Argonauts preview: Big turnover in Toronto's defence
Just 4 returning starters in Boatmen D-line
He's entering just his third CFL season but Argonauts defensive back Jalil Carter is already grizzled veteran.
The 24-year-old is just one of four returning starters to a Toronto defence that last year was third overall in fewest points allowed in the CFL (25.4 per game). But after finishing atop the East Division with an 11-7 record, the Argos' season ended abruptly with a 36-24 home loss to the arch-rival Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the conference final.
Carter is also the lone remaining starter from the defence that helped anchor Toronto's 35-22 win over the Calgary Stampeders in the historic 100th Grey Cup in 2012.
"Yeah, I do (feel old)," Carter said with a chuckle. "The new guys coming in, they might be the same age as me or maybe a little older but they don't have the CFL experience I do.
"It's the first time I've had this much experience over somebody but these guys are learning the system and we're working very well together. Our defensive scheme isn't too difficult so it allows us to fly around."
General manager Jim Barker says there's a good reason for the changes. Toronto hired Tim Burke as its defensive co-ordinator after Chris Jones, the architect of the '12 championship unit, left to become the Edmonton Eskimos' head coach.
"It affects everything," Barker said. "It's a completely different style than what Chris was doing so it takes a completely different type of player.
"Yeah, we look brand new on defence but we have brand new coaches and brand new everything so that's to be expected. If we had the same defensive co-ordinator back and then had eight or nine changes, then you worry about that. But when you have a new defensive co-ordinator with a completely different philosophy and scheme you expect to have a lot of changes."
Burke certainly has a championship pedigree. He earned Grey Cup rings as the Montreal Alouettes defensive co-ordinator 2009 and '10, working alongside Argos head coach Scott Milanovich, who was then the Als' offensive co-ordinator.
Burke began his CFL coaching career in '05 as a defensive backs coach with the Calgary Stampeders. He joined the Alouettes under head coach Marc Trestman from '08 to '10 before becoming Winnipeg's defensive co-ordinator in 2011.
After helping Winnipeg reach the '11 Grey Cup, Burke was named interim head coach in August 2012 after Paul LaPolice was fired. He became the full-time coach at season's end but was fired after Bombers registered a league-worst 3-15 mark last year.
Burke won't have to wait long to face his former team. Toronto visits Winnipeg on Thursday to kick off the '14 regular season, which will also mark the head-coaching debut of Mike O'Shea, the Argos former linebacker and special-teams co-ordinator.
The other returning defensive starters include safety Matt Black and linebackers James Robinson and Shane Horton. Toronto's biggest off-season acquisition was signing linebacker Shea Emery, who played for Burke in Montreal and replaces veteran Robert McCune in the middle.
Black and Carter headline a secondary that also features cornerback Matt Ware, who played in Super Bowls with Philadelphia and Arizona. Brandon Smith, who spent time on the practice roster last season, is the field cornerback while Brandon Underwood — another former NFLer with Green Bay, Oakland and Dallas — plays the other halfback spot. The newcomers performed well enough to make former starter Alonzo Lawrence expendable.
Defensive lineman Cleyon Laing returns but could find himself in a rotation should the Argos go with all Americans up front. They did that in a 41-23 exhibition win over Hamilton last week, registering nine sacks.
"I don't take a lot of stock in what happened in the pre-season," Milanovich said. "But a defence that gets after the quarterback energizes a team . . . that really kind of galvanizes a team and gets the blood flowing."
But the key to Toronto's success will again be quarterback Ricky Ray.
Ray missed eight starts last year — seven due to injury, he was a healthy scratch for Toronto's regular-season finale. But when on the field, the 34-year-old was nothing short of sensational.
Ray completed a CFL-record 77.2 per cent of his passes (234-of-303) for 2,878 yards with 21 TDs against just two interceptions. His 0.7 interception percentage was also a single-season mark.
But the retirement of running back Chad Kackert — the '12 Grey Cup MVP — and departure of backup Zach Collaros to Hamilton mean Ray must remain healthy. New backup Trevor Harris, entering his third CFL season, has appeared in just four games.
Veteran slotbacks Andre Durie (92 catches, 986 yards, three TDs) and Chad Owens (94 catches, 979 yards, two TDs) finished 1-2 in receiving but current San Diego Charger Dontrelle Inman (50 catches, 739 yards, six TDs), John Chiles (44 catches, 725 yards, eight TDs) and Jason Barnes (44 catches, 662 yards, seven TDs) were the go-to receivers in the red zone. Newcomers Terrell Sinkfield and Darvin Adams both impressed during camp, making veteran Romby Bryant expendable.
The absence of Kackert (71 rushes, 480 yards, 6.8 yards per carry, three TDs), Jerious Norwood (released, 58 carries, 342 yards, 5.9 yards per carry, one TD last year) and Collaros (59 carries, 246 yards, 4.2 yards per carry, five TDs) leaves Toronto without its three top rushers from 2013.
Sophomore Curtis Steele and Jeremiah Johnson will platoon at tailback but Toronto has high hopes for Anthony Coombs, its '14 first-round draft pick. The five-foot-nine, 190-pound Winnipeg native ran for 2,232 yards over four seasons at Manitoba and added 51 catches for 840 yards and 11 TDs.
Newcomer Steve Slaton could also figure in Toronto's rushing attack. The five-foot-nine, 199-pound Slaton was an '08 third-round draft pick of the Houston Texans who also spent time with Miami but opens the season on the injured list.
Veteran Swayze Waters handles all three kicking jobs — field goals, punts, kickoffs — to again provide Toronto with roster flexibility. And despite the many new faces, Barker knows the identity he wants his team to assume.
"I'm hoping we're a physical football team that teams don't want to play, that we're a team that when they're done with the game they know they've been in a war," Barker said. "I'm also hoping our guys can play fast . . . if we're that, we'll be OK."