By Cranky Frank Clair
My view from the corner of TD Place Stadium isn’t the greatest. I don’t talk to coaches and can’t see the whiteboards downstairs. But I still have a view of the RedBlacks heading into camp.
The Redblacks 2016 training camp storylines don’t begin with the opening of camp. They begin with key player departures during the offseason. Ottawa lost a star RT and DE, a very solid DT and two very good defensive backs. Colouring every story is the need for CFL teams to start seven Canadians, and when one comes off the field, another must go on. This is important context for the stories that will unfold over the next 3-4 weeks.
The big question mark on the offensive line is whether the Redblacks can use a Canadian at RT. This would help their ratio elsewhere on the field. So watch for solid offensive guard Nolan MacMillan to get a look at right tackle, which will open up the spot for last year’s #1 draft pick Alex Mateas to start at G. Tackles have to be highly mobile to handle the fast and agile CFL defensive ends. MacMillan may not be able to make the transition. If he stays at G, then the RedBlacks will have both Mateas and perhaps their first rounder Lauzon-Séguin on the bench ready to fill in when an injury hits. As for RT, if not MacMillan then look for it to be one of two Americans. The candidates are former BC Lions OT Tommie Draheim or the 6-7 Jake Silas who was on the Redblacks practice roster last season after a weekend-long sniff at an NFL rookie camp. The rest of the o-line is set and there will be few depth jobs available.
The defensive line has a lot of question marks, and how they’re answered could determine whether the Redblacks earn a home playoff game in 2016.
D-line gets complicated if the team can only start three Canadians on the o-line. Star defensive end Justin Capicciotti and his Canadian status may be irreplaceable. GM Marcel Desjardins seems to like former Ticat Arnaud Gascon-Nadon to replace Capy, but that’s a big leap. Connor Williams could step up but hasn’t shown a lot even when not injured. So that spot could go to an American. Options include the hyper-focused LaDarius Owens from Auburn, small school standout Emmanuel Graves, 6-6 Kendall Williams, or newly-signed small school standout Jake Ceresna who has solid testing numbers but played against weak competition. The players will sort this out themselves by stepping up (or not) during camp and pre-season.
Aston Whiteside was brilliant at the other DE position last year until his knee injury and the Redblacks were forced to sign the now-departed Shawn Lemon. Whiteside is reportedly ready to play, but until he faces full contact we won’t know if his knee will get him around the corner as effectively as it did last season. #RNation is crossing its fingers on Whiteside’s return. Even with Whiteside’s return, he could be shut down by opponents if he is the only threat. Much of the 2015 success was because they could apply pressure all along the line of scrimmage.
Just when DT seemed stable, at press time, former NFLer Amobi Okoye is still not signed while the club awaits medical clearance. Okoye had a promising NFL career before a serious medical issue forced him out. He’s apparently recovered and is looking strong. Hopefully, medical sign-off is a technicality that will be cleared up soon. If not, DT becomes a huge question mark. Zack Evans and Moton Hokpins can’t play every snap. DT needs players rotating in and out to be effective. Okoye, Evans and Hopkins would be a formidable trio that would likely be augmented by a Canadian to avoid ratio issues elsewhere when Evans rests.
One solution to the probable lack of a Canadian DE could be starting Jake Harty at WR. Harty seems faster and more versatile than Scott MacDonnell. Again, this is something that will get sorted over the next few weeks.
The import spots at receiver seemed set until Texas WR John Harris arrived. He put up very impressive numbers his senior year with the Longhorns against primetime competition. Lack of NFL interest could be because he saw very few balls prior to senior year. He’ll provide stiff competition at camp for the incumbent American WRs. Expect Chris Williams to be able to concentrate solely on receiver duties from day one this season. Ellingson and Sinopoli were unknown quantities to the opposition at the beginning of 2015. Expect them to get more attention now, opening up the field elsewhere.
The d-line justly gets a lot of credit for its 2015 success; “D-Block” deserves credit for many of their league-leading sacks. There are two big departures in Jovon Johnson and Brandyn Thompson. Fortunately, D-Block is deep. The incredibly-named Forrest Hightower was emerging as a solid player last season once he got some playing time, while Abdul Kanneh and Jerrell Gavins firmly established themselves last season as very reliable and dangerous. Brandon Sermons was fairly steady last season. We can also expect an unknown to emerge at camp. It’s the CFL way with DBs.
This is pure speculation, but I wonder if a move to FS might be considered for current SAM linebacker Antoine Pruneau. Last season’s FS Jermaine Robinson could ably slide over to a vacant DB position. Marcel Desjardins is bringing a lot of LBs into camp. Pruneau’s passport and his effectiveness means he’ll be on the field somewhere, but IF he has picked up any speed over the offseason and if any of the LBs in camp turn enough heads, Pruneau could end up at FS. A glaring hole in the defensive backfield requiring Robinson’s services could also force the move. Pruneau plays a vital pass and run coverage role as SAM LB, and a very fast, smart and reliable player would have to emerge to replace him.
It’s hard to determine before camp whether that player exists.
The team has brought in a lot of LBs who look impressive on video playing for small colleges. One of them could emerge to push David Hinds or Damaso Muñoz. Both are solid, particularly Muñoz who has been one of the league’s underrated players since he arrived. LB prospects will have to push Hinds or one of them will have to show ability to play SAM. Special teams performance is the best path for aspiring LBs to make the roster, even better if they are Canadian.
QB, RB and Special Teams
Nothing to see here, folks. Burris is the number 1 QB. Harris won’t start until next season as long as Hank stays healthy and winning in 2016. RB is largely set, although history shows the need to have a steady supply. Expect a back or two to emerge during camp. Lavoie is a beast at FB. Kicker and punter are set for the first time in RedBlacks history. Finally.
It all starts Sunday. I’ll be watching from the southwest corner, if you need me.
Follow Cranky Frank Clair on Twitter – @crankyclair
Thanks for reading!
Photos from OttawaRedblacks.com, unless noted.