TORONTO — The Toronto Argonauts will have to wait to kick off the ’19 CFL regular season, and head coach Corey Chamblin is good with that.
Toronto completed the exhibition season 2-0 but Chamblin, in his first season as the club’s head coach, said the squad is far from being a finished product. The Argos have an opening-round bye before hosting the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on June 22.
"That’s a good thing for us right now," said a candid Chamblin. "We’re nowhere close to being ready for the season.
"Just because we went 2-0, the guys played more on emotion. We’ve got to find a way to play with better execution."
Toronto (4-14) finished last in the East Division in 2018, missing the playoffs after winning the Grey Cup the previous season. Chamblin was the Argos’ defensive co-ordinator in 2017 but spent last year as a qualify control/defensive backs coach at the University of Arkansas.
He returned as Toronto’s head coach after Marc Trestman was fired following the ’18 campaign.
"Right now, this team is energetic," said Chamblin, who led Saskatchewan to the ’13 Grey Cup title as its head coach. "They still don’t understand but they fight, I’ll tell you that.
"These guys are fighting their tails off to erase last year … we’re trying to erase last year out of our minds, create a new year and hopefully it’s a championship year."
Toronto will honour former quarterback Ricky Ray before its opener. Ray retired last month after suffering a season-ending neck injury in 2018, part of a miserable season all around for the Argos.
Without Ray, who was instrumental in Toronto’s 2017 Grey Cup-winning campaign, the offence struggled. James Franklin and McLeod Bethel-Thompson took turns starting, but to little avail as the Argos finished second-last in scoring (20.5 points per game).
Veteran CFL coach Jacques Chapdelaine joined Chamblin’s staff as offensive co-ordinator.
Overworked, Toronto’s defence allowed 31.1 points per game (most in the CFL) and 406.1 offensive yards (second-last) despite 11 sacks by Shawn Lemon. Chamblin will take over an Argos defence that was also last overall in turnover ratio (minus-22).
This off-season, GM Jim Popp went hard after quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell before the CFL’s outstanding player re-signed with Grey Cup-champion Calgary. Popp then secured receiver Derel Walker — who had 297 catches for 4,208 yards with 26 TDs in 49 games with Edmonton — in free agency.
Walker, who had 52 catches for 875 yards and eight TDs in 11 games last season, definitely gives Toronto a home-run threat. But he’ll also combine with veterans S.J. Green (83 catches, 1,095 yards, four TDs) and Armanti Edwards (73 catches, 974 yards, four TDs) to give the Argos plenty of receiving options.
"(Walker) has that vertical threat, he can take the top off," Chamblin said. "He still has a way to go, he still has to knock that rust off but I expect more out of him regardless.
"He has a cylinder he hasn’t reached yet in terms of being a great player in this league."
Franklin will open the season as Toronto’s starter despite a solid pre-season by Bethel-Thompson. The six-foot-four, 230-pound third-year Argo was a combined 17-of-24 passing for 353 yards and three TDs in two games.
Bethel-Thompson’s solid play made Canadian Brandon Bridge expendable as Toronto released the native of Mississauga, Ont., on Saturday. That leaves Ottawa native Michael O’Connor, a 2019 third-round pick, as the club’s lone national quarterback.
James Wilder Jr., the CFL’s top rookie in 2017, is expected to again anchor the ground game but is also a solid receiver.
Toronto has revamped its defence as veteran linebacker Marcus Ball wasn’t re-signed in free agency and Bear Woods, another American linebacker, was released. The Argos dipped into the free-agent waters to add defensive lineman Tobi Antigha, linebackers Ian Wild and Micah Awe along with cornerback Kevin Fogg.
Still, Chamblin said the defence remains a work in progress. On Thursday, Hamilton’s Jeremiah Masoli was 17-of-26 passing for 154 yards with a TD and interception while also scoring on a one-yard run in the first half of Toronto’s exhibitioin 30-23 road win over the Ticats. The game was tied 20-20 at halftime.
"We have a ways ahead of us defensively to go out against a good quarterback like that and stop him," Chamblin said. "We want to be aggressive, we want to be a defence that keeps offences out of the endzone."
TORONTO ARGONAUTS AT A GLANCE
HEAD COACH: Corey Chamblin, first season in Toronto.
LAST YEAR: 4-14, missed playoffs.
KEY PLAYERS: QB James Franklin: He’s the starter now with veteran Ricky Ray having retired this off-season. There was much anticipation about Franklin when Toronto acquired him from Edmonton prior to last season. Now the job is his to lose.
WR Derel Walker: Toronto’s biggest free-agent acquistion, Walker had a productive season in Edmonton last year despite missing time with a knee injury. He was the CFL’s top rookie in 2015.
DL Shawn Lemon: With a revamped defence, the veteran defensive lineman will be counted upon heavily to anchor the unit’s pass rush.
THE BIG QUESTION: Will Toronto’s defence improve under Chamblin, who was the club’s defensive co-ordinator when it won the ’17 Grey Cup?