usual, protecting Buck Pierce is first priority. One more crushing hit and I’m genuinely afraid for that man’s life. Probably not a good time to mention that their offensive line doesn’t look very solid this year. Add in the fact that starting running back Chris Garrett is injured for the year, his replacement is Bloi-Dei Dorzon (who?), and the only recognizable receiver is Terrence Edwards, and it looks to be a rough year for the Bombers.
On defence, Odell Willis, Doug Brown, Joe Lobendahn, and Clint Kent are gone. It’s safe to say that Swaggerville has left town. Jovon Johnson leads a decent secondary, and Pierre Luc-Labbe is now the key to the linebacking corps. The D will be fine, but don’t look for a BC-Winnipeg Grey Cup repeat.
The Grey Cup Champs had an incredible squad last year, and this year, they may even be better. With CFL MVP Travis Lulay still leading the offensive unit, and running back Andrew Harris with a real season under his belt, the sky is the limit. Throw in Arland Bruce, Geroy Simon, Shawn Gore, and Akeem Foster as receivers, and you’ve got one terrifying group. The o-line picked up Patrick Kabongo in the off-season, and training camp has already showed that the club has some depth there. Be ready for another year of seeing a high-flying offence in BC.
On defence the secondary managed to get even better. Lin-J Shell and ballhawk, Byron Parker join the team from the Argos as outstanding additions. The linebackers took a bit of a hit when Solomon Elimimian took off for the NFL, but Adam Bighill should fill in nicely. If he doesn’t, James Yurichuk will be chomping at the bit. The defensive line lost Aaron Hunt and Brent Johnson, but the unit has enough depth to weather these two losses. A Grey Cup repeat may be on the books.
A new era begins in Calgary this season. Henry Burris is gone. Drew Tate is now the man behind centre, and Kevin Glenn fills the backup role. Tate showed well at times near the end of last season, but will need to prove that it wasn’t just a fluke. Nik Lewis and Romby Bryant lead the receiving corps this year, and Jon Cornish gets the official nod at running back now that Joffrey Reynolds is gone. The pieces are there. Tate just needs to make sure he can hold it together.
On defence the Stamps look pretty set. The key addition of Joe Lobendahn in the middle of the linebackers will solidify the D. Newcomer Fred Bennett had three picks in preseason and appears to be a good pickup for the squad. The defensive line is respectable and shouldn’t hold the team back.
It could be a long one in the Prairies this year. Darian Durant has looked like a shell of his former self both last season, and in preseason this year. He may not have anything left in the tank. With the talented trio of Rob Bagg, Chris Getzlaf, and Weston Dressler running routes, Durant doesn’t have to be great, he just has to get it out there. Fortunately for the Roughriders pivot, the offensive line received some much-needed help in the form of Dominic Picard, Brendon Labatte, and Ben Heenan over the off-season so he may manage to stay on his feet this year.
On defence, the Roughriders are a bit of a mess. Odell Willis was brought in from Winnipeg to shore up the defensive line, but the secondary and linebackers are far from intimidating. When Tristan Jackson and Shomari Williams are your ‘stars’ there may be a slight problem. Don’t expect much from Saskatchewan this year.
The head-scratching move of the offseason is what is going to do in the poor Eskies. With no Ricky Ray at the helm, the offence will have serious issues. Steven Jyles is no Ray. He’s not even a poor man’s Casey Printers. Greg Carr joins the solid wide receiving group, and one can only imagine the kind of damage Ray could have done with one more weapon like Carr last year. At running back, Jerome Messam has flown the coop to the south, and it’s down to Hugh Charles and Calvin McCarty. Neither of whom are bad options.
On defence, Rashad Jeanty rejoins the Eskies after several years in the NFL and is a welcome addition to the defensive front four. Mark Restelli is gone from the linebacking group, but Clint Kent (recently cut by the Bombers) is a fortunate surprise. The secondary isn’t name brand stuff, but it’ll keep Edmonton in games.