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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

RIDER PREVIEW: IT'S ALL ABOUT DURANT


REGINA - The last two years have taught Darian Durant to take nothing for granted.

The veteran quarterback enters his 10th CFL season with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, who'll open the campaign June 30 hosting the Toronto Argonauts. But the 2016 season is an important one for Durant after suffering season-ending injuries the last two years.

"It's not about me, it's about this team and us getting better each and every day,'' Durant said. "Hopefully I'm there throughout the whole process.''

Durant's 2015 season ended quickly as he suffered an Achilles injury in the Riders' first game. They went on to post a league-worst 3-15 mark.

Saskatchewan also struggled after losing Durant to an elbow injury in 2014. After surging to an 8-3 record, the Riders dropped seven-of-nine games without Durant, including an 18-10 setback to Edmonton in the West Division semifinal.

Durant's last full season was 2013 when he led Saskatchewan past Hamilton 45-23 in the Grey Cup game at Mosaic Stadium. Prior to the elbow injury, Durant, who turns 34 in August, had started 83-of-90 games the previous five seasons.

Saskatchewan's struggles last year cost head coach Corey Chamblin and GM Brendan Taman their jobs. In the off-season, the club hired Chris Jones as its head coach/GM after he led the Edmonton Eskimos past the Ottawa Redblacks 26-20 in the Grey Cup game as their head coach.

Jones won't have to wait long to face his former team. Saskatchewan visits Edmonton on July 8.

Jones didn't waste any time putting his stamp on the Riders' roster. Veterans such as safety Tyron Brackenridge, defensive lineman John Chick and receivers Weston Dresser and Chris Getzlaf were either released or set adrift as free agents, while receivers John Chiles and Shamawd Chambers (Grey Cup game's top Canadian), defensive lineman Justin Capiccotti and linebacker Greg Jones were among those Jones added.

The challenge Jones faces is molding the new players and returnees into a team.

"The talent is there,'' he said. "We weren't necessarily the most talented team in Edmonton last year but without a doubt we had probably the strongest locker-room I've ever been around and I think that was the difference.

"When we got down (in Grey Cup) we were able to withstand all that and continue to play and have a strong belief system. That's what we're building here. When you've got guys who are strong leaders, when stuff starts going bad you're not the only one signing the song.''

The five-foot-11, 214-pound Durant also took a leadership role when he reportedly accepted a $50,000 pay cut heading into the final year of his deal to give the Riders more cap flexibility.

"Everyone knows what happened last year,'' Durant said. "For us all it's a year to bounce back.

"It's a year to forget about everything that happened in the past and move forward and celebrate the last year at Mosaic Stadium.''

The new Mosaic Stadium is scheduled to open next season.

Jones' biggest impact should be felt on Saskatchewan's defence, which allowed a league-high 29.7 points per game last year. The 48-year-old Tennessee native has a well-earned reputation as an innovative defensive guru who's not afraid to bring pressure from anywhere on the field.

"I've told the younger guys who've never been in the CFL that the defence we go against every day is going to be, by far, the toughest you'll see all year,'' Durant said. "The different looks he brings, the exotic blitzes, bringing weak corners, strong halfbacks.

"If you can prepare for this every day, you're going to be ready for the game.''

Durant enters the season third in Riders history in passing yards (24,668) and TDs (135). Durant has been Saskatchewan's starter since 2009 and led the club to three Grey Cup appearances (2009-10, 2013), winning on the third try to give the franchise its first championship on home soil.

Durant was also Saskatchewan's third quarterback when it won the '07 Grey Cup. But the injuries of the last two season have given him a new perspective on the game.

"This the most fun I've ever had and I think it's mainly because the game has been taken away from me,'' he said. "I take every single day as if it's my last ... you just appreciate the little things and being around the guys.''

(Canadian Press)