Riders ready to kick off 2016 CFL season

Riders ready to kick off 2016, with Darian Durant back under centre as they host the Toronto Argonauts in the season opener.

Roughriders host the Argos on Thursday night

Riders' Head Coach and G.M. Chris Jones is sounding and looking confident as the team heads into the 2016 season. (Glen Reid/CBC)

One week later than everybody else, the 2016 edition of the Saskatchewan Roughriders finally get the new campaign underway.

After an opening week bye, Rider Nation gets its first real look at the Chris Jones Roughrider when they host the Toronto Argonauts (0-1) on Thursday night at Mosaic Stadium.

One thing you can't say about the new head coach and general manager is that he didn't do enough to fix a team coming off a 3-15 season last year. Roughly 80 per cent of the club wasn't around a year ago.

"This is for real. We've talked a good game, now it's a matter of seeing where we are," said Jones, moments after his team's final pre-game walk through on Wednesday.

Jones sounded surprisingly confident considering the 46-man active roster he's assembled has yet to play a single game together.

On defence, the only constant from 2015 is linebacker Jeff Knox and he's not even starting Thursday night.

"I'm not a rookie anymore so I have to give advice instead of taking it, it's more [about] being a leader now," said Knox who will backup newcomer Samuel Eguavoen.

Rookie Kevin Francis starts at safety for the Riders against the Argos. (Glen Reid/CBC)

One rookie who will be like a sponge soaking up advice is 23-year-old Kevin Francis who gets the start at safety in his CFL debut.

"It's still like a dream and I'm embracing it, taking it one day at a time, one play at a time and I'm ready to go." said Francis who was selected by the Riders in the CFL supplemental draft in May.

To say he has a lot to learn is an understatement. One month ago he was a receiver coming out of college at North Carolina A&T, scoring touchdowns, not preventing them.

But just because he's listed as a starter at safety doesn't mean that's where he'll finish. Jones, who won a Grey Cup with Edmonton last November, is not a firm believer in depth charts.

That may explain why one of the team's prize off-season acquisitions, Shawn Lemon, is listed third on the depth chart at one of the rush-end positions.

"Starters don't matter for us, we've got a lot of guys that can play," Jones said. "We rotate a lot, Willie Jefferson was probably one of the better defensive ends in the league last year and he didn't start a single game."

Only as good as your starting quarterback

For Darian Durant, who hasn't played a full game since September of 2014, Thursday night's game can't come soon enough. (Glen Reid/CBC)

But there's no question if the Riders have to rotate at the quarterback spot they will be in serious trouble, again.

If there's any doubt what Darian Durant means to the franchise, their record without him speaks for itself.

A Grey Cup championship in 2013 and an 8-2 record in 2014 before Durant suffered the first of back-to-back season-ending injuries.

The Riders, without Durant at the helm, were 5-21.

There's pressure on Durant as the face of the franchise, there's also pressure on him to stay healthy. 

"Staying healthy is a little out of my control." said Durant who called what he's been through the last two years 'freak injuries.'

But still he said, he's dropped 15 to 20 pounds to take some pressure off his limbs, ankles and feet.

"I'm back to feeling like myself, my game won't change, I will try to play within the system but it won't change the way I play."

Larger than life

Fans arriving at Mosaic Stadium for its final season will be greeted by a reminder of one of its greatest moments. (Glenn Reid/CBC)

If Rider fans need another reminder of Durant's importance, how about a larger than life one.

As fans head to the game Thursday night they will notice two new giant banners on the west facade of the stadium.

One is with Riders' legend Ron Lancaster, the other is Durant, shown hoisting the Grey Cup in 2013.

Durant drives in everyday from Harbour Landing, on the west side of Regina, so he's noticed the banner of himself.

"I am so honoured to be recognized as one of the biggest moments here in this stadium's history. Just blessed to play as long as I have and to be that type of figure here in Saskatchewan."

But if Durant needs a reminder himself, he works in a 'what have you done for me lately' type business. A new chapter in his and Riders' history begins Thursday night.

Rider extras

Right Guard Chris Best was placed on the six-game injured list. Jones would only say Best's status is day-to-day. Andrew Jones, who played for Chris Jones in Edmonton last season, will start in Best's place.

Not including the head coach, there are three players named 'Jones' on the active roster.