Argonauts veteran pivot Ray eager to play under old foes Popp, Trestman

Toronto Argonauts quarterback Ricky Ray (15) throws against the Tiger-Cats in Hamilton, Ont., on Monday, September 5, 2016. (Peter Power/CP)

Ricky Ray has played a lot of big games in his career against teams run by Jim Popp and coached by Marc Trestman.

Now the 37-year-old quarterback will have the former Montreal Alouettes on his side as he enters his sixth campaign with the Toronto Argonauts and 15th in the CFL.

"I’m really excited about the direction of the team and the organization," Ray said Tuesday as he joined Popp and Trestman on a pre-season conference call. "Just playing against Jim for so many years. Montreal was always one of the better teams in the league.

"I just admired the talent level of their teams and how successful they were. When Marc got there it was no different. They competed every year. They were so well-prepared, so well disciplined as a team and that led to a lot of their success."

The Argonauts cleaned house after finishing last in the East Division in 2016 at 5-13, losing 11 of their last 12 games. Ray missed most of the season with injuries, but got two starts in at the end.

The off-season looked to be a mess as the club waited until Jan. 24 to fire general manager Jim Barker. Coach Scott Milanovic resigned a few days later, leaving little time to get a management team in place for a key time in the season that included the CFL draft and spring mini-camp.

But in late February, the Argos pulled off a coup by hiring Popp, who had been GM on a former powerhouse team in Montreal for 21 years, and Trestman, the coach who took the Alouettes to three Grey Cup games, winning two, in a five-year stint from 2008 to 2012.

There has been a slew of signings and acquisitions since then. They including several ex-Alouettes now wearing Argos double-blue, like star linebacker Winston Venable, defensive lineman Alan-Michael Cash, receiver S.J. Green and special teams ace Kyle Graves. Veteran offensive lineman Jeff Perrett also went to Toronto, but then decided to retire.

With new Alouettes GM Kavis Reed putting his own stamp on his squad, some players Popp knew well were on the market.

"Of the ones that became available, either through free agency or because they've let them go, I felt that if there was a place for them here in Toronto we've picked them up because we know their ability and what they have to offer in a spot where we may need some help," said Popp.

The moves have set up an instant East Division rivalry. The Alouettes visit Toronto for their first pre-season game on June 8 while their first regular season meeting is Aug. 11 in Montreal.

The Argos big weapon should be Ray, who led the Edmonton Eskimos to Grey Cup game victories over Popp's Alouettes in 2003 and 2005. He also took the Argos to the 2012 Grey Cup, beating Trestman's Als in the east final. If the injuries that have limited Ray's playing time in recent seasons return, they have veteran Drew Willy and free agent signing Jeff Mathews as back-ups.

After having all-time passing yards leader Anthony Calvillo at quarterback in Montreal, Trestman now has the pivot who is fourth on that list in Ray.

"I feel very fortunate to have come on board with a player of the calibre of Ricky Ray," said Trestman. "As with Anthony Calvillo, Ricky has proven himself over the years to be a great, emotionally intelligent leader, a highly accurate passer and a winner.

"There are a lot of similarities going in. I'm excited to get started and enjoy the initial stages of a growing and teaching relationship with Ricky."

The Argos feel they can compete with any team in the division from the outset. Last season, Ottawa finished first with an 8-9-1 record but then won the Grey Cup.

"I've seen a lot of things happen in the CFL throughout my career," Ray said. "I've seen teams turn it around very quickly from year to year, so everything's possible.

"But like coach said, we have to worry about it a day at a time. You can only win the Grey Cup game when you're playing in the Grey Cup game. We'll deal with the future when it comes."