Let the hype begin!

May 31, 2018 - 12:34pm

So the first game of the pre-season is in the books with Edmonton pinning the Saskatchewan Roughrider third stringers to the floor by a 35-12 mark.

I had thought this game might be closer and when the Riders were going to start their third string quarterbacks, the Eskimos might also have wanted to try out their backups. The idea is using the first exhibition game to see which guys are ready to play, the second game to work on timing and determining the final spots which may be too close to call.

Edmonton, Jebus bless them, decided to go with their starters to probably see how their running game might work and get some timing down with their newish corps of receivers, but probably also to beat down the Riders and start the buzz for their fans as the Schmoes try to get into the Grey Cup game they are hosting.

The obvious draws from the game from Edmonton’s point of view is Mike Reilly is ready to lead his team and Derrel Walker with Duke Williams looks like the lynchpins of the new Eskimo air attack. One interesting question for Edmonton was who was going to lead the running game since the Eskimo runners last season were like drummers for Spinal Tap – they tended to spontaneously combust after a gig or two.

CJ Gable came over from Hamilton last year, but Gable, while a reliable target and hard runner, also has his moments on the injury list so Edmonton needed to get someone else who could step in when needed to help keep defenses honest. Jordan Robinson and/or Shaq Cooper seem to the likely heirs to the throne and Edmonton’s upcoming game with Winnipeg may help to sort that chaff out.

The other good news for Edmonton was the return of JC Sherritt at linebacker. Edmonton’s defense last year was kind of like a donut – great around the edges but nothing in the middle. Edmonton’s remarkable run of injuries allowed guys like Adam Konar to develop and with Edmonton shedding an aging defensive line for younger parts, a sturdy linebacking corps is crucial until the defensive line finds their sea legs.

With Kevin Glenn as back-up, Edmonton has the luxury of trying to find a third quarterback who likely will see acting on short plunges and with an offense ready to pick things up from last season, Edmonton seems ready to run roughshod over any team’s backups.

And speaking of back-ups, the Riders discovered that Marquise Williams, Sam Williams, Josh McPherson and Justin Horton were not showing what the Riders were looking for and those players were cut after the game. It was interesting to see the Riders look to see who their third string quarterback will be with David Watford getting the first half.

Watford had some moments, but he also had a tendency to lock onto a receiver and throw into coverage, resulting in an interception. For someone who was somewhat touted in training camp in Saskatoon, it was a bit of a let down.

Rider fans remembered M. Williams for leading the Riders on a last minute tying touchdown drive against the Godless Winnipeg Blue Bombers in an exhibition season last year. This year that magic was gone and whatever development that Rider GM/Head Coach Chris Jones was expecting from Williams was not evident as he tended to hold the ball for too long and get sacked twice and throw an interception.

The message here from Chris Jones is that players cannot rest on their laurels and first year players need to show improvement if they want to stay on the team. Williams couldn’t sustain the progress he showed last year and that’s why he isn’t on the team.

When you have a game with 150 players dressed, the conditions are not conducive for an entertaining contest, but the purpose of these games is evaluation and the only way to know if the evaluation was successful will be when the season is underway.

This week there are four games with the first game Thursday featuring Montreal at Ottawa. Montreal is determined not to give up its reputation as Canada’s premiere tire fire franchise with the news that touted NFL quarterback Josh Freeman was cut or retired, depending on who you talk to this past week, leaving the quarterback derby in the hands of Drew Willy and Matthew Shiltz.

Freeman said he retired, while Kavis Reed, the Forensic King of Montreal, said Freeman was cut before he announced his retirement. Which is ironic since it was Reed who way hyping Freeman, presumably on the basis of him being a former NFL quarterback.

But when Freeman showed up after a two-year absence from football, his rustiness was so bad the Tin Man was sending him WD-40 to try to loosen up his mechanics. Some made mention of Freeman being spotted smoking a cigarette in Winnipeg during CFL Week, but as Duron Carter can tell you, if you are trapped in Winnipeg, smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.

Reed is now being caught in the cycle of trying to make a big splash to justify his promotion to GM only to see those splashes fizzle out like Khalil Carter being hired as defensive coordinator, only to be moved to scout and paid to stay away because of personality conflicts. Add Freeman to the list and the possibility is very real that Reed is replaced by Labour Day and his job taken by Mike Sherman in an effort to inspire hope amongst fickle Montreal fans that their team will be relevant…someday.

The interesting thing will be seeing how the Montreal offense conducts itself and how Mike Sherman will handle things on the sideline. Sherman has a pretty good record as a coach in Green Bay, but then afterwards seemed to slip in various locales as an offensive coordinator until he was coaching high school ball, not too successfully, before Reed came calling.

On the other sideline is Noel Thorpe with the new improved Ottawa defense and its emphasis on getting pressure on the quarterback. Look for Ottawa to rev up  their new defensive line figure out who will be the fourth receiver to join Greg Ellingson, Brad Sinopoli and Diontae Spencer. Ottawa seems to be playing with a chip on its shoulder heading into this game, feeling they are not being respected despite having a won a Grey Cup two years ago. A record of 500 to sub 500 regular season records will do that for you compared to the regular season colossus that is Calgary, but then again, Ottawa has one Grey Cup in two years while Calgary is 0 for 2. Ottawa will look to send Montreal screaming into the sunset, 31-10.

On Friday the hype becomes official, Johnny Manziel is expected to see some sort of game action as Hamilton hosts Toronto. The Manziel circus will attract attention from south of the border as football observers are curious as to whether Manziel can correct the Hindenburg like implosion of his career with the Cleveland Browns.

The home game for Hamilton, combined with the injury to Vernon Adams Jr., apparently not so serious that it will keep him out in the game following this, is the ideal setting for Hamilton to stoke fan interest. Manziel will be the second quarterback in, following Jeremiah Masoli. Hamilton has spent money on Manziel, so there are expectations he will eventually see the field, but Manziel will have to answer the question of whether or not a year away from football has dulled his football abilities and whether he has developed the work habits necessary to be a successful quarterback either in the CFL or NFL. Daved Benefield thinks Manziel will get more eyeballs south of the border on the league which is a good thing.

I agree as well, especially if the NFL Network decides to pony up for CFL games and the extra money trickles down to the players. I don’t know whether or not Manziel can actually demonstrate change, but it will be fascinating to watch. Hamilton 21-17.

The second Friday game has Edmonton going to Winnipeg in a game that Winnipeggers are calling the earliest winning of the Grey Cup by their team in history! Reilly proved he was ready in Sunday’s game against Saskatchewan and his competitive nature will likely see him in for probably a drive or two. Kevin Glenn will probably see more action and the last part of the game for Edmonton will be trying to figure out which quarterback after that will make the roster and who might be looking for alternative work afterwards.

Winnipeg after feeling betrayed by Darian Durant who took his signing bonus and retiring, is looking for a quarterback to back up Matt Nichols with the group including former BC Lion Alex Ross, one-time Rider prospect Bryan Bennett who has not been cleared for practice, Zach Mahoney and Chris Streveler. The key to Winnipeg’s success will be keeping Nichols upright and injury free because when he was out, the Bombers did not look all that comfortable last year.

The guy to watch on defense for Winnipeg will be Adam Bighill, who chose playing time in the CFL over practice squad work in the NFL. Winnipeg has some questions in their defensive secondary and will need to avoid taking stupid penalties, but then again, most teams would argue they need to do that to be success.

Edmonton will be looking to fill out their backups and whatever remaining questions exist for starters while Winnipeg will be looking to send their own message. Winnipeg wins this 26-17 if Edmonton plays mostly backups.

BC is at Calgary to complete the trifecta on Friday and while this game is apparently not televised, it will be interesting to see what emerges. Ed Hervey took over as GM of the Lions in Wally Buono’s last year and one of his biggest jobs was to rebuild the Lions’ offensive and defensive lines. On paper that job seems to have been accomplished and if it has, then the biggest headache for BC will have been dealt with.

The other question is quarterback with Jonathon Jennings stumbling last year but this year having a new offensive coordinator in Jarious Jackson. Jackson was with Chris Jones in Edmonton and Saskatchewan and his mandate is to help Jennings improve, which apparently will mean getting the ball out of his hands sooner so he won’t get sacked. Of course if the BC offensive line holds up, it’s a nice problem to have.

The other offensive puzzle is at running back where the Lions seemed to have operated by committee the last few years with varying degrees of success. The Lions have options here and it will be interesting to see how things develop.

The Lions have been trying to change their locker room culture, adding players like Odell Willis who responded to Ed Hervey when both were in Edmonton. Willis will be asked to lead the Lions on defense with both attitude and level of play and become a more blue collar team with everyone working together as opposed to say, a team of moody but talented individuals who might decide to play together or pout separately.

The Lions also added players like Otha Foster III whose hard work ethic can’t help but rub off on his teammates. With the additions the BC Lions have made, the big question is seeing how fast they come together, if they do.

In Calgary Bo Levi Mitchell has dropped 20 pounds, but has not taken many reps as Calgary is looking to fill the hole when Andrew Buckley retired to move on to a more lucrative career. The Stamps also have some holes in their defensive secondary caused by free agency. The initial reviews from the Stamps Red and White game indicates that when playing with themselves, the Stamps defensive backs are handling themselves pretty good.

If a visiting team is going to win a game this week, this might be the one, but I suspect the Stamps will want to let Mitchell get the reps he needs and leave the battle of the backups for next week when no one is watching. Calgary 27-17


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