The Social: Chatting with the man behind @Redblacks, Tyler Rabb

As has become pretty much an annual affair, we sat down with the man behind @Redblacks recently for a chat. Tyler Rabb is OSEG’s “Growth Hacker” (his official title), taking over from Mat Smith, who moved on following last year’s Grey Cup. Tyler shared a bit about himself, his road to a communications/social media career in sports and experiences behind the scenes with the Redblacks. 

Enjoy.

@DefendTheR: Let’s start with your background. From Ottawa originally?

@tylerjrabb: My younger years were somewhat divided between a few small towns around Ottawa. My family eventually moved into the “big city” just in time for me to start high school. Looking back it was nice to have the opportunity to experience both lifestyles.

Once in Ottawa, I played football with the Canterbury Mustangs (NCAFA) and rugby at Hillcrest High School.

After high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I decided to travel and took some random jobs along the way, including: tree planter in northern Ontario, cook at an oil sands camp in Alberta, and bartender at various establishments around Ottawa.

At 25, I finally found something that caught my attention: Advertising. I was intrigued by the creative side of the industry, as writing had always been a strength of mine.

I graduated from Algonquin College with an advanced diploma in Advertising and Marketing Communications Management. 


When and how did you end up with OSEG?

Throughout my time at Algonquin, I realized I wanted to become a content creator in the sports world. The final part of completing my program was a six-week internship, and it was sports or nothing for me. Little did my professors know, I only applied to two organizations; the Ottawa Senators and OSEG. The internship at OSEG turned out to be the perfect opportunity, as it’s main role was to create content for all our teams’ (Ottawa Fury FC, Ottawa 67’s, and REDBLACKS) websites.

My six-week internship turned into a six-month contract, which turned into a full-time career in October 2015. 

I owe a lot to Will Renaud and Mat Smith. The latter you know very well. The former, OSEG’s web guru (unofficial title), gave me the internship and was instrumental in my contract and full-time hire. They’ve both taught me many valuable skills that continue to serve me well. Just before Mat left OSEG in December, he handed me the keys to the REDBLACKS social channels. They were and continue to be huge shoes to fill, though Mat’s creativity and work ethic inspire me to get better everyday.

Tyler & Mat

Not only am I entrusted with our social channels, but I also manage web content and contribute to email communications for all of OSEG’s properties.

What is your history as a CFL fan? Any favourite moments?

I wasn’t a big CFL fan growing up, though I remember attending an Ottawa Renegades game with my dad in the early 2000s. The rowdy crowd and exciting game action was infectious and created an interest in football and the league. I still have trading cards of Kerry Joseph, Josh Ranek and Pat Woodcock.

Biggest surprise working for a professional sports franchise?

The athletes. Don’t want to sound like a “fanboy”, but growing up you idolize them. You play them in video games, hang their posters on your wall, memorize their stats. Working with them every day though, you realize they really are just people like you and me.

Give us a couple of highlights from your tenure so far at OSEG – on-field or off.

Winning the Grey Cup last November has to top the list. I was right alongside Mat on the bench at BMO Field when we took down the Stamps in OT. Being on the field and in that locker room afterwards with the champagne and cigars still seems so surreal. That entire week in Toronto, from flying in to flying out with the team is a time I won’t ever forget.

Traveling to Edmonton this July was another great experience. I had dinner with the team and everyone had to introduce themselves and divulge one fun fact. Ryan Lindley revealed he was taking French lessons from JP Bolduc and after a quick demonstration of his surprising skill, the entire room filled with laughter.

Any lowlights you want to mention?

The ties. I always thought draws were a rarity in pro football, though I’ve experienced two in my two years with the team. Both versus Calgary and both at home openers (2016, 2017). They leave a bad taste in your mouth, but I guess they have been an integral part of building a rivalry with the Stampeders.

Tell us about the OSEG social media strategy. 


The five key principles at the heart of our social media strategy are:

  • Being human
  • Engaging
  • Accessible
  • Establishing relationships
  • Being timely

Mat crafted these pillars to create a strong sense of community on our social channels and we as a team continue to live by them. We know RNation is the reason we’re so successful and we want them to feel appreciated, involved and excited to be a part of this community.

How do you personally approach it?

My outlook has always been that content is king. Without great content who cares? It needs to be in context, engaging and timely.

I’m also not afraid to be edgy. I like to banter with other teams, sometimes in other leagues. If I see an opportunity to create a conversation I usually pounce.

@Redblacks throwing a little shade at the Ottawa Senators decision to remove seats from Canadian Tire Centre. The tweet was ultimately deleted.

Engaging with RNation and showing them the appreciation they deserve is another focus of mine. Their continued support through the good times and the bad make my job the best in the league.

QB Clubs and player Q&As seem to be very prevalent this year. What are some of your favourite initiatives? Anything fun on the horizon?

I’m always looking to create more genuine fan experiences. Our players love interacting with fans in person and through different social media. Bringing those two sides together is an amazing feeling and creates lasting memories for both fans and players.

I love impromptu content. The team is filled with characters and I want the fans to see that side of every player in our locker room. Stay tuned for the story of Bud Ball…

Biggest surprise being around the players and/or on the sidelines?

How much trash talk actually happens. Even some of the league’s biggest stars participate and it can get nasty.

Your favourite element/area of TD Place?

Has to be the field. Walking across it after a game still gives me chills, whether it be with all the fans under the lights or pitch black with no one else in sight.

Adidas took over as uniform manufacturer last year. Should we expect to see any 3rd/retro/heritage stuff this season?

Not that I’ve heard, unfortunately. I was a big fan of the proposed plaid helmets though. Fingers crossed something like that comes along again.

Oh, what might have been. Lol. 

Favourite visiting stadium you’ve been to?

This one’s tough, as I haven’t visited Calgary, Saskatchewan, or BC yet. So my choice would have to be Investors Group Field in Winnipeg. My first and only visit was for the 2015 Grey Cup. I volunteered to be Big Joe’s handler at the game and that turned out to be quite the experience.

Love the new #RNation Twitter emoji. How did that come about? Who decided on the wood cookie?

The #RNation emoji came about as a league-wide initiative. I was a part of the team that chose the wood cookie for the Redblacks. We thought it would be the perfect addition to the RNation hashtag, as we wanted to bring this essential part of our game day experience to the Twitterverse.


Had a chance to play the new CFL Frenzy game? How do you like it? How do you think it benefits the league?

I really like the CFL Frenzy game. I think from a marketing standpoint it’s a great endeavour by the league. It allows our fans to experience the game via a completely different medium. Instead of a passively watching the on-field action, they get to control the show. 


Making it mobile-only is another brilliant move. If it becomes extremely successful, maybe it can make to the jump to home gaming systems. It also attracts football fans that may not be familiar with the CFL. The average gamer has most likely only played NFL or NCAA football in the past. And I haven’t heard anything but positivity from the players. Who wouldn’t love becoming part of video game? I know I would!

Advice to anyone wanting to get into pro sports?

Find a way in and don’t stop working. Volunteer, intern, whatever you have to do. Just keep knockin’ at that door. No job is too small. From putting up posters in the restrooms to sorting through our photo archives, I’ve had many responsibilities at OSEG and every one is just as important as the next.

Anything else you want to share with Redblacks fans?

First off I’d like to thank RNation. Working with such a great fan base every day makes my job one of the best in sports. If there’s anything you’d like to see more of, please feel free to let us know at @REDBLACKS or @tylerjrabb.

Secondly, I’ve talked a lot about myself here, but obviously I get to work with a very talented group of people behind the scenes. Other members of our marketing team, our video production team, and our content and communications team all contribute to our social media in incredible ways. 

Thanks for your time and all the work you do to bring #RNation closer to the team, Tyler!

Thanks for reading!

Follow us on Twitter at @DefendTheR

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Enough leadership on Redblacks roster to defend Grey Cup?

By Matt Macmillan

With nine games down in the 2017 Canadian Football League season, the Ottawa Redblacks have been less than spectacular, to put it nicely, sitting third in the East with a 2-6-1 record. Hopes were high for the Grey Cup champs coming into the season, with the return of stand-out running back William Powell (who missed all of 2016), heaps of talent coming in via free agency (including LB Khalil Bass, DB A.J. Jefferson and receivers Diontae Spencer & Kenny Shaw), and of course the chance to defend the Grey Cup at home. Yet, here we are, nine games in and only a measly pair of victories. 

In spite of last week’s convincing win in Hamilton, there’s no doubt fans and players alike are frustrated with the team’s half-season performance. While these struggles may have something to do with the team’s coaching or play-calling, at the end of the day, the players are paid to execute and win games. I think former QB Henry Burris said it best:

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Without a doubt, Burris’ leadership and experience are a massive loss. Even at 41 last season, he was effectively reading blitzes and able to change plays at the line of scrimmage. Burris was the face of the Redblacks for the first three years, put the team on his back when necessary and the rest of the team rallied around him. 

Now, don’t get me wrong: Trevor Harris is a leader, and appears to be a damn good one. But Harris is only one of several players needed to fill the holes left following the Grey Cup victory. So far, it appears Ottawa just lost too many veterans in the off-season to be able to play like they did in 2015 and the first and last thirds of 2016. With half a season still to play, they need guys to step up, fast.

So, who will step up?

The Buds – Greg Ellingson & Brad Sinopoli (photo Scott Grant Photography)

Right now, The Buds® look to be filling the void. At #1 and #3 in CFL receiving yards and huge fan favourites, Greg Ellingson and Brad Sinopoli lead by example. Still to be seen whether they develop into more vocal leaders. Could be a big factor in a Redblacks turnaround this year and beyond.

The loss of Moton Hopkins cannot be understated. Yes, he is still with the team as an assistant coach, but impact on the field and in the locker room matters. A fan favourite and team captain, Hopkins was there to get his team fired up. That attitude/swagger/confidence is not the easiest to replace, but a couple guys that look like naturals to step in are Zack Evans and Arnaud Gascon-Nadon. Both are veterans with championships under their belts.

#27 Sherrod Baltimore (photo Scott Grant Photography)

No single group was hit harder this offseason than the secondary. #DBlock lost a lot of talent and valuable leadership in Abdul Kanneh (HAM), Forrest Hightower (NFL, now with EDM) and Mitchell White (NFL). All were all-star-calibre players who could get people fired up – both teammates and fans. With all three gone, someone in the secondary needs to step up and continue their legacy. I believe Sherrod Baltimore could be that guy. Since getting in the lineup, Baltimore hasn’t stopped playing hard, with both passion and heart! As veterans, Jerrell Gavins and Jonathan Rose are also being asked to do more in leading an inexperienced group. If these first three years have shown us anything it’s that when #DBlock plays well, the Redblacks play well.

The Redblacks are at the halfway point in the regular season, with nine games left. Not saying they’ll win them all, but taking a quick peek at the schedule you can see some favourable opponents, with Ottawa facing Hamilton, Saskatchewan and Montreal twice each. If the Redblacks can win at least five of their remaining nine games, that may well be enough to make the playoffs and get a chance to defend the title at home. This can only be achieved from within, however, and the Redblacks need to find ways to turn those last-second losses into victories. That will take more complete team efforts like last week in Hamilton, supported by confidence and execution from a young leadership group. Only then can we start to get serious about a third straight Grey Cup appearance.

Follow me on Twitter at @mattmthekid1.

Thanks for reading! Follow us on Twitter at @DefendTheR

All photos courtesy Scott Grant Photography. Follow Scott on Twitter at @CFLPhotoArchive.

Your 2017 Ottawa Redblacks

With training camp in the books and the 2017 Canadian Football League season on the horizon, general manager Marcel Desjardins, head coach Rick Campbell and the Ottawa Redblacks had the difficult task of paring down the roster to the league-mandated maximum of 46 (not including injuries, plus 10 practise roster spots) over the weekend. 

Here’s the team that will storm the field at TD Place on Friday, June 23rd:

DB – Defensive Back

A.J. Jefferson (photo Scott Grant Photography)

21 Berger, Adam 🇨🇦
20 Bolduc, Jean-Philippe 🇨🇦
46 Carrington, Lloyd
19 Claiborne, Imoan
4 Gavins, Jerrell
24 Jefferson, A.J.
15 Johnson, Keelan
6 Pruneau, Antoine 🇨🇦
9 Rose, Jonathan
32 Taylor, Nicholas
33 West, Dan 🇨🇦

Definitely the biggest question mark coming into the 2017 season. While there are a few returning vets (Gavins, Pruneau) and the addition of former Toronto Argonaut standout Jefferson, the fact is this is an inexperienced group. And while that may be a fairly regular occurrence in the CFL, it nonetheless means dealing with the uncertainty that comes with young players and CFL rookies. That said, D-Block 2017 looks to be a very talented and athletic group, led by coach (and DB guru) Ike Charlton.

DL – Defensive Line

41 Gascon-Nadon, Arnaud 🇨🇦
99 Williams, Connor 🇨🇦
96 Ankrah, Jason
93 Ceresna, Jake
92 Evans, Zack 🇨🇦
49 Lattanzio, Ettore 🇨🇦
90 Marshall, Andrew 🇨🇦
97 Miller, Steven
47 Romick, Nigel 🇨🇦

After defensive backs, the defensive line is probably the next biggest question mark for the Grey Cup champs. The group remains a strong one, with high-end Canadian talent in Gascon-Nadon, Williams and Evans, but the fact remains Ottawa had difficulty getting to the opposing quarterback for most of the 2016 season. It appears the plan is to rotate seven or eight of these big boys with regularity, at least for the first few weeks of the season.

K – Kicker

3 Maher, Brett
39 Medeiros, Zack 🇨🇦

Maher returns to Ottawa following a strong 2016 season in Hamilton and a brief stint on the Cleveland Browns roster. Medeiros has had a strong camp by all accounts and has performed well in preseason games. Dare we say the kicking positions seem (knock on wood) somewhat solidified?

LB – Linebacker

22 Bass, Khalil
10 Bryant, Serderius
42 Omara, Ron 🇨🇦
44 Reed, Taylor

The Redblacks had some challenges at LB in 2016, with a fair amount of turnover, including adding ‘Tank’ Reed at mid-season and having Gavins (admirably) jump into the position from his normal DB spot(s). Bass was one of the most sought-after free agents available this offseason. This group looks strong.

LS – Long Snapper

52 Doll, Tanner 🇨🇦
50 Bourassa, Louis-Philippe 🇨🇦

Doll was solid in 2016, and 2017 draft pick Bourassa looks to be a versatile back-up that can contribute on special teams.

OL – Offensive Line

SirVincent Rogers (photo Scott Grant Photography)

53 Albright, Matthew 🇨🇦
68 Draheim, Tommie
63 Gott, Jon 🇨🇦
64 Johnson, Evan 🇨🇦
58 Lauzon-Séguin, Jason 🇨🇦
66 MacMillan, Nolan 🇨🇦
56 Mateas, Alex 🇨🇦
55 Rogers, SirVincent
59 Silas, Jake

With the return of Jake Silas this week, the Redblacks offensive line is essentially the same strong group from 2016. While J’Michael Deane is gone, 2017 first-round pick Evan Johnson will look to make his way into the rotation. Most importantly, guard SirVincent Rogers looks fully recovered from season-ending ankle injury. 

QB – Quarterback

Trevor Harris (photo Scott Grant Photography)

7 Harris, Trevor
14 Lindley, Ryan
5 Tate, Drew

For the first time in his pro career, Harris will be the undisputed starting QB. And while he has put up excellent numbers the last two seasons with extended time as fill-in starter, being “the guy” is a different kind of pressure. How Harris responds will be a – if not the – major storyline of the Redblacks season.

RB/FB – Running Back/Fullback

William Powell (photo Scott Grant Photography)

25 Gillanders, Brendan 🇨🇦
45 Gosselin, Anthony 🇨🇦
81 Lavoie, Patrick 🇨🇦
23 Madu Jr., Mossis
29 Powell, William

Powell was a force for Ottawa in the back-half of 2015, including a team-best performance in the Grey Cup loss. After missing all of 2016 with an Achilles injury, WiPo is healthy and looked strong in his limited preseason reps. Lavoie is the incumbent FB and should continue to be that 6th/7th receiving option for Harris.

WR – Wide Receiver

Diontae Spencer (photo Scott Grant Photography)

86 Criner, Juron
82 Ellingson, Greg
8 Harty, Jake 🇨🇦
2 Shaw, Kenny
88 Sinopoli, Brad 🇨🇦
85 Spencer, Diontae
87 Stangby, Joshua

The Redblacks got a lot younger at receiver this offseason, and many believe they have a chance to be even better than the 2016 crew. Lofty, considering they are coming off a second straight year where four receivers topped 1,000 yards. Shaw (1,004 yards for Toronto last year) & Spencer (706 yards in just 12 games with the Argos) are the big free agent additions, while Criner put up 446 yards in the final eight games of the year, including playoffs, once Chris Williams was lost for the year. Add these three to what we’ve come to expect from The Buds (Ellingson & Sinopoli), and the 2017 Redblacks receiving corps is setting up to challenge the league’s best. Is FIVE 1,000-yard receivers a possibility?

While there are always question marks, there’s little question the Redblacks have improved depth at most positions. Barring significant injury, a healthy Redblacks squad should contend for first in the East Division.

By the way, here’s the Redblacks practise roster for Week 1:

27 Baltimore, Sherrod (DB)
31 Brown, Kevin (LB)
17 Collins, Danny (QB)
98 Ellis, Avery (DL)
80 Hartley, Austen (WR) 🇨🇦
35 Jackson, Kevin (LB) 🇨🇦
57 Lofton, Eric (OL)
89 Rhymes, Dominique (WR)
69 Schmidt, Ryan (OL)
28 Tindal, Corey (DB)

PR UPDATE (6/22): Preseason standout WR Daje Johnson has been added to the practise roster, replacing OL Ryan Schmidt. Johnson will wear number 13.

It all starts Friday. Can’t wait.

Thanks for reading!

@DefendTheR

All photos courtesy Scott Grant Photography. Follow Scott on Twitter at @CFLPhotoArchive

Redblacks Training Camp battles – It’s Trev’s offence now

By Cranky Frank Clair

Hope you had a chance to read my defensive preview. Here is a position-by-position breakdown of the Redblacks offence.

QB Trevor Harris – photo Scott Grant Photography
Quarterback

Hank is gone, but the team’s QB corps is solid thanks to GM Marcel Desjardins’ timely acquisitions of Trevor Harris prior to the 2016 season and Drew Tate this past winter.  

Key Returning Players: Trevor Harris

Departed: Henry Burris (retired), Danny O’Brien

Notable Newcomers: Drew Tate (trade – CGY), Ryan Lindley (free agent – 3 seasons in NFL) 

After spending 2016 as the most loyal of soldiers alternately backing up and replacing Henry Burris, this is now Harris’ football team. The offence is being molded to his strengths and we’ll get a good sense this year if Harris is as good as good over 18 games as he’s been as a part-timer. 

Beneath the optimism about Harris, there is an undercurrent of chatter that he has never delivered for an entire season. I can’t comment on his 2015 experience with the Argos other than to know he dissected the very strong Redblacks defence twice later in the season. As for last year, he was injured at some point after he took over for the injured Henry Burris, and it is difficult to pin the team’s mid-season struggles on Harris. This having been said, this is his first opportunity to lead a pro team from the beginning – his performance one way or another will speak for itself. I expect Harris will deliver, particularly with Ottawa opening up deep threats (despite the departure of Chris Williams). 

I’m assuming that former Calgary back-up QB Tate is now the defacto #2 in Ottawa, although it may depend on how Ryan Lindley adapts to the Canadian game. Lindley’s NFL record isn’t stellar – he’s had 6 starts over three seasons and he is no longer in the NFL for a reason. This is a fresh chance for the San Diego State product and he’ll be able to compete. 

Brock Jensen, the incumbent #2/3 in Ottawa, is also back. It remains to be seen whether he gets a chance to prove his smattering of supporters correct that he is proving worthy of the #2 spot and is a future starter. Attentive readers will know I’m more than a little dubious. 

RB Shakir Bell – photo Scott Grant Photography

Running Back

There are two things the Redblacks have been able to count on through their short history – sellouts at TD Place and the need for lots of running backs. Fortunately, Desjardins has been able to keep the RB pipeline full despite a string of injuries. This year he has delivered the team’s deepest RB corps yet. 

Key returning players: Mossis Madu, William Powell, Patrick Lavoie (FB)

Departed: Kienan Lafrance, Travon Van

Notable Newcomers: Shakir Bell (free agent, previously EDM), Anthony Gosselin (2017 2nd round draft pick

With Mossis Madu returning after a solid championship season and William Powell returning following his early season injury, it would appear that the Redblacks were already loaded at RB prior to the signing of Shakir Bell. Now they are uber-loaded, but two things to remember: Injuries come fast, and both Madu and Powell are now 29 years old. We could be looking at a training camp battle between Madu and Powell to hang on to one spot alongside Bell, who is younger and has shown explosive ability to gain yardage. Bell was CFL Player of the Week in week 10 last season, and certainly turned heads, but with only four starts so far he’ll have to prove in camp that he isn’t a flash in the pan. He was a talented big time back in college, however, so all signs point to Bell being the real deal. 

A wild card this year is Anthony Gosselin, a physical specimen drafted in the second round by the Redblacks in March. Gosselin will certainly contribute almost immediately on special teams, but it must be wondered if the team thinks it might have another big Canadian back on its hands in the mold of Jerome Messam – Gosselin is almost 250lbs, has defensive lineman strength and running back speed. He’ll be a player to watch. 

Running back is the number one position to watch during training camp as the Madu-Powell-Bell hierarchy gets sorted out over the next month.

WR Kenny Shaw – photo Scott Grant Photography

Receiver

We simply have to get over the departed players. They’ve earned a lifetime of respect, love and glory, but they are Redblacks no more. Hail the new Redblacks. The 2017 version of the Redblacks offence should remain strong thanks to depth – just like the previous two seasons, opposition defences cannot shut down the Ottawa air game by focusing on one or two receivers. It is entirely possible the Redblacks will have another season with four 1000+ yard receivers. 

Key returning players: Brad Sinopoli, Greg Ellingson, Juron Criner

Departed: Ernest Jackson, Chris Williams

Notable Newcomers: Diontae Spencer (free agent – TOR), Kenny Shaw (free agent – TOR), Tori Gurley (free agent – WPG)

As hard as it may be to accept, this is a time of out with the old, in with the new. Expect 2016 late season standout Juron Criner to ably step into the role previously occupied by Ernest Jackson. The big converted TE has proven to have good hands and the ability to get open. He will never be EJack, but the Redblacks will be well served by Criner. 

With Chris Williams leaving just as Harris’ ability to throw deep with accuracy comes to the fore, I was concerned about the Redblacks not having legit deep threats. I worry no more. Diontae Spencer and Kenny Shaw provide that deep threat. As long as the Redblacks receiving corps continues to take downfield blocking as seriously as catching and running, the team’s air game will remain very strong. YAC has been a big plus for the Redblacks offence over the past two seasons, and that needs to continue. 

The one concern is lack of Canadian depth behind Brad Sinopoli. We’ll see if Scott McDonnell can step up when asked in his third year with the club. Greg Ellingson is now making big time money and should continue delivering big time results. And snow angels. Lots more snow angels.

Alex Mateas & the Offensive Line – photo Scott Grant Photography

Offensive Line

The continuity largely continues

Key returning players: SirVincent Rogers, Jason Lauzon-Séguin, John Gott, Nolan MacMillan, Jake Silas

Departed: J’Michael Deane

Notable newcomer: Evan Johnson (9th pick overall, 2017 CFL draft)

With everyone returning except starting LG J’Michael Deane, the Redblacks OL is basically set. Deane’s departure was virtually inevitable given the team’s depth inside. Here is how I expect the 2017 line to shake out:

LT – SirVincent Rogers

LG – Jason Lauzon-Seguin

C – John Gott

RG – Nolan MacMillan

RT – Jake Silas

The real training camp battle will be for the depth roles – ie, who will be the “first man up”. Matt Albright and Alex Mateas will be fighting to be that guy, with Mateas having a lot to prove. The 2015 first overall draft pick is proving to be an expensive backup. This is a make or break year for the Ottawa native, and indeed, anything could happen if a camp prospect such as Lene Maiava proves to be a beast worth keeping, despite his International status. Look for Albright to be the go-to depth guy, and remember that versatile standout MacMillan only signed for one season. The team will have to be thinking about next year as well. 

Tommie Draheim filled in last season when RT Jake Silas was injured. Tackles need very strong first contact and the mobility/balance to stay with the defender. The Redblacks will be taking a long look at camp invitees at tackle to see who might deliver those qualities and be the depth player at OT. 

Don’t look for first round draft pick Evan Johnson to make an impact this season. He has lauded athleticism and coach Bryan Chiu will be able to coach him up, but there likely won’t be a regular season role for him until 2018, at least.

Looking forward to Saturday’s mock game and Thursday’s preseason opener. Come say hi – and don’t forget to rub my shoe for good luck!

Follow me on Twitter at @CrankyClair.

Thanks for reading! @DefendTheR

Photos courtesy Scott Grant Photography. Follow Scott on Twitter at @CFLPhotoArchive

Redblacks Training Camp battles – De-fence!

By Cranky Frank Clair

I hope #RNation has enjoyed its post-championship glow, because life moves fast and the win-loss columns are all about to be set to zero. While some familiar Redblacks have left (or not been asked back), the team is looking strong. Starting with the defence, today is the first of two position-by-position breakdowns of who is gone, notable newcomers and what to watch for through the balance of training camp and the pre-season. 

DE Avery Ellis (Temple) – photo Scott Grant Photography

Defensive line

Key returning players: Zack Evans, Arnaud Gascon-Nadon, Connor Williams

Departed: Moton Hopkins (retired), Cleyon Laing (was here for the end of regular season + playoffs)

Notable newcomers: Jason Ankrah (free agent)

I’m not happy to see Moton Hopkins gone, partly because I had to re-write this section. The Redblacks depth inside is blown up – for now, and DL becomes a bigger question mark than it was just a couple of days ago. Expect the Redblacks to do some shuffling to figure out where people are going to settle. Landon Cohen likely has an inside track on the 0 tech NT slot with Hopkins gone. Jake Ceresna who was at Redblacks camp in 2016 until breaking his leg is back. He has impressive size, we’ll see how he does in his second shot at the pro game after coming out of a very small school/division where play appears on par with CJFL. Ettore Lattanzio should continue making more than his share of plays as depth DT.

Before Hopkins’ retirement, the big question was at DE. The Redblacks have brought a lot of guys in since Aston Whiteside’s injury, and none have really stuck. Jason Ankrah has caught my eye, we’ll see how he does over the next few days. Another possibility at speed rush DE is Avery Ellis out of Temple. Both will need to be evaluated closely in contact drills and live action.

One wild card inside is Eli Ankou. The UCLA DT was snapped up by the Redblacks in the 4th round. He would have been an early first round CFL pick, but was signed to a priority free agent contract by the Houston Texans following the NFL draft. However, we now know his rather low signing bonus/guaranteed money ($20k) means the Texans perhaps aren’t that high on him. We might see him in Ottawa by September.

NOTE: I’m going to follow up on the DL situation once I get a longer look at practice, Saturday’s scrimmage and the first pre-season game.

LB Khalil Bass – photo Scott Grant Photography

Linebackers

Key returning players: Tank Reed

Departed: Damaso Muñoz (released, since retired)

Notable newcomers: Khalil Bass (free agent – WPG)

There was a fair bit of shuffling of the LB corps in 2016, and each step was an improvement. The Grey Cup starting trio of Muñoz, Reed and Jerrell Gavins have been split up, with Muñoz released and Gavins now shuffled back to his more natural DB position. Joining Reed is Bass, who made an impact in two seasons with the Blue Bombers. He is a legit CFL rising star and gives the Redblacks one of the strongest 1-2 LB punches in the league. The question is at the hybrid LB/DB position of SAM or strongside LB. Largely a pass coverage role, it was Antoine Pruneau’s job until he was moved back to his more natural FS position. Gavins slid into the role where he was a big contributor through the team’s Grey Cup run. Departures in the secondary during the offseason have pushed Gavins back, however, and the SAM spot is open – it will be an interesting competition that may not be settled until later in camp. I’ll report more on this later.

DB Jerrell Gavins- photo Scott Grant Photography

Secondary

Key returning players: Jerrell Gavins, Jonathan Rose, Antoine Pruneau

Departed: Forrest Hightower, Abdul Kanneh, Jeff Richards, Mitchell White

Notable newcomers: AJ Jefferson (free agent – TOR), Javier Arenas (free agent – 2010 NFL 2nd Round draft pick, multiple NFL stints)

I’m not as concerned about this group as I was a few weeks ago. The outlook was grim over the winter, however. Since its first season, the Redblacks have fielded a very strong secondary. And every season, the team has had to face the loss of key players. To its credit, the team has been able to keep the shelves stocked. The secondary was looking pretty bare after Hightower and Kanneh left, but its quite possible that Marcel Desjardins and team have successfully managed to re-load the secondary.

The leader this year is Gavins (wearing #4 this year, by the way), now a team veteran who has grown in his time with the Redblacks. He played SAM LB last year and did it well, but this season there are too many gaping holes in the secondary to keep him in that role. Rose is one of the players who came in to replace the original group of departees, and he has been a strong CB for the past 1.5 seasons. Pruneau is back at his natural Free Safety slot, which he took on last season. Pruneau should continue to thrive there. Jefferson, who was signed as a free agent from the Argos, will start and it sounds like returning depth player Imoan Claiborne has an inside shot at starting, while it may be hard to keep NFL veteran Arenas from the open cornerback position. This is assuming he can adapt to the motion and “hands off” CFL rules. A depth player or two with upside will also emerge at camp – they always do. 

Look for an offensive preview tomorrow and don’t forget to follow me on Twitter at @CrankyClair.

Thanks for reading!

@DefendTheR

Photos courtesy Scott Grant Photography. Follow Scott on Twitter at @CFLPhotoArchive

Redblacks 2017 #CFLDraft preview

With mini-camps wrapping up across the continent, the next big event in the 2017 CFL calendar is the Draft. On May 7th, (most of) the best and brightest Canadian football talent will be snapped up by the league’s nine teams over eight rounds.

As Grey Cup champions (woo hoo!!!), the Ottawa Redblacks are set to draft last in each round, barring any trades in the lead-up to Sunday night. 2017 will mark the Redblacks fifth CFL Draft, as the team participated on a limited basis (four picks) in the 2013 Draft – a full year prior to their inaugural season in 2014. General manager Marcel Desjardins and his staff have done a commendable job at the Draft through the first four years, adding a number of significant contributors to the Redblacks roster. First round picks each year include:

2013: OL Nolan MacMillan (9th overall); 43 games played, 42 starts

2014: DB Antoine Pruneau (4th overall); 53 games played, 45 starts

2015: OL Alex Mateas (1st overall); 35 games played, 10 starts

2016: OL Jason Lauzon-Séguin (7th overall); 14 games played, 12 starts

Here’s a summary of each Redblacks draft pick’s impact on the Ottawa lineup to date (courtesy @jonathanwhudson): 

FRANK – Final Scouting Bureau Rank; DRANK – December Scouting Bureau Rank; SRANK – September Scouting Bureau Rank; GP – Games Played; GS – Games Started; TGP – Total Games Played (with other teams, if applicable); TGS – Total Games Started (with other teams, if applicable)
2017 Outlook

Opinions are pretty varied as far as the position or player the Redblacks should be targeting in the first round. Common sense says the first round should be reserved for key Canadian positions on the offensive and defensive lines, but there are always exceptions. Here’s how some in the CFL media see things shaking out for the Redblacks at #9:

Eric M of bomberbuzz.com – Mock Draft #1:

1:9 – Ottawa Redblacks: WR Nathaniel Behar, Carleton

Although the Redblacks could go many different routes with the last pick in the first round, selecting Behar makes a lot of sense. It fills a need – Ottawa has suspect depth behind Brad Sinopoli – and adds another local product to the team’s receiving corps. Behar is a London, Ontario native but, of course, played college ball in Ottawa. The Redblacks could use another offensive lineman – McGill’s Qadr Spooner will be considered – as well as a defensive tackle, however a DT such as Idaho’s Faith Ekakitie or Montreal’s Junior Luke would be a reach in the first round. Behar’s local ties edge out Spooner.

Mock Draft #2:

1:9 – Ottawa Redblacks: LB Jordan Herdman, Simon Fraser

Herdman’s fall to the bottom of the first round has much to do with both his NFL interest and his testing results. Although NFL teams will be grossly turned off by his 5.16 40-yard dash, the combination of his Senior Bowl performance and his game tape – that of which suggests no issues with his testing numbers – should result in Herdman getting an opportunity down south as an undrafted free agent.

For Ottawa, while a plethora of defensive tackles and offensive linemen remain available, they saw strong seasons from Connor Williams and Ettore Lattanzio in 2016, while Zack Evans has became a menace in the middle. Based on the players still available versus Ottawa’s team needs, they’re in a position to invest in a player like Herdman. Regardless of his testing numbers, Herdman will one day be a starting inside linebacker in this league.

Herdman has subsequently been invited to Kansas City Chiefs rookie mini-camp. 

Scott Mitchell of the Toronto Sun:

1:9 Ottawa RedBlacks — DT Eli Ankou, UCLA

NFL interest isn’t the only thing muddying Ankou’s stock. At 6-foot-3, 325 pounds, the worry is he’s a bit oversized for a typical CFL interior lineman, but on the plus side, he’s not viewed as strictly a one-dimensional run-stuffer.

The RedBlacks would likely love an offensive lineman, but this Ottawa native might be the best talent on the board.

Note that Ankou was subsequently signed to a priority free agent contract by the Houston Texans immediately following the NFL Draft. This will likely make him a late round CFL selection, given the likelihood he wouldn’t come to the CFL for a minimum of 1-2 years, if at all.

John Hodge of Blue Bomber Talk & 3 Down Nation:

9. Ottawa Redblacks — OL Jean-Simon Roy, Laval

Roy put up an outstanding 39 bench press reps at the combine at just 287 pounds — an outstanding feat for a guy who could afford to add weight to his 6’3 frame. Roy’s also bilingual, an added bonus for a bilingual market.

Marshall Ferguson of TSN 1150 & CFL.ca:

9. OTTAWA | FAITH EKAKITIE | DL | IOWA

Of all my picks in the first round, this is the one I’m most hesitant about. Last year, Marcel Desjardins and his REDBLACKS staff took an NCAA defensive lineman in Boston College alum and Montreal native Mehdi Abdesmad in hopes he would come to the CFL sooner rather than later.

Abdesmad has not yet come back north which could interest Ottawa in stretching for another big name quarterback hunter in Iowa Hawkeyes Faith Ekakitie — OR could push the REDBLACKS towards taking a USPORTS player ready to commit himself to the organization immediately. Maybe even a Kwaku Boateng or Kay Okafor if they last to the end of the first round.

Barry Britto of cflhorsemen.ca:

9. Ottawa – Nate Behar, WR, Carleton

There is a chance the Bombers make this pick at #6 but if they don’t, Ottawa will add the solid route runner who will add depth to the receiving corps.

TheRatioBreaker.com:

9. OTT: Mitch Picton, SB, Regina

Mitch Picton isn’t ready to start yet but the Redblacks don’t need him to. Picton is a tremendous receiving talent who can learn behind Brad Sinopoli and eventually replace him, providing currently absent depth in the slot.

Like I said, pretty varied. 

For reference, here’s the CFL Scouting Bureau’s final ranking:

Note that Justin Senior (1) was selected by the Seattle Seahawks in the 6th round of the NFL Draft, while Ankou (Houston), Geoff Gray (Green Bay) and Antony Auclair (Tampa Bay) were all signed to priority free agent deals immediately after the draft. All four will likely drop to mid-round picks, given the risk of them ever playing in the CFL.

Also worth noting that LB Cameron Judge (UCLA) and DL Randy Colling (Gannon University) have been ruled eligible for the 2017 CFL Draft. Both could very well be selected in the first 2-3 rounds.

Local flavour

2017 is a big year for the Carleton Ravens football program, as it will be the first time a Raven is selected in the CFL Draft since 1999 and could see a handful of players chosen. In fact, there are a number of Ottawa connections in the crop of players available this year, including:

  • DB Tunde Adeleke (Carleton)
  • #2-ranked DL Eli Ankou (UCLA) – born in Ottawa
  • OL Kwabena Asare (Carleton)
  • #9-ranked WR Nathaniel Behar (Carleton)
  • WR Malcolm Carter (Ottawa Sooners)
  • DB Nathaniel Hamlin (Carleton)

The 2017 CFL Draft is Sunday, May 7th @ 7:00PM ET. The first two hours will be broadcast live on TSN.

Thanks for reading!

@DefendTheR

Offseason of change begins for Grey Cup champs

By Cranky Frank Clair

I really don’t have anything to offer that hasn’t already been said about the Redblacks Grey Cup win. So instead of rehashing/celebrating what happened, I’m going to look ahead a bit. The Redblacks have a pile of pending free agents as do most other teams in the CFL. There are quarterback and management questions in other cities, and a team or two will be using the next few weeks to begin their march on Ottawa and the 2017 Grey Cup.  I won’t get too deep into Redblacks 2017 roster projects – there are too many moving parts at this point. But here’s a look at the current situation as well as my view of some other situations in other cities.

Redblacks offseason

Ernest Jackson & Jerrell Gavins (photo Scott Grant)

The CFL’s Big List of Free Agents now out, we can certainly look at the team’s offseason challenges.

This means there is much work to be done, but it’s the best kind of work – keeping a champion together and making it better. Not everyone will get to stay, however.

Sadly, Chris Williams is likely in the “won’t be back” category. He’ll be rehabbing his knee well into next summer and may be back just before his 30th birthday. That isn’t a great combo, especially considering that his last contract was likely in the $200k+ neighbourhood. Williams has his detractors, but his world-class speed kept defenders on their heels and opened up the field for his teammates. Losing him for 2017 will be doubly unfortunate because Trevor Harris has the arm to take full advantage of Williams’ talents.

The list of must-sign players is fairly long. Ernest Jackson, Mitchell White, Abdul Kanneh and Nolan MacMillan would be hard to replace. Tank Reed is the LB the Redblacks need – his presence boosted Damaso Muñoz. And #RNation needs to be concerned about John Boyett’s return – we never really heard much about his knee injury and now he’s looking at free agency. There are rumblings that Abdul Kanneh will be looking south, and now we hear that the team has released Cleyon Laing so he can look south as well. If I could, I would bring them both back. Laing proved his worth, collapsing pockets from the inside and making lots of room. As I hoped, he even played some DE and it proved an experiment worth continuing.

I somehow doubt we’ll see Aston Whiteside back. He never really recovered from his knee injury. Its hard to see from here whether the Redblacks rushed him back or whether the knee didn’t respond to treatment or whether he actually got reinjured. The Redblacks so-far fruitless search for its next speed rushing DE continues. But…given the way the Redblacks DLine performed in the Grey Cup, I’m inclined to think the team should stop trying to slot in an unproven speed DE and go with muscle. I saw some devastating power rushes from Laing and Connor Williams from the DE position, showing that Clydesdales can get the same result as a racehorse.

Antoine Pruneau (photo Scott Grant)

Meanwhile, fan favourite Antoine Pruneau is also a pending free agent. Without knowing enough about Montreal’s FS situation, must think that he’s a guy they’d love to sign. Pruneau gave an interview following the Grey Cup parade that made me think he is thinking about options other than returning to Ottawa. I have no quote that signals this, its was just a feeling. Jeff Richards (rumoured to have several opportunities in the NFL) may be a more consistent FS, but it is hard to deny that even without his passport, Pruneau is a big contributor and the Redblacks would be well-served to try to get him back.

Lots of potential for moving parts on the offensive line. J’Michael Deane and Nolan MacMillan are each pending free agents. MacMillan is a very good veteran presence. Deane had a lot of penalty issues this season. Jason Lauzon-Séguin is a legit starter at G and showed he can play OT. Backup Matthew Albright absolutely seems ready to start at G. Jake Silas has proven to be a solid RT, SirV is locked in for another 2 seasons as one of the league’s premier LTs. Tommie Draheim got better into the playoffs and the Grey Cup but is not a strong starter. The long-range plan was for John Gott to switch to G and have Alex Mateas take his place at centre. I don’t see that happening, possibly ever. 

Nolan MacMillan (photo Janet MacMillan)

The makeup of the 2017 OL hinges on whether MacMillan can be signed and whether management wants to keep Deane. I have my thoughts on how this should play out, but will save them for another column. I will say that Deane is possibly expendable which is unfortunate for a guy who may want to stay (he owns a house here).

It’s hard to say whether we’ll see FA RB William Powell back – if he’s willing to sign for not a ton of money upfront, then he’d certainly be worth bringing into camp and let him compete with Mossis Madu. Travon Van, who was a good insurance policy in 2016, likely isn’t a priority to re-sign.

Tanner Doll & Kienan Lafrance (photo Scott Grant)

Just a couple of special teams observations at this point. First, I spent a lot of Twitter characters questioning the removal of Kevin Malcolm from long snapper duties – he’s exceptionally good at delivering hard clean spirals to the punter. The team replaced him mid-season with Tanner Doll, who was immediately visible in ways that long snappers aren’t supposed to be. He improved as he went along, but most importantly, he showed why the team made the switch in the first place. Doll is a special teams coverage demon, not easy to do coming out of the snap.

Elsewhere across the CFL

Have to question what Chris Jones thinks he’s doing in Saskatchewan with the Darian Durant negotiations. Durant is a fan favourite, a very solid performer and there really isn’t a better QB on the market. Maybe Chris Jones is the genius he was supposed to be and he’s trying to save the team some needed cap space, or maybe he has a strong-armed rabbit to pull out of the proverbial hat. Or maybe he’s unnecessarily playing hardball with a QB who isn’t his guy. We’ll see.

Corey Watman (photo Scott Grant)

Then there’s Toronto. Word is that co-owner Larry Tanenbaum wants to appoint a football management layer between ownership and the team GM. It makes sense, and it’s an approach he sees working (I guess) with the Maple Leafs. Who will it be? A lot of the CFL’s grownups are either locked into great jobs or on the verge of taking on fewer responsibilities rather than more. I saw a suggestion that Eric Tillman could be the guy, and that makes sense. I’m not convinced of Tillman’s football genius, but I’m convinced that he’s the type of person who will be hired for that job.

In Winnipeg, a team that seems on the cusp of greatness just let its fans breathe a sigh of relief by re-signing Coach Michael O’Shea. Now, the team may be doing some serious soul-searching on whether they have a QB whose trajectory matches the rest of the team. If Saskatchewan loses Durant, he could be enough to propel Winnipeg to true contention in 2017.

Photo Scott Grant

The potential for stability on the Alouettes in 2017 should scare the rest of the East and help re-ignite fan interest in Montreal. Hamilton and Ottawa had it pretty easy in 2016 sharing a division with two teams in a bad downward spiral. A Montreal comeback will make the East much more of a horserace, although whether it would be enough to avoid a western crossover in 2017 remains to be seen. Look for Montreal’s new GM and the coaching staff to assemble and ready an offence that can take advantage of its young QBs. Either Rakeem Cato or Vernon Adams could emerge out of training camp as a legit dynamic playmaking QB and make the Als offence a nice complement to the team’s already good defence.

That’s it for now, I’ve tried to avoid talking about teams or situations where I don’t have information or a decent opinion, though I guess that’s really up to you to judge. I’ll check in again as teams sign more of their pending free agents. And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter at @CrankyClair.

All the best, and Merry Christmas.

Cranky Frank Clair

Most photos courtesy of Scott Grant Photography. Follow on Twitter at @CFLPhotoArchive

 

 

 

Redblacks recipe a little off in first half of 2016

By Cranky Frank Clair

Last night I was given some homemade guacamole. It looked great, I thanked the person profusely and then I tried it. There was nothing actually wrong with it, but it wasn’t guacamole. Some ingredients were missing, and there weren’t enough of others. With some tinkering, I later made it better, but it still wasn’t good guacamole.

Thanks for your patience. There was a point to that. Because so it goes with the 2016 Ottawa Redblacks. They basically look like the team we saw nearly win the Grey Cup last November, but something’s not right. During camp and through July, it looked like the team was in great shape. The offseason changes didn’t seem to hurt, everyone was rightly lauding the wisdom of adding Trevor Harris, and an early slew of injuries weren’t slowing down the team. And hey, we beat Edmonton! The Redblacks were looking like the team we thought they were, and then August arrived. A big homestand! A chance to lock up the East by Labour Day! 

And that’s when everything crashed. 

It’s now clear that the ingredients aren’t quite right on this team. But like fixing the guacamole that wasn’t quite right, the answer might be elusive and still not get us where we want. As fans, we look for answers. Many fingers have been pointed at offensive coordinator Jaime Elizondo for lacklustre playcalling. Others have singled out the offensive line where only the LT and C positions have been stable this season and penalties have been frequent. The secondary has certainly come under fire for discipline and a lack of playmaking, while coach Rick Campbell has been stressing how much the team has been hurt by penalties. Kicking and punting have been inconsistent.

Photo: Scott Grant Photography

But here’s the thing – you can’t really pin the problems on any one element. Everything in football is connected. Poor offensive line play leads to shaky QB play leads to more conservative play selection. An offence that goes 2-and-out too often never gets into a rhythm, never gets a chance to find what might work, and the defence is forced onto the field for far too long. Meanwhile, whether it’s an offensive lineman or a cornerback, getting beat one-on-one tends to lead to penalties which can lead to cautious play which will then lead to getting beat. Poor special teams play leads to risky decisions on 3rd down and doesn’t give the defence the cushion of field position.

Those are the general issues.

Unfortunately, I’m pretty much never given access to the video equipment downstairs, so it’s hard for me to break down the problems as much as I’d like, but there are some questions that are standing out for me:

1. Possible lack of leadership?

Two veteran players left and it seems possible now that no one really stepped in to replace their leadership. Jovon Johnson and Keith Shologan are grownups whose presence in the locker room and on the field may be missed more than we realize. No matter how much Henry Burris remains Henry Burris, he cannot be the leader he was last year while injured or playing backup. It’s the way of the jungle.

2. Where are the playmakers on D?

Playing football is about making something happen, not just filling a spot on the field. While Zack Evans has had a great year at DT and others have contributed here and there, no person on defence has been imposing their will on the offence, affecting gameplans and execution in a meaningful way. Injuries in the secondary have been a factor, and the mouchoir blizzards are more than likely playing with the heads of DBs across the league.

3. Injuries taking a bigger-than-anticipated toll?

And other than the Trevor Harris injury that thrust Brock Jensen onto the field, no single injury has caused panic because there was always someone ready to step up and be “good enough”. The thing is, once there is a “good enough” player at several different spots at the same time, you aren’t dominating and making plays, you’re just treading water. The effect is cumulative and it cascades across the field.

4. Continuity on offence an issue?

For a variety of reasons, the offensive line has needed several shuffles due to injury or individual play. Our running backs keep getting hurt; none have stood out as a ball carrier or receiver who could be a difference maker. QB play has been up and down, and will have to be stabilized by Trevor Harris if the team is going to make a stretch run. He is a very good QB, but he will need better support in the stretch drive.

5. 1,000-yard club feeling the heat?

Except for Ernest Jackson who has been Mr. Reliable, Ottawa’s receivers haven’t delivered like they did in 2015. There have been some notable dropped balls, there have been a lot of throws that looked catchable but weren’t nearly optimal in terms of being catchable or allowing those precious YACs (yards after catch) to happen. No doubt defenses are playing the Redblacks receiving corps tighter than last year, but the fact remains Ottawa needs their big guns to make big plays at big times.

All of this is really context; it’s hard to point at any one area because, as I said, every problem on every side of the ball is interconnected. So I don’t really have specific fixes for this recipe other than the requirement that everyone play better. Easier said than done.

Now, here’s where I get to name some names, both good and bad. I’ll start with my favourite player on the team so far this year and go from there:

Ernest Jackson – The single brightest spot on offence through this season, he’s fought hard for every reception and has been the most reliable target on an offence full of flashy targets. Currently has a 5 game TD scoring streak, Jackson deserves to see that continue.

Ernest Jackson & Greg Ellingson celebrate a TD (Photo: Scott Grant Photography)

Chris Milo – We love it when you kick 55-yarders to save the day, but do you have to take the day off the rest of the time?

D-Block – I suspect the officials have gotten inside your heads. Go back to what you do. At various times Mitchell White and Johnathan Rose have shown how closely a guy can be covered without risking a flag. Go do that.

Antoine Pruneau – You won our hearts with your enthusiasm and your reliability to make a tackle. Your enthusiasm is still there, but it may need to be tempered. Go back to basics, you being on the field helps this team, and not just because of your passport.

John Boyett – Starting LB because David Hinds had turned into a guy not really making things happen. Boyett makes things happen. Please keep doing that. Hopefully we can keep him for a full season next year; I’d love to see him get back to the NFL where he really belongs at strong safety.

John Boyett (Photo: Scott Grant Photography)

SirVincent Rogers – Glad he’s bounced back; those were some shaky games in July. He won’t win the CFL best offensive lineman award this year, but at least he’s back to being proficiently invisible.

Tristan Jackson – I love watching him as a return guy. It feels like he could break one open several times a game. And I hope he feels free to concentrate on that because I don’t want to see T-Jack covering receivers unless every other player on the roster under 220 lbs is on crutches.

Khalil Paden – Class act who waited patiently and has been rewarded. Brings an additional deep threat to the receiving corps which has been necessary. Needs to stay consistent to last.

Arnaud Gascon-Nadon – Before he got hurt, he was showing us why Marcel Desjardins felt ok letting Justin Capicciotti go. Gotta get him back and in form. Can’t rush him back, though. See Whiteside, Aston.

Anonymous rotating cast of American DEs – Too many to name. Many flashes in the pan, the team seems to have given up on finding the prototypical 240-250lb CFL speedster. Hopefully one of them will stick. I’m not feeling a lot of hope about Aston Whiteside at this point.

Jaime Elizondo – I haven’t shared in the finger pointing, but one thing that’s  bothering me is play inside the opposition 40-yard line (I refuse to use TSN’s “score zone” or whatever dumbed-down term they are using). If the team has packages for moving forward and getting touchdowns as the field shortens, they aren’t working. Too many TDs have turned into FGs or worse, and I think this is one area, at least, where play selection is a factor.

Greg Ellingson – The hero whose catch propelled Ottawa to the Grey Cup gets a bit of benefit of the doubt, but my patience is starting to wear thin. Ellingson ranks 4th in all stats among the Redblacks quartet of bigtime receivers. He has the least number of catches, yards, TDs and he is targeted least often as well. Balls that were catches last year are incompletions this season. Ottawa likely won’t be able to keep all of its receivers this coming offseason, and if I had my pick…

John Gott – Consistency is key. A few too many penalties and a few too many not-great shotgun snaps aren’t helping his case to repeat as an all-star.

And I’ll end this rundown on a positive note…

Zack Evans (Photo: Scott Grant Photography)

Zack Evans – Explosiveness, power and great technique have given him better stats than DTs are supposed to have. Needs to keep being rotated out on occasion, there have been stretches mid-game where he obviously needs a break. Fortunately, Ettore Lattanzio seems on track to break some sort of record for most sacks/tackles per minute on the field. He’s simply too small at 250 lbs to get starters’ time inside, but he’s a great rotation guy and one of the pleasant surprises on the team.

Ettore Lattanzio with the tackle (Photo: Scott Grant Photography)

So where does all this leave us? 

Again, there doesn’t seem to be a single point of failure on this team, although I will again stress that the effect of injuries is cumulative and RNation (including myself) overlooked the effect during those good times back in July.

Coach Campbell likes to talk about both the team and individual players always having either an “up” arrow or a “down” arrow. Too many players have had the down arrow beside their name this season, and the team itself is not headed in the right direction. There is hope, however. This isn’t a Saskatchewan or Montreal situation where the problems are widespread or where personnel simply aren’t good enough. A home playoff date isn’t out of the question, and then anything can happen. 

I don’t want to be fatalistic, but the Calgary game next week has all the makings of a loss that will knock the Redblacks firmly into second or even third place. The Argos game at home on September 23rd is when the season starts for real, and that will be the real measuring stick of whether Ottawa will be able to turn this season around.

And besides all that, it will be good to have the guests back at my stadium – its been too long. I’ll be in the southwest corner on my perch, hoping for better guacamole.

You can follow me on Twitter at @CrankyClair

Thanks for reading!

@DefendTheR

(Header photo courtesy Scott Grant Photography)

Redblacks at the 6-game mark

by Cranky Frank Clair

The CFL’s East division race has become a tight one following a 4-game stretch that has seen the Redblacks pick up just one win, and now sit with a record of 3-2-1. This makes it time for reflection and a quick review of our personnel, but first, let’s get right to the point regarding the Toronto game (a 23-20 loss this past Sunday evening). The Redblacks defence was good enough for Ottawa to win. The offence was not. Some have been quick to jump on the playcalling. Others have praised Toronto’s defence. I think Argos defensive coordinator Rich Stubler deserves a lot of credit – he seems to have found the secret sauce for containing Ottawa’s receiving corps. Ottawa’s talent should have still been enough, but it wasn’t.

And I’ll say this with no reservations – Henry Burris wasn’t good enough either. My impression is that he was a guy trying to prove the doubters wrong. Whether Burris was forcing balls into coverage, overthrowing or putting too much zip when a bit of touch was required, he had a bad night. Burris definitely wasn’t making good decisions, and its possible that his mechanics were off due to his finger. We’ll see.

The good news is that Hank is a leader and wore his performance in post-game interviews. I also recall that in 2014, “Bad Hank” didn’t usually appear two games in a row. I think his decision-making will be much better vs. Edmonton. The question is how much of his performance was due to this injury and whether that will be resolved before Saturday.

Ok, now let’s take a quick tour through the field to see how things are going and where they are headed.

Quarterback

Henry Burris (Photo: Scott Grant)

This remains Henry’s team, and like I said, history says that Bad Hank isn’t likely to appear two games in a row. Trevor Harris won’t be available till after the bye week at the earliest. Burris played about as well as Brock Jensen a week ago. The difference being, that was Hank at his worst. I believe that level of play is Brock Jensen’s normal. This team needs wins, it is already hovering barely over the danger zone for hosting a home playoff game. Burris has to step up and find a way to beat an Edmonton defence that is in disarray and then stomp Saskatchewan.

We can worry about Harris and the starting job when the time comes.

Running back

Nic Grigsby (Photo: Scott Grant)

Considering how deep into the big pile of RB resumes GM Marcel Desjardins has had to dig, the running game has been pretty good. I’ve liked Nic Grigsby’s play. Travon Van has a lot of fans and is set to return fairly soon, but I’d like to see the team stick with Grigsby. I much prefer his game. He’s built lower to the ground, hits the hole with far more determination and purpose, and can create a play where there doesn’t seem to be an opening. I was starting to come around on Van before he got injured, but I think Grigsby is better. Van is good enough as a depth back and I like him as a receiver. Van’s trajectory was good before the injury; if he can return to that form, he’ll improve the offence.

Receiver
It’s disconcerting that Stubler seemed able to throw a blanket over them so consistently in Week 6. You have to believe DCs around the league are figuring out the formula, as Toronto’s personnel aren’t so overpowering that their success against Ottawa can be attributed to talent alone. QB performance aside, against Toronto, our offensive performance in the 2nd half came down to the fact that Ottawa’s receivers could not get open.

There has been a lot of criticism of offensive coordinator Jaime Elizondo’s playcalling as of late, but I suspect the runs, hitch passes and screens were all that was available. This was compounded by Burris’ limitations. The offence could not stretch out the field, the coverage was good and so the offence was simplified down to runs and short gimmick passes.

Ernest Jackson (Photo: Scott Grant)

Make no mistake though, Ottawa’s receivers are still the class of the league. I’m going to single out Ernest Jackson first. Whenever this team has asked him to deliver, he has done it. Short to mid-range passes when the team really needs a first down seem to be his specialty, and his commitment to blocking makes him a role model for every receiver in the league. Greg Ellingson has had a couple of softer games, but no need to sound the alarm bells yet. Brad Sinopoli continues to defy all logic in how a gangly Canadian SB can outrun and outfight so many defenders to both get receptions and big yards after he makes the catch.

Jake Harty started strong and earned the starting spot, but has not been sharp the past while and had an outright poor game vs. the Argos. If the ratio continues to allow it, it is time to bring Khalil Paden back onto the field.

I have no doubt that Chris Williams will be crushing the souls of opposing defenders and their fans again soon. He was scary-fast on the sole deep pass attempt he saw vs. the Argos.

Offensive line

From left: Jake Silas, Alex Mateas & Jon Gott (Photo: Scott Grant)

This group managed to give 6-7 seconds of great protection on some snaps vs. a Toronto blitz, and be a complete train wreck on other plays. J’Michael Deane needs to stop getting holding penalties or the coaching staff will have an easy decision to sit him once Nolan MacMillan returns (which should be fairly soon). I think SirVincent Rogers has recovered after a couple of outright bad games, so that’s a comfort. Jake Silas is settling into LT very well, and John Gott remains John Gott. Meanwhile, both Mateas and Lauzon-Seguin have been coming along nicely. I was concerned about Mateas after his first couple of starts but he is improving and is part of the reason why Deane really needs to step up his play. Hopefully the treatment Mateas was receiving on the sideline towards the end of the game Sunday isn’t due to anything serious.

Defensive line

Connor Williams (Photo: Scott Grant)

Just when the d-line seemed settled, Arnaud Gascon-Nadon had to go and get injured. He wasn’t exactly making us forget Justin Capicciotti, but he was proving an able replacement and coming into his own. Zack Evans has proven the team was right in letting Keith Shologan go. Connor Williams has been starting due to Moton Hopkins injury, but Williams has played well and it may be hard to sit him once Hopkins returns. They will be see lots of snaps and make a lot of plays regardless of where they sit on the depth chart.

Filling in due to Moton’s injury, UofO grad Ettore Lattanzio has been a very pleasant surprise in the DT rotation. He defies the odds as an undersized Canadian, but he has made some plays and has not been a liability when he’s been rotated in. Aston Whiteside is returning to form after a few weak starts and has shown world-class ability to disrupt throwing lanes and knock down pass attempts.

Linebacker

David Hinds (Photo: Scott Grant)

This was the one position largely unchanged since last season until Malik Jackson was released this week. This may be a salary cap move necessitated by bringing players off the six-game injury list early (Burris, for starters) or it may be because there are other options. David Hinds has been the starter at weakside LB, and keeping an American CFL vet in a back-up role has been a luxury. Burton De Koning in limited action has shown worthy of being bumped up and getting some snaps. Damaso Muñoz remains one of the underrated players in the league, though I’d like to see him make a few more plays from MLB. Antoine Pruneau has been a force, and his maturity is showing. He has expressed interest in pursuing something in the NFL next year. That is a stretch – his coverage skills aren’t great and there are 500 players like him coming out of US colleges and showing up at combines. Hopefully Ottawa will be able to keep him. It seems that when players fall short in an NFL dream they end up changing CFL teams rather than returning and re-signing. Time will tell.

Secondary

Jermaine Robinson (Photo: Scott Grant)

Something no one saw coming is the number of injuries and changes in DBlock. Jerrell Gavins, Forrest Hightower and Abdul Kanneh have all had to come out. Brandon Sermons, who started for the RedBlacks in the Grey Cup, first lost the starting job in training camp to Jonathan Rose, and now he’s off the team entirely. Meanwhile, Desjardins managed to sign former Montreal CB Mitchell White, who was released by the Als due to salary cap issues. This move by Desjardins could rank up there with his acquisition of Harris in the offseason. White arrived during an injury crunch and will provide the grown-up leadership the exuberant DBlock has lacked since Jovon Johnson left. He’s also an outstanding cover guy – his interception vs. the Argos is only part of the story of how well he played in his RedBlacks debut.

The injuries are troubling, however, and here’s hoping that Rose returns to the form that earned him the starting job out of camp. Meanwhile, Tristan Jackson is a good returner and I hope he devotes his energies there. I’ll leave it at that. Jermaine Robinson was forced to play corner vs. Toronto due to injuries, and he showed why he’s used in a “hammer” role rather than as a cover FS. So much for thoughts of him moving to DB. However, John Boyett came in – something I’ve wanted to see for several weeks now – and was exactly as advertised. He’s fast, reads well and arrives at the ball with attitude and purpose. We can expect JRob to soon have NFL options, so Boyett is a good player to have around.

In general, I haven’t been impressed with this group when it plays zone, though their man coverage remains exceptional.

Special teams
I won’t go too deeply into it but let’s say that we needed Chris Milo to return to form. He hadn’t shown anything since hitting a 55-yard FG vs. Calgary to send that game into overtime. Milo performed as required vs. Toronto which is good news for a team that has had trouble scoring touchdowns lately. Chris Williams took over returning duties vs. the Argos and was no more enthusiastic or effective than he was last season. I have a hard time blaming him, the team needs someone dedicated to the job and that’s been hard to find with Jamill Smith injured.

I’m long overdue to recognize long-snapper Kevin Malcolm. He’s exceptionally good and I don’t think he’s ever gotten the team in trouble, and that’s high praise for an underappreciated and difficult position.

Outlook

Aston Whiteside (Photo: Scott Grant)

Ottawa’s next game, against Edmonton, isn’t quite must-win for the standings, but it could come to define the Redblacks season. A loss will mean a four game winless streak and a lot of question marks about what this group is really made of. A win against Edmonton instantly reverses the slide. It will also be the foundation for a short winning streak heading into their bye week and then the second half of the season. The fact that another Edmonton loss will throw that team into utter disarray is just a bonus.

As always, see you in the southwest corner at TD Place. Follow me on Twitter at @CrankyClair.

Thanks for reading!

@DefendTheR

All photos courtesy of Scott Grant Photography. Follow Scott on Twitter at @cflphotoarchive.

Putting the Carter incident to bed (hopefully)

A lot has been said in mainstream and social media about the Duron Carter incident over the last week. Some of it reasonable, far too much of it not. I’m not interested in re-hashing each element of the incident or perform a Zapruder film-like dissection of the various TSN broadcast angles. In my estimation, it is all pretty meaningless and does little else than deflect from the only issue of any import or relevance: An opposing player aggressively approached the Ottawa Redblacks sideline and recklessly knocked over head coach Rick Campbell. 

The rest: details.


Was Jermaine Robinson’s hit on Carter after the TD catch dangerous and worthy of a fine? Yes. Should Jerrell Gavins have been fined for punching the back of Carter’s head after he knocked Campbell down? Probably. Was Campbell on the field of play? Of course. Was Carter concussed? Maybe. But all of that is nothing but window-dressing. Missing the forest for the trees. Footnotes to the real story. 

A player went after an opposing coach.

It’s pretty simple: Coaches have to be protected from acts like this. Leagues protect their officials – like the NHL did in the Dennis Wideman case – because they are vulnerable to the much larger, stronger, amped-up athletes they’re paid to look after. Football coaches are very similar in this respect.

(Side note: How anyone in their right mind could believe the 5’10”, not-very-athletic Campbell would initiate contact with a 6’5″ fully-equipped and partially-enraged football player is mind-boggling.)

The end result from the CFL was a single-game suspension for Carter and fines for other members of the Redblacks, including Campbell, which didn’t sit very well him. It’s a real shame the CFL didn’t take the opportunity and send a message to Carter with a suspension in the 2-to-4 game range, especially now that the player has apparently decided to appeal. Imagining a scenario where everyone directly involved in the Carter incident EXCEPT CARTER gets reprimanded by the league is pretty sickening. The league should have seen that coming, too. We’ll see how it plays out.

Everyone will have their point of view, and I get that (we can’t all be right ;)). Here are a couple places (from outside of Ottawa) that I believe describe the incident appropriately.

Arash Madani – CFL failed with Carter’s light punishment

Davis Sanchez – Intro to Episode 3 of The Waggle Podcast

Looking forward to putting this whole incident in the rear view mirror. Also eagerly anticipating August 19th, when the Alouettes visit Ottawa.

Thanks for reading!

@DefendTheR