Only SIX more sleeps until training camp opens, Rider Priders! Rookie camp opens on Wednesday, but the main camp begins on Sunday, June 2nd.
So in preparation, and celebration, for training camp, I’m going to give you a ‘season preview’ of sorts. For the next six days I will look at six different facets of the Roughriders, as well as one other CFL team.
Today we start with the Rider receivers and look at the Montreal Alouettes.
“Learn to Fly” – RIDER RECEIVERS
I love it when managers are honest. It’s refreshing. During the offseason, Rider GM Eric Tillman repeatedly stated that while the 2007 Riders won the Grey Cup, they were by no means the most talented group in the CFL. He said that in order for the Riders to continue to compete at a high level and challenge for the Grey Cup year after year, the team would have to strive to upgrade at every position each and every offseason – regardless of where the team finished in the standings. Tillman has admitted that the Riders have needed to significantly improve their talent at the receiver position.
The Rider receiving core consists of Matt Dominguez, Andy Fantuz and DJ Flick. The heart and soul of the Rider offence, and arguably the team, is ‘Big D,’ Matt Dominguez. Thank goodness he resigned with the Riders in February as a free agent. Losing him would’ve been a huge blow to a resurgent Rider offence.
Dominguez had a disappointing 2007 season. But it started off well. Before his season-ending knee injury incurred during the Banjo Bowl in early September, Dominguez was leading the league with 45 catches for 761 yards and five touchdowns. Unfortunately Dominguez has sustained this type of injury before; his 2005 season ended abruptly after 2 games when another knee injury forced him to the sidelines. He bounced back in 2006 with an 1100 yard season and was named a West Division All-Star. For the Riders to get back to the Grey Cup, Dominguez will have to regain his top form (note that Dominguez has never started all 18 games in a season. The closest he came was 17 games in 2006. Because of this, I wonder if we’ve ever actually seen Dominguez at his best…). Dominguez’s health is one of the top concerns for the Riders going into the 2008 season.
The Riders’ number two receiver, and number one in the absence of Matt Dominguez, is undoubtedly non-import Andy Fantuz. Andy had the opposite start to his season compared to Dominguez. To put it bluntly, Fantuz was awful. He kept fighting the ball, unable to catch the simplest screen pass. My nickname for him was ‘Flat-foot Fantuz’ for the first half of the season. He was even benched by Kent Austin early in the season. But the second half of the season was Fantuz’s ‘coming out’ party of sorts. After Dominguez went down, Andy kicked it into high gear. He was named Canadian Player for the month of September and was Canadian Player of the week three times. And of course you remember that he had the Riders’ only offensive touchdown in the Grey Cup game and was named the Grey Cup’s Most Valuable Canadian. He finished just shy of the 1000 yard mark for receiving yards, but I expect him to easily surpass that mark this year.
DJ Flick DID have a 1000 yard season in his first with the Riders. Flick was acquired by the Riders prior to the 2007 season in a trade with the Hamilton Tiger Cats. Flick’s speed was a great weapon for the Riders, and halfway through the season he led the league in receiving touchdowns. Although the second half of the Riders’ season was led by Fantuz, Flick continued to quietly make catch after catch, ending up with 40-odd more yards than Fantuz. And who can forget some of those circus catches he made last year. Wow. Flick should continue to be a consistent receiver for the Riders this season.
The Riders resigned veteran journeyman receiver Corey Grant in the off season. Grant doesn’t play a whole lot, but when he does, he usually makes an impact. Mike Washington is also back. He’s tall like Dominguez and Fantuz and could be the same type of player. He only started 9 games for the Riders last year before he hurt his knee. I expect he’ll get more playing time this year if he’s healthy – and if he beats out the competition Tillman is bringing in. Canadians Michael Palmer and David McKoy, both of whom only saw limited action last year, will also battle for roster spots.
According to the Riders’ current roster, there are 9 other receivers who will be at training camp, looking to make the team. Former Regina Ram Chris Getzlaf could be another Andy Fantuz; he’s built the same way. He had a short, but distinguished, CIS career. The Riders see him as a possible future star. And how great would it be to have TWO CANADIAN star receivers?? Out of the other receivers coming to camp, Weston Dressler is one to watch, though he’s only 5’8; then again, Flick is only 5’9. Dressler was a star at UND. It remains to be seen if he can adapt to the Canadian game. Dawon Fowlkes and Vincent Marshall are others to watch. Both are small but speedy. Princeton Shepherd might be interesting. He played quarterback in college and one year rushed for 903 yards. What stands out is his size – 6’5 and 210 pounds. He’s taller than both Dominguez and Fantuz.
So what do we make of the Riders’ offseason moves in this area? Well, in the CFL it’s all about scouting and finding talent. The BC Lions have the league’s most talented receivers, and none of them were well-known names before quietly establishing themselves. The Riders are hoping they can do the same. The CFL held ‘state of the league’ conference calls with each CFL a few weeks ago, and Tillman said he believed the team added more speed to their receiving core. I’m hoping Mike Washington will turn into a solid fourth receiver for the Riders because he has the size, speed and great hands. It depends on him remaining healthy. And having Dominguez start all 18 games for the Riders would go a long way to helping the Riders defend their Grey Cup title.
“Fall From Grace” – MONTREAL ALOUETTES
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t happy about the Montreal Alouettes’ troubles in the 2007 season. The Als were a talented team, but couldn’t seem to get it together on a consistent basis; hence their 8-10 finish in the East Division last year, only good enough for third place. A lot of the blame for last year’s failed season was the fact GM Jim Popp also doubled as head coach. Apparently he caused a lot of friction in the locker room. The head coaching duties have been taken away and give to rookie CFL head coach Mark Trestman.
Lucky for Trestman, he’s got Anthony Calvillo as his quarterback. The incomparable Calvillo is one of the league’s elite QBs, but he’ll be 36 this year and 2007 was his ‘worst’ season since 2001; for only the second time in eight seasons Calvillo passed for less than 4000 yards. But even Calvillo’s ‘worst’ is better than some QBs ‘best.’ And yeah – that applies to Kerry Joseph. The Als’ hopes rest heavily on Calvillo’s shoulders. If Calvillo is healthy, the Als will have a decent season. If he’s hurt, the Als will suffer. Marcus Brady is an okay QB, but he’s no Calvillo.
Kai Ellis, Davis Sanchez and Anwar Stewart lead a solid, but not explosive or imposing, defence. The addition of Reggie Hunt should help them be a bit better than last year. The Als have a good defensive backfield, but are weaker up front. Under Don Matthews, the Als had a formidable pass rush. They’d blitz on second and long every single time. And they won a hell of a lot of games playing that way. The Als have moved away from that high risk/reward defence and it shows. The key to beating the Als used to be getting the ball off quickly about 10 yards down field into the empty space behind the blitzing line. The Als have lost their pass rush, the key to ANY successful defence. The pass rush makes it difficult for the QB to get the ball off and swallows any running back who tries to get through. The Als need to regain their defensive prowess to get to the top of the East Division again.
As for their offence, the Alouettes desperately need a running back. The loss of Robert Edwards seriously hurt the Als last year, as they were forced to rely on their passing game. They’ve got a solid group of receivers with Ben Cahoon, Kerry Watkins and Elijah Thurmon (side note: it’ll be interesting to see where former Rider receiver Jamel Richardson will fit in on the team). But if you don’t have a running back, it frees up extra men for the backfield to cover the receivers. The Als need a running back. Period. Damon Duval continues to be a consistent punter/kicker.