|Author Graham Kelly|
Change is the order of the day in both places.
Lion in winter Wally Buono has returned to the sideline after a five year absence and the team’s last championship. Chris Jones, after winning the Grey Cup in Edmonton, signed on as Vice-President of Football Operations, General Manager and Head Coach of the Saskatchewan Roughriders He wasted no time cleaning house, getting rid of over half the players who started last season with the team.
Buono doesn’t believe a major overhaul is necessary, attributing Lion losses to coaching which he, of course, will remedy. Both men are approaching 2016 in similar fashion. The Rider slogan is “In It To Win It”. Buono exhorts his men to “Win Now!”.
Said Jones: “They pay us to do one thing and that’s win a Grey Cup.”
Last year the Riders were last in the CFL with a record of 3-15. Jones has made massive changes.
“There are always a lot of changes. It’s been very busy but we’ve been doing this for a long time,” he drawled. “We’re used to it. ”
Among the dearly departed are receivers Weston Dressler, Ryan Smith, Chris Getzlaf, running back Anthony Allen, and defenders John Chick, Tearrius George, Ty Brackenridge, Tristan Jackson, Macho Harris and Jake Doughty. In total, 27 of 45 2015 roster players are gone. Pundits are saying Rider nation can’t expect their team to get to the Grey Cup in one year with so many new faces.
I beg to differ.
Jones is rebuilding the defence with free agents from his Eskimo team and elsewhere, including Ottawa defensive linemen Shawn Lemon and Justin Capiccioti and Ti-Cat Eric Norwood. Former Eskie linebacker Otha Foster and Argo Greg Jones and Jeff Knox are the linebackers, the latter two division all-stars. The secondary will be brand new with fierce competition. Former Hamilton DB Ed Gainey and Graig Newman will start, the remaining positions wide open. Knox and Capicciotti are hurt but should be ready for the home opener against Toronto.
Jones will need his All-Star defensive line to pressure the quarterback while his secondary under goes on-the-job training.
Last year the Riders gave up the most yardage and points in the league while recording the fewest interceptions and sacks. Restoring the defence to respectability is a Herculean task but Jones is an outstanding defensive coach.
Despite losing quarterback Darian Durant to an Achilles’ tendon injury in the home opener, Saskatchewan was second in the West to Edmonton in total offence. Durant won the Cup in 2013 but hasn’t finished 26 games since. A natural pessimist, Jones is upbeat about his starting quarterback.
“He can make every throw on the field. He’s looked outstanding in training camp. He’s got himself back in great shape so we’re just excited to get this thing rolling.”
Behind him are Brett Smith, B.J. Coleman and Philip Sims, none of whom are ready for prime time. To make the playoffs, Durant must stay healthy.
The offensive line features veterans Brendon Labatte, Chris Best, Xavier Fulton, Dan Clark and Thaddeus Coleman. Veterans Terrence Cobb and Curtis Steele will run the ball. Replacing Weston Dressler won’t be easy but back are Rob Bagg, Naaman Roosevelt and John Chiles. Shamrawd Chambers was Most Valuable Canadian in last year’s Grey Cup for Edmonton and former Bomber Clarence Denmark is in the mix. Canadian Nic Demski should replace Getzlaf. Kendial Lawrence is listed as a receiver but he can run the ball and is an excellent return man. He was second in the league in combined yardage last year with Edmonton.
The Riders have three excellent kickers in camp, Tyler Crapinga, Quinn Van Gylswyk and Josh Bartel. One of them will be traded to Toronto.
Because football is a matter of life and death in Edmonton and Saskatchewan, Chris Jones has gone from the frying pan into the fire.
“Since I’ve been here the most impressive thing has been the passion that I see in the community and in the organization. The people want to win. That’s the biggest thing that I see at this place.”
Watch for a bumper crop this season.
(Graham Kelly is a columnist for the Medicine Hat News, former Medicine Hat City Alderman, and is a member of the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame)