With training camps set to begin this Sunday in the 2012 Canadian Football League, Sportsnet.ca will preview both the East and West Divisions. Closer to the start of the regular season Sportsnet.ca will provide another look at the league with predictions about the teams, players and Grey Cup winner.
WINNIPEG BLUE BOMBERS
REGULAR SEASON RECORD LAST YEAR: 10-8, First in East
PLAYOFF FINISH: Lost in Grey Cup
GENERAL MANAGER: Joe Mack
HEAD COACH: Paul LaPolice
PROJECTED STARTING QUARTERBACK: Buck Pierce
WHO’S NEW: RB Chad Simpson, DT Ryan Lucas, WR Paul Hubbard, WR Doug Pierce, WR Jeremy Blount. OL Tyson Pencer
WHO’S GONE: DT Doug Brown, DE Odell Willis, OL Brendan LaBatte, OL Obby Khan, RB Fred Reid, LB Joe Lobendahn
THE SKINNY: This is the third year of the Mack/LaPolice regime, and it went from last in the league with a 4-14 record in the first year to first in the East with a 10-8 record last year and a Grey Cup appearance.
Mack took a lot of heat in the off-season, notably for outspoken defensive halfback Jonathan Hefney, for not being more pro-active in the free agent market, both in terms of keeping his own players and signing others from opposing teams.
Offensive lineman Brendan LaBatte signed in Saskatchewan and planned to do so regardless of the Bombers’ offer because he wanted to play in his home province, while lanky wideout Greg Carr verbally agreed to re-sign then turned around signed with Edmonton, which caused a kerfuffle.
Mack made his priority re-signing the team’s top three quarterbacks – starter Buck Pierce, backup Alex Brink and third-stringer Joey Elliott – and offensive linemen Glenn January and Steve Morley.
The competition in camp will be along both of the lines following the loss of several key players either through retirement (Doug Brown, Obby Khan) and trade (Odell Willis).
After starting out 7-1 last year and riding the Swaggerville theme, the Bombers fizzled in the final 10 games, winning only three and seeing their roster fall apart with injuries.
This team will go far if Pierce stays healthy because he is one of the best when he’s not injured, while Brink is a capable backup. With LaPolice handing over play calling to new offensive co-ordinator Gary Crowton, formerly of the University of Maryland, there will be a feeling-out process in training camp.
Justin Sorensen, a mid-season addition last year and formerly with B.C., will be one of several candidates to fill the guard spot vacated by LaBatte.
Chris Garrett, who joined the team last season, has become the feature running back following the release of veteran Fred Reid, but newcomer Chad Simpson (formerly with Indianapolis of the NFL) and Bloi-Dei Dorzon, a late addition last year, will provide competition.
The receiving corps will have several candidates vying for one of the import spots after Carr opted to go elsewhere, including 6-foot-2 Paul Hubbard, a onetime pick of the Cleveland Browns in 2008.
There’s some interesting prospects, including the possibility the team could use a non-import because of a plethora of young Canadian talent. Pint-sized Jeremy Blount is a receiver who will also get a good look at kick returning. Javon McKinnon, who joined the team in September and spent the remainder on the practice roster, might get a look at a starting linebacker spot.
It should be interesting to see if non-import sophomore Henoc Muamba, the first overall pick last year, gets a look at weak side or middle linebacker.
REGULAR SEASON RECORD LAST YEAR: 10-8, Second in East
PLAYOFF FINISH: Lost in semi-finals
GENERAL MANAGER: Jim Popp
HEAD COACH: Marc Trestman
PROJECTED STARTING QUARTERBACK: Anthony Calvillo
WHO’S NEW: LB Rod Davis, LB Mark Restelli, DL Luc Mullinder, DT Aaron Hunt, S Kyries Hebert, DE Duante Akra, WR Chris Davis
WHO’S GONE: WR Kerry Watkins, DE Anwar Stewart, DT Eric Wilson, LB Ramon Guzman
THE SKINNY: Montreal failed to make it to the Grey Cup last year for the first time since Trestman became head coach four years ago.
The Als go into training camp with a new offensive co-ordinator, Marcus Brady, replacing Scott Milanovich, who is the new head coach in Toronto, and former Winnipeg head coach Jeff Reinebold taking over the defensive co-ordinator role.
The coaching staff has undergone many changes because of the success of Trestman, who has developed some top assistants. Brady has been with the team for three years working with the receivers, but the one-time quarterback should do well in his new role. As long as Trestman is on the staff, the offence won’t be an issue, particularly if Calvillo is healthy. Reinebold is known for his aggressive personality and schemes.
Unlike in many previous seasons, there will be some stiff competition for jobs, mainly on the defence, which has been a critical area of concern for some time. The Als opted to go younger letting Anwar Stewart and Eric Wilson go.
There are capable replacements with experience as backups, but the Als have brought in some talent to provide competition. Rookie Daunte Ekra, who rejoined the team in October after released in June, will be worth a look at one of the rush end spots, along with fellow freshman Julian Hartsell. Veteran John Bowman and Kitwana Jones will go in as the starters in training camp. Moton Hopkins can play inside or outside, so that will impact on the newcomers getting good looks. With Guzman gone, the MAC linebacker spot is up for grabs. Rookie Kenny Ingram, a much-travelled indoor player who stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 238, seems like the kind of player the Als would use in the middle.
REGULAR SEASON RECORD LAST YEAR: 8-10 Third in East
PLAYOFF FINISH: Lost in division final
GENERAL MANAGER: Bob O’Billovich
HEAD COACH: George Cortez
PROJECTED STARTING QUARTERBACK: Henry Burris
WHO’S NEW: Burris, QB Tate Forcier, QB Sedrick Harris, WR Andy Fantuz, WR Sam Giguere, WR Terence Jeffers-Harris, RB Martell Mallett, WR/KR Deon Murphy, P Josh Bartel, DE Greg Peach, LB Kevin Eiben, OL Tim O’Neill
WHO’S GONE: QB Kevin Glenn, RB/KR Marcus Thigpen, OL Simeon Rottier, DE Justin Hickman, K/P Justin Medlock, RB Avon Cobourne, DE Stevie Baggs, OL Jason Jimenez, K Luca Congi
THE SKINNY: Cortez becomes a CFL head coach for the first time and brings with him tons of experience on the offensive side. He also has worked with Burris.
But training camp will be a time for Cortez and his staff, which includes new defensive co-ordinator Casey Creehan, new special teams co-ordinator Jim Daley and a raft of new assistants to break in their systems. Every day will be a learning experience for the coaches and the players.
Offence has always been sketchy with the Cats, so who knows what will happen this year. There will be much focus on Burris, Fantuz and Mallett, the latter of whom will be a big improvement on the overhyped Cobourne, who didn’t do much as a free agent and was released after a year.
Terence Jeffers-Harris, the controversial signing by the Cats in the playoffs last year after Winnipeg cut him, gets a fresh start. This guy can be great when he’s not hurt, so training camp will be paramount for him.
Rookie receivers Joe Collins and Michael Galatas will get lots of reps in training camp. Murphy is a capable receiver, but will be more valuable as a returner to replace Thigpen, who signed in the NFL in the off-season. Sam Giguere, who did some return duty in the NFL, will likely see some work on kickoffs.
It is on defence where there will be several key jobs available. Finding a replacement for Hickman, one of the best young rush ends in the league the last two years, won’t be easy. Rookie Derek Drummond will be involved in the mix.
Replacing Stevie Baggs won’t be as difficult. His play really tailed off last year, hence his release. Veteran Kevin Eiben comes over from Toronto and will get a look at weak side linebacker and free up an import spot elsewhere if he starts.
One of the primary issues for the Ti-Cats will be the kicking game. Justin Medlock solidified that spot, but he’s gone to the NFL. Finding a replacement that can do both jobs with equal skill and composure won’t be easy. Maybe new special teams assistant Paul Osbaldiston could be used in a pinch… Just kidding. The Cats have brought in an Aussie Rules player to contest the job. An Ozzy and an Aussie!
REGULAR SEASON RECORD LAST YEAR: 6-10 Last in East
PLAYOFF FINISH: Did not qualify
GENERAL MANAGER: Jim Barker
HEAD COACH: Scott Milanovich
PROJECTED STARTING QUARTERBACK: Ricky Ray
WHO’S NEW: Ray, QB Jarius Jackson, OL Marc Parenteau, WR Jason Barnes, OL Wayne Smith, DB Marcus Ball, FB Ahmad Carroll, DB, DB Jalil Carter, LB Brandon Isaac, OL Chris Patrick
WHO’S GONE: QB Steven Jyles, QB Dalton Bell, LT Edawn Coughman, C Dominic Picard, SB Jeremaine Copeland, CB Byron Parker, DB Lin-J Shell, DE Alex Buzbee, LB Kevin Eiben, OL Rob Murphy, RB Bryan Crawford
THE SKINNY: Milanovich comes over from Montreal, where he was a successful assistant, and will look to prove himself as a head coach. Defensive co-ordinator Chris Jones arrives from Calgary, where he is proven utilizing pressure from all sides. Jason Maas is the quarterback coach and was essentially doing that with Ray in Edmonton.
With a new coaching staff, in particular two new quarterbacks, reps will be of crucial importance in training camp.
Given how pitiful the Argos quarterbacking has been in recent year, there may be hope for the team’s suffering fans. Anything will be an improvement on Cleo Lemon.
Jim Barker, who gave up the coaching reins to concentrate on managerial duties, is rolling the dice on Ray. Tillman is crafty when trading big-name players, so this is either a steal of a deal for Barker, or the guy who once hired him as head coach knows something.
As for the conspiracy theory that the CFL head office mandated the move to make the Argos competitive in the year Toronto will play host to the 100th Grey Cup, what a load of hogwash. Who comes up with these ideas?
There are other areas that will be interesting to watch this year for Toronto, much of it on the offensive line which has been overhauled.
The other big battle for new jobs will be in the secondary with Byron Parker and Lin-J Shell off to B.C. But there will also be a shift in philosophy, too, with Jones applying his pressure schemes, which will mean some veterans will have to adjust quickly.