CFL East: Argonauts take run at Grey Cup repeat | Football | CBC Sports

CFLCFL East: Argonauts take run at Grey Cup repeat

Posted: Tuesday, June 25, 2013 | 10:58 AM

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CFL MVP Chad Owens (2) of the Argonauts set a league and pro football record last season with 3,863 all-purpose yards. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press) CFL MVP Chad Owens (2) of the Argonauts set a league and pro football record last season with 3,863 all-purpose yards. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

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Repeating as Grey Cup champion is so difficult in the CFL, but the Toronto Argonauts might have enough to take a run at it, even with a rebuilt defence.

Repeating as Grey Cup champion is so difficult in the CFL, but the Toronto Argonauts have enough to take a run at it, despite a rebuild on defence. They first have to survive two other tough teams in the East Division.

If you'd like to try yourself, remember your predictions have to add up to 72 wins and 72 losses across the league.

Here's our preview:

(Click here for the West Division preview)

1. Toronto Argonauts
9-9, 2nd in East
What we predicted: 9-9
Won Grey Cup over Calgary

It's easy to overvalue any Grey Cup champs in the following season, but there's not going to be much worry about the Double Blue attack as long as health doesn't become a problem.

Head coach Scott Milanovich learned the post-championship speech well from his mentor Marc Trestman, so he told everyone last year's group won the chalice and this year's has done absolutely nothing. The players seem to buy in.

Standing on the sidelines watching the Argonauts practice last week, it struck this correspondent that it's been since the Doug Flutie era when everyone was worrying about the defence and not paying any attention at all to the attack.

Ricky Ray cruises back at quarterback -- a steady, veteran, winning presence in the pocket. People forget he's only 33 years old, considering the three Grey Cup rings and big-time career stats.

There's also slotback and returner Chad Owens, who had a remarkable 3,863 total yards in 2012, despite playing with one hand for the second half. He's merely the best offensive player in the league, plus there's Grey Cup MVP Chad Kackert to run the ball.

The Argos went with rookie Curtis Steele to back him up, cutting the reliable Gerald Riggs, but if anything goes wrong (and he isn't picked up elsewhere), Riggs is only a phone call away. That's Montreal-style managing -- and it works.

Receivers? They've got plenty, including Jason Barnes, Dontrelle Inman, Andre Durie and Spencer Watt, the latter of whom just seems to get incrementally better with more experience.

The offensive line is back intact, led by Jeff Keeping and Chris Van Zeyl.

Where the real rebuild happens is under defensive co-ordinator Chris Jones, who returns only 4-5 starters from the glory years (2012).

With the cutting of beloved Kevin Huntley at the end of training camp, the entire defensive line is gone. The biggest loss was Armond Armstead, off to New England of the No Fun League, where he'll make 10 times as much money.

Khalif Mitchell came in from B.C., where he was a talented headache and, if he stays on the straight and narrow, he'll be a strong replacement (Toronto has consultant Michael Clemons available for a little heart-to-heart chat, if Mitchell needs it).

Jermaine Reid, from Edmonton, and a hot-looking rookie in Jonathan Williams, who was found at a tryout camp after three years in arena ball, are alongside.

On the other hand, linebackers Marcus Ball, Robert McCune and Brandon Isaac are back and that gives Toronto something strong on which to build.

Three starting defensive backs have left -- Evan McCollough to free agency, Ahmad Carroll and Jordan Younger to retirement -- but Pat Watkins cleared up some personal business that kept him out of camp and the excellent corner will be back in the lineup likely by Week 2.

One to watch will be Canadian Matt Black, who moves in at safety -- his first starting assignment after four good years on special teams.

Repeating as Grey Cup champs is so darn hard in the CFL that it would be silly to say the Double Blue will certainly be there again. Healthy, however, they are going to be a handful for everyone.

2013 prediction: 11-7

2. Montreal Alouettes

2012: 11-7, 1st in East
What we predicted: 9-9
Lost to Toronto in East final

Chatting with QB Anthony Calvillo last week, he said a key thing he tells the younger players (that's all of them, by the way) is that it's important to let other teams know every game they are playing the Montreal Alouettes.

Meaning a team with history, one that knows how to win, one filled with veterans and talented younger guys who will get in your face.

That's the kind of attitude that has seen this club win nine division titles and three Grey Cups in the 13 years A.C. has been the starting quarterback, but it's going to take some time to mesh the changes into the whole before Montreal finds its true form.

First, Trestman is now running the Chicago Bears. He's been replaced as head coach by Dan Hawkins, a long-time NCAA bench boss seen the past few years on ESPN College Football as a panelist.

They are different as nuit et jour, to be sure, with Hawkins in the role of relaxed, fun and open sidekick type rather than Trestman's quiet, thoughtful, chiseled leading man.

Hawkins knows his football, however, and came already sure what he wanted to do. Thus, a new playbook for Calvillo to consider.

Strangely, for a Jim Popp team (he doesn't usually make personnel errors), the general manager and his coach released Quinton Porter, the experienced pivot signed just in case Calvillo's 40 years and almost 11 months finally catch up.

Instead, the backup role falls to young Josh Neiswander, who has carried a clipboard for one year, and rookie Tanner Marsh, who was excellent in pre-season.

Calvillo has a dependable receiving corps in S.J. Green, Jamel Richardson, Brandon London and the newly arrived from B.C. Arland Bruce, who was the target of a couple of long passes from A.C. against the Argos last week.

And not to worry, the offensive line is strong and competent. Brandon Whittaker, who may not start the season, and Jerome Messam, in from Edmonton, will run the ball.

Some key changes on defence include a pair of new corners in Byron Parker (B.C.) and Geoff Tisdale (Calgary), and excitable rush end Ejiro Kuale (Toronto).

I can't imagine what Trestman would have thought of Bruce and Kuale in the same dressing room.

Shea Emry, Chip Cox, John Bowman, Alan-Michael Cash et al are a solid but not spectacular defence that can shake you up with their physicality when on their games.

Key here is to keep Whittaker healthy and happy. If Montreal, despite all of its coaching changes, including many assistants, can run the ball consistently, it will be as dangerous as always.

2013 prediction: 10-8

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3. Hamilton (Guelph) Tiger-Cats
6-12, 4th in East
What we predicted: 11-7
Missed playoffs

Chris Williams, Chris Williams, Chris Williams, Chris Williams.

The way everyone's been talking about the loss of the talented returner and receiver, who smartly is sitting out his option year to go to the NFL instead of taking a chance on injury for a mere pittance, you'd think the CFL's best offence in 2012 is ready to collapse without him.

We think not.

Yes, head coach George Cortez was shown the door and replaced by Kent Austin, who also knows how to prepare offences and has a Grey Cup ring as head guy in Regina.

And yes, Williams is a big loss because of his big-play potential (2,681 combined yards, 17 touchdowns), but you can make up enough of the loss with other players and other approaches to mitigate.

Plus, who knows? Maybe Williams gets antsy by Labour Day and be taken by the shots of that cute, teeny tiny stadium in Guelph where the Ticats will play until the new Ivor Wynne rises in Hamilton.

Austin and offensive co-ordinator Tommy Condell have lots of weapons around, led by Smilin' Hank Burris at QB, who 38 now -- and in this league, that's often peak time.

Chevon Walker is a talented running back and they have an excellent offensive line that includes Marwan Hage, Peter Dyakowski and rookie Joel Figueroa.

Without Williams, the receiving corps still has Andy Fantuz, who finished well after a slow start in his new town last year, Bakari Grant, Onrea Jones and Sam Giguere, who seems ready to show the talent many have always believed he has.

Austin's true challenge, of course, is that mangy defence, one that gave up a shattering 576 points in 2012 and basically quit in the final game of the regular season.

Orlondo Steinauer came in from Toronto to take over as defensive co-ordinator and went to work right away by firing the secondary. Only Dee Webb and Ryan Hinds return with some talented free agents around to take over.

Evan McCollough, who was among the most underrated defenders in the league while with Toronto, and James Patrick, the five-year veteran from Regina, are just what the fans ordered. Courtney Stephen has looked good at corner, though he starts on injured reserve.

A new defensive line is supported by Jamall Johnson, Markeith Knowlton, free agent Brian Bulcke and young Ricardo Colclough.

With nowhere to go but up, this defence will certainly be improved.

The Cats will be stronger at the end than the beginning, certainly, but they'll be in the fight.

2013 prediction: 9-9

4. Winnipeg Blue Bombers
6-12, 3rd in East
What we predicted: 8-10
Missed playoffs

They've already discovered a bunch of cracks in the concrete at the new stadium (apparently, this is somewhat normal) and that seems reasonable since it only mirrors what's going on with the football team.

On the positive side, the (better-late-than-never) home will give the CFL's best -- and most loyal -- fans something to distract them from the game itself.

GM Joe Mack apparently decided last year's tawdry bunch needed only a little more polishing to lift itself from the 6-12 depths and once again become a contender in the suddenly tough East.

That's why the team might seem so familiar, beginning with poor ol' QB Buck Pierce, he of the fabulous talent and fragile body. Pierce appeared in 11 games last season and looked good in many of them, but injury did him in again and the offence was left to a backup group that, um, underproduced.

Joey Elliott and Alex Brink are gone now and the No. 2 job belongs to Justin Goltz, formerly No. 4, with Max Hall as No. 3. They will likely play a lot.

With RB Chad Simpson and his 1,039 yards competently backed up by Carl Volny), the Bombers can run and they have pass receivers if the ball arrives, including Chris Matthews, Clarence Denmark and Terrence Edwards, who may miss the opener.

An offensive line that was second worst in sacks allowed last season returns almost intact.

Head coach Tim Burke, who took over from Paul LaPolice after a 2-6 start, knows how to run a defence himself, so that might explain why the seventh-best unit in 2012 hired the co-ordinator of the eighth-best unit, Casey Creehan.

Creehan is a former defensive assistant with the Bombers who headed Hamilton's awful "D" a year ago.

Kenny Mainor, Alex Hall and Bryant Turner provided an excellent attack from the front last year and Winnipeg was good against the run. Unfortunately, that didn't help much because the secondary was so porous that teams just adjusted and attacked by air. 

No one gave up more passing TDs, so Alex Suber, Jovon Johnson and Johnny Sears (nursing an injury) have to improve.

Winnipeg was out-scored 76-6 in the pre-season this past month. Wonderful.

If you see Bombers fans wandering around the Timmy's parking lot this summer, please buy them a coffee and a donut. They will likely need it.

2013 prediction: 4-14

Follow Malcolm Kelly on Twitter @sportsnag

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