May 19th, 2019

Inside the CFL: Roughriders look to be in great shape

By GRAHAM KELLY on May 14, 2019.

Leo Durocher said “Nice guys finish last.” That wasn’t true last year when Dave Dickenson led his Calgary Stampeders to a Grey Cup victory, nor will it be true this season with his brother Craig at the helm of the Roughriders.

Despite losing the likes of linebacker Samuel Eguavoen, defensive ends Willie Jefferson and Tobi Antigha, guard Josiah St. John, defensive back Jovon Johnson, running back Cameron Marshall, fullback Spencer Moore, receivers Caleb Holley, Brian Jones and Jordan Williams-Lambert to free agency, running back Tre Mason to injury and receiver Rob Bagg to retirement, the rookie head coach has every reason to be optimistic.

“In this era of free agency you’ve got a lot of new faces every year. A reason I like this job and situation, not only familiarity with the team and the people running it, I feel we’ve got a good nucleus of players.”

Rookie general manager Jeremy O’Day did a fine job in the off-season, signing perennial all-star running back William Powell from Ottawa as well as the best defensive player in the league at any position Micah Johnson of the Stampeders. Recently he added the Lions of winter, B.C. receiver Emmanuel Arceneaux and former CFL Most Outstanding Player Solomon Elimimian (linebacker).Both are nothing-to-lose gambles.

When I expressed surprise that Arceneaux was available, Dickenson replied, “He’s coming off a knee injury. That’s what scared a lot of people. But we feel confident he’s where he needs to be with his rehab. We like his work ethic. I think if anyone can come back it would be Manny. We think he’s going to be a good player for us.”

The 32-year-old, 10-year veteran Elimimian only managed four games last year due to a wrist injury. Although the Lions couldn’t afford to pay him, you don’t dump a sure hall-of famer if there’s much left in the tank. The Riders have two excellent Canadian linebackers in Sam Hurl and Cameron Judge and the most under-rated LB in the league, import Derrick Moncrief. If Elimimian pans out, it’ll be a bonus.

If the old cliche is true that football games are won in the trenches, the Roughriders’ prospects are bright. Says Dickenson, “I think we’re very athletic. Both lines are a strength. We had Micah Johnson as the best free agent defensive lineman. Being good on both lines is a great way to start the season.”

The great defensive end Charleston Hughes joins DT Micah Johnson, Zack Evans, Curt Maggitt and Chad Geter. The linebacking is solid. Returning veterans Nick Marshall, Ed Gainey, Mike Edem, Loucheiz Purifoy and Crezdon Butler comprise an excellent secondary.

Still, Dickenson observes, “We’re a little thin on the back end. We’ve got to find a couple of guys in the secondary to give us some depth and play on special teams.” Considered one of the best special teams coaches in CFL history, the promoted Dickenson will retain that responsibility.

The offensive line should keep quarterback Zach Collaros standing. Anchored by veteran Brendon Labatte, the line includes centre Dan Clark (a little the worse for wear after a car accident), tackles Philip Blake and Thaddeus Coleman. Others in the mix are Braden Schram and Dakoda Shepley.

They will open the holes for Powell who was second in rushing behind Andrew Harris last year with 1,362 yards. The receiving corps needs help or a better game plan. Naaman Roosevelt is back along with Shaq Evans, Patrick Lavoie, Kyron Moore and K.D. Cannon. If he can play, Arceneaux will be a welcome addition. I think they should sign free agent Weston Dressler.

Last year Zach Collaros had the worst passing efficiency rating in the league. He threw nine touchdown passes and 13 interceptions. Still, with a great defence, they were 12-6 in second place. Zach is back.

Expectations? “I expect him to be the quarterback we signed a couple of years ago,” said Dickenson. “I feel he is one of the best in the league. We want him to be productive back there and lead the team, move the football and put us in position to win more games. We’re optimistic he’s going to have a good year.”

Teams have won the Grey Cup with average quarterbacking. These Riders can do that, too.

Graham Kelly has covered the CFL for the Medicine Hat News for 47 years. Feedback for this column can be emailed to sports@medicinehatnews.com.

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