It didn't take Pat Watkins long to reclaim his starting job with the Toronto Argonauts.
The all-star cornerback missed all of Toronto's training camp dealing with a personal matter. But he'll be on the field Friday night when Toronto begins its Grey Cup defence at Rogers Centre against the arch-rival Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
Watkins rejoined the Argos just prior to their 24-20 exhibition win over Montreal last Thursday and resumed practising after passing his physical on the weekend. Against Hamilton, Watkins will start at right cornerback alongside Jahlil Carter, who moved to halfback after starting at the corner in Toronto's 35-22 Grey Cup win over Calgary.
"I'm feeling pretty good," Watkins said. "They put me into a lot of special teams this week to try and get that extra energy and I believe it worked.
"It's a lot easier to work with someone like Jahlil who knows the system. It's easier to communicate with him as far as the language that we speak as opposed to having someone new there who has to learn the different terms."
The six-foot-five, 205-pound Watkins made an immediate impact last season, his first with Toronto. The former San Diego Charger and Dallas Cowboy finished tied with retired safety Jordan Younger for second in the CFL with five interceptions and was named a league all-star.
But an ankle ailment forced Watkins to miss Toronto's Grey Cup victory.
Watkins' return couldn't have come at a better time for Toronto as he'll be just one of five returnees to a revamped defence, joining Carter and linebackers Marcus Ball, Brandon Isaac and Robert McCune. The Argos will unveil a new defensive line against Hamilton with ends David Lee and Nekos Brown and tackles Khalif Mitchell and Jonathan Williams.
The six-foot-five, 315-pound Mitchell is a former CFL all-star and Grey Cup champion, however Brown and Williams are rookies while Lee is entering his second CFL season. Ball, McCune and Isaac anchor the linebacking corps but the secondary features three new starters in safety Matt Black, halfback Antareis Bryan and corner Alexander Robinson.
While Toronto might lack playing experience on defence, head coach Scott Milanovich said the unit's athleticism and speed give defensive co-ordinator Chris Jones plenty of options with his schemes and player rotations.
"The thing Chris has always been so good at is taking the talent he has and fitting his defence around the strengths," Milanovich said. "There'll certainly be some new wrinkles but there will be things that look familiar too.
"There's a lot of guys we're looking at who have to prove they can do it on game night. We've seen them cover and rush the passer and do all those things well in practice but until you see it when it matters you're never really sure."
Toronto's defence will be challenged by a Hamilton offence spearheaded by veteran quarterback Henry Burris. The Ticats led the CFL in scoring last year, averaging 29.9 points per game, while the 38-year-old Burris posted career highs of 5,367 passing yards and 43 TDs.
"Henry is so hard to put your finger on because you can do everything right and he can still make a play," Milanovich said. "That's always the difficulty of playing against Henry because he's mobile, he's strong, he's athletic, he can run."
Hamilton's defence underwent changes this off-season as well, and with good reason. Last year, the Ticats allowed 32 points and 306 yards passing per game, both league highs, as the team missed the CFL playoffs with a 6-12 record.
Although the Ticats return eight defensive starters, they also have a new defensive co-ordinator in Orlondo Steinauer. The 40-year-old Seattle native not only played eight seasons as a defensive back with Toronto but later served as its defensive backs coach and defensive co-ordinator before joining Hamilton this off-season.
"We're going to play with great effort,I can tell you that, and run to the football," Ticats head coach Kent Austin said of his defence. "We're going to hit, we're going to tackle and we're going to tackle the football.
"We want to be an opportunistic defence that gets turnovers. You have to get turnovers in this game . . . so we want a defence that plays the game in such a way that its not reckless but its effort level allows it to create an environment conducive for getting the ball and getting the other team off the field. We want a fast defence and a defence that has interchangeable parts so we can have versatility."
Steinauer's unit will face a Toronto offence anchored by veteran quarterback Ricky Ray and receiver/kick-returner Chad Owens, the league's outstanding player last season.
"I don't think for us Ricky will be fooled very often," Milanovich said. "He has played against every different coverage that I know of and maybe Orlondo can come up with something new but I think Ricky will find rhythm in his drops and his progressions."
Although two veteran quarterbacks will lead offences featuring many familiar faces against defences with plenty of question marks, both coaches wouldn't give the offensive units the advantage Friday night.
"I don't feel that way," Milanovich said. "I've prepared against Chris Jones in the past and it's not fun and that's one of the reasons why I wanted him here.
"At the same time, we're in a situation where we don't know what Orlondo will do and I think you see how many strides they've made defensively already."
Added Austin: "Every game takes on its own story, that's what I love about this game, it takes on its own complexion. I wouldn't say that the inexperience on one side of the ball creates an advantage for the other side of the ball with the opposing team. It can, it all depends on the quality of the individuals, how well they're being coached and how well they're prepared."
Prior to the game, Toronto will unfurl its Grey Cup banner but the majority of players won't be on the field. And that's fine with Issac.
"I really don't care about the banner, I already know we are champions," he said. "The banner is for the fans and community.
"I mean, we're appreciative of the banner going up so down the road, 10-to-12 years from now, we can come back and say we won a championship but other than that, it's nothing."
Burris won't be bothered by having to sit through the pre-game celebration.
"It's one of those situations you say congratulations to them, they did it last year but this is a new year," he said. "If they want to celebrate a party, well, hopefully we can make this our coming-out party.
"When someone's going to have a party and you're the guest, yeah, that does get you going. But the thing is we're going to be pumped up just as we would for any other game but the main focus for us is focus on our job. It doesn't matter what they do because if we do what we do and do it best, that will take care of itself."