The CFL season continues to inch nearer and the Saskatchewan Roughriders are getting geared up for training camp with a number of positions still up for grabs.
While some of the starting jobs are on the line when camp opens for the Riders on May 20, head coach and general manager Chris Jones is happy with the talent he’s assembled.
“Our focus is always to try and bring as much competition and great players as we could possibly bring,” Jones said in the team’s season preview teleconference Thursday.
Jones brought up his time at Alabama when a recruiting coordinator taught him “When you can start turning away great players, that’s when you put yourself in a good position.”
That’s something Jones feels he’s done.
“We can be very selective on who we take, we don’t have to just take a guy because he’s big or fast, he’s got to be able to come out there and play.”
With his new roster, Jones is hoping to avoid another slow start which has plagued his team the past few seasons.
“We’ve got to get off on the right foot and the thing I do like about it is you’re going to know right away because we play a game in the first week, so in the first two days you’re going to find out ‘Does he play good when the lights come on?’”
He said success in the early parts of the season will help them win the division which can put the team in a great position to win the Grey Cup.
During the call, Jones also elaborated on a few positions that had some question marks ahead of the Saskatoon camp.
Jones excited for QB battle at camp.
“(The) quarterback position’s going to be real interesting, as normal,” Jones said.
One of those QBs fighting for the starting role, and perhaps seen as the favourite, is Zach Collaros.
Collaros was brought over from Hamilton in a trade back in January.
The veteran QB has struggled recently as a starting pivot, going winless in his last 12 starts.
“I think in pro football you have to prove yourself every practice, every rep and every game,” Collaros said. “I’ve always had that mentality and that’s not going to change.”
Collaros will have competition from Canadian Brandon Bridge, who helped the Riders to their 10 wins last season, Marquise Williams and David Watford.
Collars is also dealing with being one of the oldest guys in the locker room.
“I’m excited to pass some wisdom about the CFL game down to these guys and hear their perspectives as well.”
Left tackle position up for grabs
Along with the QB battle, there are still questions about who will be ensuring the starter stays on their feet.
The left tackle position appears to be the most open, with Jones saying there are about three guys who will be competing for the position formerly held by Bruce Campbell, who was not re-signed and is facing a two-game suspension.
Terran Vaughn and Takoby Cofield were two of the names thrown out by Jones as people who turned heads at mini-camp at the tackle position.
Former first overall pick Josiah St. John is also in the mix.
“We’re going to put him both at right and left tackle.”
One of the faces Rider fans can expect to see on the O-line is Travis Bond, who signed with the team back in February.
Jones said he’s going to play the guard position but is unsure which side the 356-pound North Carolina native will be on.
“He brings a level of physicality that a lot of people can’t bring in our league and that was one of the things that we tried to do … we’re trying to become a more physical football team.”
Thaddeus Coleman is expected to return as the starter at the right tackle position, meaning Dan Clark, Brendon LaBatte and Dariusz Bladek will be battling for the other guard spot and centre position.
“It’ll all take care of itself,” Jones said of the three players.
He said LaBatte can play both centre or guard, Bladek has played both guard positions and Clark brings leadership to the team.
“We do have a good, solid problem with some guys that can play.”
Riders talented receiver group returns
One of the strengths of the 2017 Riders was depth at the wide receiver position, something that’s expected to continue in 2018.
Naaman Roosevelt, Duron Carter, Rob Bagg, Bakari Grant and Caleb Holley are all returning to the green and white and sets up a group Collaros is excited to play with.
“Anytime you have a good system, a proven system, and a great group of players you expect a good result,” Collaros said.
“Watching these guys on film, we have a lot of dynamic guys, guys that can go up and get the football, guys that are efficient in and out of their routes and guys when they catch the ball are able to take it from a five-yard route to a 60-yard touchdown.”
One of the players who has been a lightning rod for controversy — from suggesting changes to the Riders musical choices to two separate arrests for drug possession — has been Duron Carter.
Carter isn’t the first outspoken player to play for Jones, and the coach said it’s ultimately up to the player how they grow off the field.
“All I can do is offer my experience and be a support for him as he tries to figure out who he is as an individual.”
Jones said the legal issues surrounding Carter are in the courts hands and they will be prepared whatever it may be.
The running back position will also see a familiar face back carrying the ball with the return of Jerome Messam to the team.
Jones confirmed Trent Richardson is not expected to be at the start of training camp due to situations happening at home.
Duron Carter will be ‘very busy’, to get reps at defensive back
One of the most exciting plays in the CFL last year was Carter intercepting Calgary QB Bo Levi Mitchell and taking it back for a touchdown, and 2018 could see more plays like that from the talented Rider.
“He’s going to play defence and offence,” Jones said. “I’m going to keep him very busy.”
Carter is expected to take reps at the boundary corner position with John Ojo, who signed in March, will play the wide-field corner position.
Jones also said free agent guys and people at training camp will get a chance to compete for reps.
Jovon Johnson, Ed Gainey, Mike Edem and Marc-Olivier Brouillette all return to the Riders defence.
Canadian presence at LB position
One of the things Jones mentioned during the teleconference was there will always be a Canadian on the field at the linebacker position.
Jones said they have a good group of Canadian linebackers including Sam Hurl, Cameron Judge, Brandyn Bartlett and Micah Teitz.
“The key for that whole crew is to stay healthy,” Jones said. “So hopefully all of them come back and are able to find their niche on our football team and become the players that they can because athletically they’ve got good talent.”
At the middle linebacker position, Samuel Eguavoen is expected to fill that role on the defence.
“He’s probably one of the best athletes on the team.”
Jones also said Eguavoen barely speaks, except for when he’s doing an impersonation of the coach.
“We just want Sammy to come in and lead our football team from in the middle.”
Derrick Moncrief could also begin the season at the strong-side linebacker position after starting in the playoffs.