My behind-the-scenes knowledge of the Riders retired last spring with my ex-teammate Chris Best, and let me tell you … it’s a lot easier critiquing players who don’t come over to your home on the weekends and play with your kids! It's far easier to evaluate players whom you don't know.
So here - for the first time ever - is my unbiased two cents on the 2017 Saskatchewan Roughriders offensive line:
There has been very little fanfare around the Riders' best offensive lineman this season, Bruce Campbell.
He was one of the first pieces of the puzzle that head coach and GM Chris Jones put into place early last year in a trade with the Argos.
Shortly after the trade. Campbell, who is from Maryland, decided to retire rather than make the trek to Saskatchewan (a place I am willing to bet he never knew existed before coming to Canada). This forced the Riders into juggling the Left Tackle position for the 2016 season before breaking the bank on free agent - and 2016 CFL Lineman of the Year - Derek Dennis to protect the blindside of the Rider quarterback (whomever that was supposed to be)
Fast forward a few months to Campbell’s second thoughts about his professional football ambitions and showing up on the Riders doorstep creating the back log at Left Tackle that the Riders are enjoying at many other positions (a credit to the relentless work in the off season by GM Jones and his staff, led by Jeremy O’Day and John Murphy)
Campbell is a monster of a man, listed at 6’7 and 317 lbs but plays like he’s 6’9, 350 the way he engulfs his adversary and rarely gets beat. Perhaps that’s why we haven’t heard his name too often this season. O-linemen tend to only get noticed when they're getting beat.
Simply put, he’s a beast. A beast who could not crack the lineup until center Dan Clark went down with an elbow injury that caused the Riders to not only shuffle the line, but also the team’s ratio to get him into the lineup.
Campbell moved in and Derrick Dennis slid over to Left Guard from Left Tackle where he was having quite an average season. If we were to factor in his non Canadian passport, as well as his $200,000 plus salary, it had been a borderline disappointing season until the move. Before going down with back spasms a couple of weeks ago, Dennis had been settling into his new role (however, I wonder if on the injury report “back spasms” is code for “is an American who makes too much money to play LG”…Hmmmm)
Right Tackle Thadeus Coleman isn’t the most technically-gifted athlete but he is a straight up ‘Baller" and has a spot on my roster anytime, anywhere.
|The Riders' best lineman?|
Heading into training camp, like many in Riderville, my biggest concern was who was going to be playing the most critical position on the team: Right Guard. Right? (I played RG)
Josiah St.John was atop of the depth chart, although just before camp Jones swapped players with the Argos: Armanti Edwards for Dyakowski, the 11 year vet of the Hamilton Ti-cats.
I’ve secretly been a fan of Peter’s since he was a rookie with the Ticats and played next to two of my greatest friends: George Hudson and Marwan Hage.
As previously mentioned, Dyakowski works well with the linemen around him because of his great vision. He sees the field well and can therefore help with pre-snap reads, as well as passing off twisting defenders.
Peter excels in the run game. He is a Grinder, a road grader, that clears whatever appears in his path. Run, or pass, once he gets his hands on the defender, his 387 lbs and 11 years of CFL experience come into play and he doesn’t let them get very far.
Another road grader, Dan Clark, came into the league in 2009 - the year after I left the team - and was given my old number 67- so naturally there is this unexplainable bond between he and I, and I have followed/critiqued his career very closely and have the utmost respect for the man.
The first thing I noticed about Dan, after his jersey number, was his shorter arms … something that I found out only recently that he is aware of and quite sensitive about. What I find amazing is the career he has put together with those T-Rex arms in a game where scouts specifically measure linemen’s arms because longer arms translate into better leverage on your opponent out on the gridiron.
Having Bob Wylie as his position coach early in his career was the best thing for Clark, and I am sure that other Whyle disciples (Brendon LaBatte and Andrew Greene) would agree. Wylie teaches leverage. His technique to get inside hand position goes along way for all the players he coaches and even further for Clark, who needs to maximize this leverage to be the outstanding player he has become.
The measurables may not be there but there is no measurement for heart, and Clark has heart in spades. He is the leader out there, not only making the pre-snap calls and setting up the blocking schemes, but I’m told he also takes command of the offensive huddle when the quarterback is off on the sidelines talking to a coach, or referee.
When Dan was out of the line up, perennial all star Brendon LaBatte slid over from left guard to snap the ball.
With all due respect to Drew Greene, Brendon LaBatte is the best guard I’ve ever seen play in the CFL. He doesn’t have the quickest feet, but you don’t need quick feet when you’re always in the right position, as sturdy as an oak. He's twice as thick and as cool as a cucumber.
For anyone aspiring professional lineman, watch "Blue: and do what he does (except if you want to be a centre).
In an interview with Roddy and I on the Sportscage a few weeks back, when asked about his new snapping duties, Labatte let us know that he was so concerned with the snap that he would do nothing else until he knew it was secure.
The centre/quarterback combo is something that everyone takes for granted, yet I can not think of a less natural thing to do. I played 10 years as a lineman in the CFL and it was hard enough with two hands. I couldn’t imagine having to start every play with my dominant hand ‘up my butt.’ The centre needs to do what everyone else along the line does, but with one hand ‘where the sun don’t shine.’
If you don’t think this is a big deal, you’ve obviously never played offensive line. Me, I am speechless at how talented this athlete is, and only makes my Weyburn-sized man crush I have on the Riders #57 grow even more.
With Clark back in the mix, Blue will likely be back at guard for the playoffs, but after recently signing a new 4 year contract extension, I would be surprised if we didn’t see him back at center for at least one of those 4 seasons.
Many Rider Priders hoped they would’ve seen more of 2016 first overall draft pick Josiah St. John this season. Before Dyakowski came to town St. John was penciled in as the starting right guard. That's something that didn’t sit well with this grumpy old vet.
St. John is a young player who was thrown into the fire last season out of necessity, well before he was ready. He is a great talent but needs to be coached into the pro game, and I think his experience last season caused him to regress. Watching him in practice later in this 2017 season I notice a more confident player … one who has worked hard on getting his pad level low(er) but there’s still some work to be done in that department for this 6’6" sophomore.
Making it difficult for St.John to see the field has been the emergence of Dariusz Bladek. His resume is still a bit light, but he’s done yeomen’s work as a tight end in the Riders short yardage package, and has filled in well when required. Again, it might be too early, and unfair, to make this comparison, but Bladek reminds me very much of the player who previously wore #66: Chris Best. Big, athletic, lumbering and looking for a fight … that’s not something you can coach into someone. You’ve either got ‘it’ or you don’t.
(Mike Abou-Mechrek played 10 seasons in the CFL winning the Grey Cup in 2007 with the Saskatchewan Roughriders. An Economist, Certified Financial Planner and Charter Life Underwriter, Mike runs a Financial Planning practice through Investors Group with offices in Moose Jaw and Regina.)