The Saskatchewan Roughriders conclude their exhibition season against the BC Lions with a number of questions – who will be the back-up quarterback, can the defensive secondary stop people, who will line up at running back and defensive line and perhaps unsaid in all of this – are the Riders really able to contend this year?
Each CFL team has been kicking the tires of their team and sounding positive about contending, but while the Saskatchewan Roughriders have improved, it’s not clear any of their western competitors have not. The BC Lions swept the Riders last year and basically crushed the spirit of the Riders in the last game at Mosaic Stadium and then in the regular season finale at BC Place.
Last week the Riders opened with a 25-25 tie, a game they could have won and should have lost. A pleasant surprise was the play of Canadian quarterback Brandon Bridge while Bryan Bennett, the former Bomber quarterback, looked good in training camp but less so under the spotlights.
So while Kevin Glenn will start and maybe go a quarter and a bit, with Bennett and Bridge splitting up the remaining time and perhaps Marquisse Williams seeing some action, the question is whether or not Bennett can rebound and show why he should be the back up quarterback. Bridge is not considered to be a great practice player, but a better gamer when the lights turn on, but for Bridge to solidify a back up spot, he needs to show consistency and if he does against BC, then the spot should be his.
The other impressive performance was Williams who showed up as the new number four quarterback last week and went in with a few practices and led the team on a game tying field goal. Williams comes from UNC where he broke Darian Durant’s records, but for a rookie to come in and lead a team in a pressure situation where so many other rookies have folded in the past bodes well for his future.
If Williams gets a chance to get into the game and does well, he makes the question of what to do with Vince Young even more interesting. Young will be on the six game injury list after Friday which will allow him to mentally take reps and sort of decide if his comeback is for real.
For all appearances, it seems his purpose is genuine in wanting to just one of the players and get a chance to play. The problem for Young is that his age, the length of time since he last played, and the Canadian game is different from the NFL version which means he needs to not just in top shape physically but mentally.
Young’s passes showed some of the zip he had in US College, but others did not. While he appeared in shape, he could lose a few more pounds to be more mobile which is required for the Canadian game. So when the news of Young’s torn hamstring came out it was thought, and probably still is, Young could use the injury as the excuse to end the comeback by saying he tried but…
But it seems Rider GM and Head Coach Chris Jones is looking to keep him around. Young’s desire to do his rehab with the team and continue with meetings indicates his competitive drive. Now while Bridge and Bennett seem to be battling it out for the back up position, Rider fans should turn their memories back to 2014 when Tino Sunseri and Seth Dogge found themselves in the position of taking the reins of the Saskatchewan Roughriders when Darian Durant went down in the Banjo Bowl with an injury.
The results were painful to watch as both Sunseri and Dogge perfected the deer in the headlight look of being unable to respond to the blitz and the Riders were forced to turn to Kerry Joseph in retirement to try to rally the club. The sad thing was that Joseph was better than Sunseri and Dogge and pointed out the Riders needed to find back up quarterbacks who can actually play..
So keeping Young around is hedging a bet for Chris Jones in the event Kevin Glenn goes down and Bridge and Bennett blow up like Sunseri and Dogge. While Young has not played in a number of years, he has played and could perhaps be like Joseph in calming down a offense.
The other reason to keep him around is perhaps a more cynical one. The Riders have invested in a press conference to announce him and interest in the team in North America has gone up just to see what Young does. If the Riders keep him around, and perhaps he actually sees some action, then the Riders sell more merchandise and they were off about $1 million in merchandise sales last years, although speaking as a customer, I would argue their stuff is not that compelling.
Another interesting scenario is one involving Canadian Albert Awachie. Awachie is being moved from receiving to fullback and while this seems like another of Chris Jones’ science projects, Awachie is showing he belongs and perhaps might make the team. Once he knows the position and more importantly, gains about 10-15 pounds of muscle to allow him to pass block effectively, this could be a project that pays off big time for the Riders.
With Kienan LaFrance dealing with an injury, the Riders plans at running back right now seem to be to have Anthony Allen and Cameron Marshall fight it out. Greg Morris, a Canadian who did well in spot duty, seems to be in the mix, but hasn’t stepped forward yet. Jones made a comment that some vets may be out of a job and one of those vets may be Spencer Moore, a Canadian fullback who might have been a tight end once upon a time but other than stints on the injury list, has not really made an impact.
In the receiving corps the Riders made a move on Friday releasing Mitchell Baines, a Canadian wide receiver who was undrafted but had quite the stats. However he failed to step forward in camp and his spot may have been taken by draft pick Mitchell Picton. The Riders have a couple of options with Picton including letting him return to the University of Regina Rams where he would receive regular work as a receiver.
With the Riders current receiving corps, Picton would have to fight to get work, and if he played special teams would likely get more playing time. But if Picton has shown he is ready to make the leap to the big league, the Riders may well keep him on the roster for Canadian depth behind Nic Demski and Rob Bagg. One player to keep an eye on is Josh Stanford who has shown well in practice and has improved enough from last year to warrant being kept on.
Whichever way the Rider receiving corps goes, there will be good receivers looking for work after the cuts are made on Saturday afternoon.
The Riders are not dressing Brendon Labatte, Josiah St. John and Dillon Guy on the offensive line, which will make things interesting watching a draft pick like Dariusz Bladek step up. The Rider success depends on how well their offensive line plays and how well their depth plays on the line.There are a few veterans who may be playing for their jobs on the offensive line Friday night and the BC defensive line makes for a good test for how improved the offensive line will be.
On the defense one interesting addition was defensive lineman DJ Pettway. Pettway was formerly with the Alabama Crimson Tide and was with the New Orleans Saints but apparently was in injury reserve for a year and then waived. There are some character issues from when he was at Alabama, but after serving his time, so to speak, Alabama put him him back on the roster and he played a role in their 2016 national championship team.
Pettway was a rotational player on the Alabama line so the NFL book on him was he needed to put on some weight to use his power on the inside or perhaps as a linebacker. The Riders are apparently looking for defensive tackles who can flush the quarterback out towards the defensive ends and may represent an attempt by the Riders to see if Pettway can do a better job than who they have already on the roster.
The defensive backfield seems to coming together. The Riders seem to be looking for guys who can play man to man within the rules since they will be likely blitzing the opposing quarterback or looking to put on consistent pressure. That is consistent with how Chris Jones has been operating but the interesting thing is linebacker where other than Henoc Muamba, not much seems to be clear as to who will line up and what they will be asked to do.
The Riders will have an interesting time with their kicking game. Rob Bartel is back punting along with kickers Tyler Crapigna and Quinn Van Glyswyk. Van Glyswyk can do all three kicking duties, but Bartel in his second go around with the Riders has been flummoxing returners with his Australian Rules Football kicks. If Van Glyswyk shows well, he could get traded, or maybe Bartel, with Hamilton apparently looking for a kicker, there may be something here for the Riders to work with.
As I write I see Montreal is kicking the crap out of Ottawa and their C team with Darian Durant throwing for two touchdowns. What this means next week when the Riders go to Montreal and give Durant an opportunity to stick it to Jones is unclear at this time, but nothing should be read into the fact Durant did this against a defense that seems to have been put together from cast offs from The Bad News Bears.
Edmonton at Winnipeg – this would be a game worth seeing as Winnipeg brings in more big guns to tune them up for their invasion of new Mosaic Stadium on July 1. Edmonton showed an embarrassing bounty of riches at the quarterback spot and seeing how they make up for the lack of Derell Walker seems to be taking the form of Brandon Zylstra and a combination of Chris Getzlaf and Shawmrd Chambers. This would seem to be the battle for third in the west and both teams would like to make a statement – Edmonton because choosing between Edmonton and Winnipeg is like choosing between Ebola and Bubonic Plague so go with Ebola(Edmonton) because it will get you and put you out of your misery faster. Or maybe I am thinking of their defense.
Toronto at Hamilton – I met my cousin Will from Burlington for the first time in 28 years and he has changed since he was a pretty avid NFL fan when we last met. He is a Ti-cat fan, having met his wife at a Ti-Cat game and he was impressed with my Rider Grey Cup Rings. I told him I would send him a Rider game worn jersey and he has rashly promised me a Ti-Cat Jersey. With all of this and Zoey the Magnificent Himalayan cheering for her feline species, I have no choice but to pick Toronto just because they seem better than Hamilton did against Ottawa, not that that game meant anything.
Saskatchewan at BC. It was interesting listening to Chris Jones today talk about the death of his mentor the Don and how he gave Chris his break into the CFL. The Riders are a strange team, when you think you have a handle on how things are going, someone like Brandon Bridge comes in and blows the expected battle of the back up out of the water. The Riders have question marks in their defensive secondary and perhaps their linebacking corps and probably running back as well. The offensive line is waiting the return of St. John from concussion protocol, but draftees like Bladek have done better than expected. The Rider hype machine has been touting their receiving corps, but methinks BC has a corps the equal, if not better, than Saskatchewan. The real test will be the Rider receiving corps versus BC’s defensive secondary. An interesting thing to follow will be Swayze Waters who will kick sparingly due to injury, so BC will likely focus on scoring touchdowns before all else. The Riders tied a game they could have lost and should have won against Winnipeg, and this game will be a pretty good test of whether the Riders can actually contend in the west. However BC is just better than Saskatchewan and this game will show it.
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