New coaches, offensive line raise Roughriders' hopes
It would be preposterous to suggest that Andy Fantuz did the Saskatchewan Roughriders a favour by signing with the Hamilton-Tigers in the off-season.
The fact remains, however, the departure of the stellar Canadian slotback gave his former team the financial wherewithal to address some arguably more pressing concerns.
Once it became apparent that Chatham native Fantuz had his heart set on returning to Southern Ontario, general manager Brendan Taman immediately shifted his focus to the offensive line. He moved quickly to sign former Toronto centre Dominic Picard and guard Brendon LaBatte, who played in Winnipeg.
While the offensive line was not entirely responsible for Saskatchewan's disastrous 2011 campaign — the 5-13 Riders finished last in the West Division and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2001 — the inability to adequately protect quarterback Darian Durant was a major contributing factor.
"We had some hiccups last year," Taman says diplomatically. "That was a fortunate break for us to be able to get those two guys [Picard and LaBatte] in particular, and also some of the other people we've added."
The other people include guard Ben Heenan, the first pick overall in the 2012 CFL draft, and tackle Xavier Fulton, acquired in an off-season trade with the Edmonton Eskimos. Taman continued to make moves right into training camp, adding yet another tackle, Chris Patrick, from the Argos.
Remarkably, when the Roughriders open the regular season against the Tiger-Cats in Hamilton on Friday, they will do so with an offensive line that is entirely new: Picard at centre, LaBatte and Heenan at guard, Fulton and Patrick at tackle.
While it isn't nearly as drastic in other areas, there have been roster changes and coaching changes galore.
"It's a new team," Taman says. "We had been kind of chipping away at it the last couple of seasons, but somewhere along the line it gets to the point where you just have to turn it over."
Corey Chamblin is the new head coach, replacing the retired Ken Miller. He had replaced Greg Marshall, who was fired halfway through the 2011 campaign. The assistant coaches are Bob Dyce, Richie Hall, Alex Smith, Mike Walker and Craig Dickenson, all of whom were retained by Chamblin. Kris Sweet, Khari Jones, Jason Tucker and Barron Miles were all added to the staff.
Here, too, the changes continued well into training camp with the surprising announcement on the weekend that offensive tackle Dan Goodspeed, who was placed on the nine-game injured list with a damaged knee, has been added to the coaching staff.
Goodspeed will be coaching the offensive linemen, of course, with a focus on the tackles.
"It's funny just hearing the players say, 'What's up, coach?"' he says. "The hard part is going to be not putting the pads on."
Goodspeed intends to stay in good physical condition and he is not discounting returning to active duty when he becomes eligible in September.
"There's a possibility for everything," he says.
Taman, however, has all but ruled out that possibility and Goodspeed seems resolved to it.
"If this is where they see me helping the franchise, this is what I want to do," said Goodspeed.
What made the move possible, Taman explained, is that Goodspeed is "a quality individual" who has "great chemistry with his coaches and teammates."
Behind a revamped offensive line, quarterback Darian Durant is expected to return to form following a 2011 season that was not up to his standards.
On average, Durant passed for 4,920 yards in 2009 and 2010. His production in 2011 dropped to 3,653 yards with 18 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, although the latter statistic is misleading because Durant does have a history of throwing as many interceptions as touchdowns.
"Darian would be a big part of our success, obviously," Taman says. "But I'm pleased that the guys behind him have played pretty well. I'm very optimistic about where we are in that area."
Drew Willy, who rewrote the record book for passing at the University of Buffalo, has won the backup role, but the Roughriders also like what they have seen from third-stringer J.T. O'Sullivan, who played his college ball the University of California-Davis. Willy and O'Sullivan are newcomers to the CFL, but they have bounced around the NFL and UFL for four and 10 seasons, respectively.
"We did have some good quarterback play," Chamblin said of Saskatchewan's pre-season losses to the B.C. Lions (44-10) and Calgary Stampeders (33-31). "I'm pleased in that area."
The Riders will continue to tweak the starting lineup until they depart for Hamilton on Thursday, but the tailback is likely to be Kory Sheets, a rookie from Purdue, who won a spirited battle with Brandon West. In order to retain his status, Chamblin says, Sheets will have to improve his blocking.
Taman admits to being nervous about the lack of experience among the running backs, but he is confident in the level of talent.
The receiving corps is solid even without Fantuz. The bulk of the production is expected to come from the trio of Chris Getzlaf and Weston Dressler, who both had more than 1,000 yards in 2011, and Rob Bagg, who missed the entire campaign with a knee injury. Between his NFL tryout with the Chicago Bears and then an ankle injury upon his return to the CFL, Fantuz was a non-factor last season.
Defensively, the Roughriders are still reconfiguring their secondary — Taman refers to it as a work in progress — and linebacking corps. The shuffling is likely to continue into at least the early part of the season.
In the meantime, a heavy emphasis has been placed on increasing the number of quarterback sacks. Last season Saskatchewan was sixth in the CFL with 29 — and only 15 of them came from the defensive line.
"That's a huge part of where our success is going to come from," says Taman, who struck a deal with the Blue Bombers for Odell Willis in the off-season. Willis will be paired at defensive end with Brent Hawkins. The starting tackles are Keith Shologan and Tearrius George, christened "Furious George" by one of his teammates.
In the secondary, Canadians Craig Butler (a West Division all-star as a rookie last season) and Paul Woldu (a former Montreal Alouette who was signed as a free agent) will give the team great flexibility.
The Roughriders are planning to use a number of nickel and dime packages. Veteran cornerback Lance Frazier was cut and Chamblin hinted it was because the team needs defensive backs capable of playing more than one position.
For the season opener, at any rate, Frazier's post will be manned by Eddie Russ, who is in his second year with Saskatchewan.
"He has a lot of football ahead of him," Chamblin said. "He has a lot of potential."
The least of the team's worries is the kicking game. Chris Milo handles both the punting and the placements and does so at a high level, to extent that Taman speaks of him as "a potential Paul McCallum."
As opening day approaches, Taman speaks cautiously but optimistically about a change of fortune for the Green and White.
"I like the energy and the confidence," he says.
Taman believes it is crucial that his team gets off to a faster start and plays better at home. Last year the Riders lost five of their first six games, and their record at Mosaic Stadium was 3-6.
"There's going to be a few bumps and bruises," Taman said. "But I'm looking for better things this year."
Chamblin, understandably, avoids comparisons altogether.
"This is a new day," he says, "and a new team."