CFL players adjust to their bigger heads, helmet covers worn in practice
CALGARY — There are some big heads on CFL practice fields this season.
Players in four position groups were mandated to wear a product called Guardian Cap in training camp and padded practices. The cap is a soft-shell helmet cover designed to reduce the force of head impact.
Fans won't see the caps in games, but clusters of lumpy helmeted heads on the practice field is a different look from previous years.
Corrugated foam strapped onto an already-padded helmet makes players' heads look outsized and bobblehead-like, even on a 270-pound lineman.
"They look really goofy, but I mean, they're meant to help our brains and possibly help in CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) prevention," Calgary Stampeders defensive tackle Mike Rose said.
"I guess we'll find out in 25 years."
Stampeders running back Peyton Logan says he wore the caps in college practices in 2020 and 2021, so he's accustomed to them.
"I do look like a bobblehead when I'm out there," Logan said.
Said B.C. Lions fullback David Mackie: "It feels weird going in to contact and missing the true clack of the helmet, but after Day 1, I didn’t really notice a difference."
Montreal Alouettes offensive lineman Kristian Matte said when the Als first wore them in training camp "we looked like a bunch of mushrooms running around," but he feels the added head protection is important.
"We fought for player safety and the CFL came up with the idea of the Guardian Caps to help protect us," Matte said. "It takes some getting used to. They're kind of like miniature airbags on our heads.
"Some of us might like it, some of us might not like it, but it's one of those things that . . . we fought for so long for player safety with our bargaining agreements and this is just another one of those steps in the right direction to help keep players safe.”
Stampeders equipment manager George Hopkins is a walking encyclopedia of changing football technology, given his 52 years with the club.
He says the caps weigh less than a pound, but they do make a helmet look bulky, which took some Stampeders aback when the covers were introduced in training camp.
"It gives you an extra layer of absorbency," Hopkins said. "It's going to stop and deaden some of the impact and that's basically what you're trying to do.
"It's big. We chose to do our colour the same as the helmet to try and make it a little less noticeable, but I don't think there's any way you can make that less noticeable."
The CFL made the caps mandatory this season for offensive and defensive linemen, linebackers and running backs in practices in which players wear pads. Other positional players can use them if they like.
"I'm a big proponent of head health and the Guardian Caps," Hamilton Tiger-Cats running back James Butler said. "The look is not it. I can't even lie about that.
"It definitely took some adjusting, for sure. In fact, I'm kind of still adjusting. It's a little bit heavier but it's kind of like running around with a weighted vest, a little bit . . . but I'd rather it be that than me taking hits to my head."
The NFL introduced the caps during the 2022 pre-season, and made them mandatory for the above-mentioned positions in contact practices throughout this season.
The NFL says its data indicates a Guardian Cap can absorb 11 to 12 per cent of a helmet hit for an individual player wearing it, and around 20 per cent for a helmet-to-helmet hit if two players wear it.
"If we get told it’s going to help our health long-term, I mean, we’re about it," said Mackie. "As players, we’re always preaching for the league to take care of us and be somewhat concerned about our health down the road.
"We don’t care how it looks if it’s going to help us down the road. We all want to make sure we live as long as we can and as healthy as we can."
The caps were among a suite of health-and-safety measures the CFL introduced this season along with collapsible tents near benches during games for medical assessments or examinations.
"We're going to do everything we can to keep our players as safe and as healthy and performing while they have their careers in the CFL and for their lives after," CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie said.
"Sometimes change is hard, sometimes new things are awkward and a little bit comfortable but that's not going to shake our focus on an effort to keep our players safe."
— With files from Dan Ralph in Toronto, Nick Wells in Vancouver and Daniel Rainbird in Montreal.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 9, 2023.
Adams Jr., Rhymes in sync in B.C. Lions' 25-15 win over Calgary Stampeders
CALGARY — Vernon Adams Jr. and Dominique Rhymes clicked early for the B.C. Lions in a 25-15 win over the Calgary Stampeders to open the CFL season Thursday.
Rhymes caught two touchdown passes and totalled 100 receiving yards in the game.
He picked up where he left off in 2022 when his 1,401 yards ranked second among CFL receivers behind Winnipeg's Dalton Schoen and earned Rhymes a league all-star designation.
B.C.'s quarterback was efficient early Thursday.
Adams threw for 176 yards in a pair of touchdown drives — one on B.C.'s first possession of the game and the other in the first minute of the second quarter.
He capped those drives with throws to Rhymes in the end zone.
"It's the work we've been doing as a whole offence together," Rhymes said. "When they give me opportunities to make plays, I've got to make plays for him.
"He's our quarterback and he's our leader and I want to be the best person I can be for him, so I can make our offence successful."
Adams was effective with his feet as well as his arm.
The quarterback rushed for 35 yards on 10 carries and also ran for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
B.C. kicker Sean Whyte's 44-yard field goal with 25 seconds remaining put the game out of reach for the Stampeders.
"Starting fast was big," Lions head coach Rick Campbell said. "It's a 60-minute game, but playing Calgary here is tough.
"If they get momentum early, it's really hard. You fight an uphill battle. It was good to get ahead on the scoreboard and Vernon and our offence was a big part of that."
Tre Odoms-Dukes caught a fourth-quarter touchdown pass from Jake Maier for Calgary's lone touchdown in front of an announced crowd of 17,942 at McMahon Stadium.
Calgary's Rene Paredes kicked three field goals on five attempts.
He missed his first two from 39 and 45 yards, but was successful from 22, 39 and 52 yards.
Adams completed 27 of 35 passes for 270 yards and two touchdown throws in the game. He was intercepted by Mike Rose.
The Lions acquired Adams, a 2019 CFL all-star, from the Montreal Alouettes midway through last season when Canadian quarterback Nathan Rourke was injured.
With Rourke now property of the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars, the Lions looked to the 30-year-old Adams to lead their offence.
"I am feeling a lot more comfortable than I was last year getting thrown in the fire," Adams said.
Maier struggled in Thursday's first half in completing just seven of 15 passes for 56 yards.
The 26-year-old was under pressure several times and sacked late in the second quarter by Mathieu Betts.
Maier finished 20-for-36 in pass attempts for 154 yards and a touchdown pass. He was intercepted once.
"There's no excuses," Maier said. "I'm never going to be an excuse guy.
"We didn't play that well, especially on offence in the first half and we're on to Week 2."
Calgary's Ka'Deem Carey, the CFL's leading rusher last season, ran for 42 yards on seven carries.
B.C.'s defence held top Stampeder receivers Reggie Begelton and Malik Henry to a combined 58 yards.
The Lions generated more first downs than the Stampeders over the first three quarters.
"We've got to stay ahead of the sticks, meaning we can't be a second-and-long team," Stampeders head coach Dave Dickenson said.
"We weren't able to necessarily give Jake the extra time to make that extra read, make that extra play.
"It's early. I'm not going to beat them up. I understand what it is. Look in the mirror. We've got to be better. Coaches as well."
Paredes' field goal from 52 yards late in the fourth quarter pulled the hosts within four points of B.C., but Whyte's 44-yarder sealed B.C.'s victory.
The Lions and Stampeders both posted 12-6 records in 2022.
B.C. downed Calgary 30-16 in last year's West Division semifinal before falling 28-20 to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the division final.
"Last year, we went to the game before the final, so we know what type of team we have," Lions defensive back Garry Peters said. "We came into the camp a lot further ahead.
"We have a lot of veteran guys, so that's just a testament of what type of team we have and that's what we put on the field today."
The Stampeders next face the host Ottawa Redblacks in a second straight Thursday night game to open their season.
The Lions are at home against the Edmonton Elks on June 17 with a pre-game concert by LL Cool J scheduled for B.C. Place
Campbell hopes bringing a win home from Calgary adds to the home-opener buzz.
"We're trying to do our part on the field," Campbell said. "Hopefully we get a huge crowd next week."
Notes: The Stampeders had nine rookies in their game-day lineup, including three receivers, compared to seven for the Lions . . . Since the CFL returned to a nine-team league in 2014, Calgary is 4-4-1 and the Lions are 4-5 in season openers.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 8, 2023.
Toronto Argonauts players, coaches and staff receive their '22 Grey Cup rings
TORONTO — The mystery, anticipation and then celebration never get old for Mike (Pinball) Clemons.
The Toronto Argonauts received their 2022 Grey Cup rings Thursday night during a private dinner. For Clemons, the club's affable GM, it's the seventh championship ring he's earned as a player, head coach and executive with the storied franchise since coming aboard in 1990.
"I'd suggest winning the Grey Cup is one of the most refreshing experiences that I've had in life," Clemons said. "It's a very nice way to put a bow on 2022 and maybe the pandemic itself and the challenges it presented."
The CFL didn't stage a season in 2020 due to the global pandemic. It resumed play in 2021 with a reduced 14-game campaign before staging a full 18-game schedule last year without protocols.
Clemons was involved in the ring design but didn't see the finished product until Thursday. He said it was definitely worth the wait.
"I did get a chance to see the process," he said. "But the end result was, 'Wow.'"
The ring features 308 diamonds in 10 carat white gold with a custom blue sapphire top stone in Toronto's boat logo.
Baron Championship Rings, of Tecumseh, Ont., was the manufacturer. The company specializes in championship rings, having created them for the CFL's Winnipeg Blue Bombers, NBA's Toronto Raptors and Cleveland Cavaliers, Toronto FC of MLS, the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks and Hockey Canada, to name but a few.
"We're pretty excited about it and really happy with the outcome," said Baron CEO Peter Kanis. "Everyone put their heads into this, which I think is going to be one of the best-looking Grey Cup rings ever."
The ring was the result of a collaboration between Baron as well as Toronto players and officials. That included Clemons but he said it was the players group, headed up by veteran linebacker Henoc Muamba — the MVP and top Canadian in the club's 24-23 Grey Cup win over Winnipeg — that took the lead.
"As well it should," said Clemons. "When I was coaching, I used to tell them, 'Players win championships, not coaches. Coaches can help you get there but the players have to win the game.'
"Yes, as a coach you live it also but it's a little bit different experience. The coach doesn't always know the tone of the team . . . so just as the team has to win it, it's important for that to be illustrated in the recognition, be it the ring or otherwise."
The rings were presented in a custom wood box that has both the team logo and each name engraved on it. And when opened, an LED light comes on, illuminating the ring inside.
The ring included several unique elements that tell the story of Toronto's championship season.
The encrusted water-themed contoured top features a stone-filled sail and the blue sapphire stone logo sailing on an additional wave of 18 stones representing each of the franchise's CFL-record Grey Cup titles. The left shoulder displays the Toronto skyline with six stars that signify the team's home wins in 2022.
"The logo itself was pretty intricate because you have waves and different lines," Kanis said. "When you make a piece, it's almost impossible to create exactly that logo because colours can't sit beside colours in jewelry, you must have metal separating the colours to make it sit in the piece.
"The challenge was, 'How do you make it look as close as possible but still give it that spark and brightness?' I think where we really shine was that custom-cut stone in the middle of the logo . . . that was the centrepiece which we made as close as possible. Everything else was studded with diamonds to make it look bright."
The right shoulder displays BMO Field and the 18 championship banners hanging with players' names and stone-filled numbers. Engraved inside is the team's motto, 'A three strand cord is not easily broken,' representing the squad's resilience and honour of playing together.
Under the motto is the 24-23 game score. The outside bottom shank holds the team's mindset of going 1-0 each week with the outside edges featuring different blue stone waves.
"A big ask from the players was having a water element," Kanis said. "Just because of flowing like water and how water can be soft but is actually very strong.
"So we did a nice wave pattern with three different colours of blue stones in it."
Kanis said the evolution of ring-making technology is evident in the three-strand cord.
"(It) goes completely inside the ring and that would've been impossible with the technology back then," he said. "But with 3D technology now, you can do that.
"The saying is recessed into the ring but the three-strand cord is wrapped completely inside it for the first time ever. They (Argos players) just wanted the saying but when we said we could do the actual cord they were on board."
Kanis said it usually takes between 12 and 16 weeks to make the rings, depending on the complication involved. The process includes ring design, the 3D modelling of it, drafting (taking an image and producing it) and then the actual casting.
Kanis said the rings roughly weigh 100 grams apiece, a healthy size but certainly not the biggest Baron has made. However, he added the Argos wanted much more than a gaudy piece of jewelry.
"It was more about getting the details in this ring," he said. "There have been bigger ones with more diamonds but I think from a detail perspective, specifically this logo and all that went into it, it's one of the most detailed Grey Cup rings that's ever been made.
"The uniqueness of this boat logo just makes it stand out."
Kanis said over 100 rings were made for players, coaches and football staff, with exact items varying over "four or five" different tiers to also cover additional employees.
“The journey to winning a championship is one that requires countless hours of hard work and sacrifice but the reward stays with you forever," Clemons said. "A championship ring is a constant reminder of a tremendous team accomplishment and this ring literally bonds you with your teammates forever."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 8, 2023.
New-look Alouettes eager to prove doubters wrong in 2023: 'They better be ready'
MONTREAL — For the first time in years, Montreal Alouettes general manager Danny Maciocia is entering a season where he can focus on football, and nothing else.
The Alouettes open their season at home on Saturday against the Ottawa Redblacks with many new faces — including owner Pierre Karl Peladeau, who takes over after years of instability.
"This is the first year since I've taken this job that I can honestly say it's football 24/7 and there's no other distractions," Maciocia said. "That's huge. Not only for me personally but for the football team.
"They need to be in that type of environment where the focus is on the players, on the coaches … and trying to eliminate all those exterior distractions, because they're consuming. They just drain you."
The CFL was forced to take over operations of the Alouettes for the second time in roughly four years on the first day of free agency in February.
Last time around, the CFL sold the Alouettes to Ontario businessmen Sid Spiegel and Gary Stern, but Spiegel died in July 2021 and Stern announced he was stepping away from day-to-day operations with the team last August.
Although Maciocia can put his full attention toward the product on the field, that doesn't mean the Alouettes aren't still facing an uphill climb this season as they look to return to their past glory.
Peladeau, a billionaire with local roots, came in on March 10 and by then much of the damage from the ownership uncertainty was done. Montreal lost starting quarterback Trevor Harris, top wide receiver Eugene Lewis and top defensive player Adarius Pickett, among others, in free agency.
Now the Alouettes have a new starting quarterback in Cody Fajardo and a new wide receiver in Greg Ellingson to go with head coach Jason Maas, who was hired in December. The significant change in personnel has the team ranked last in the CFL.ca power rankings to kick off the season.
Montreal starting running back William Stanback, who's looking to bounce back after missing most of 2022 due to injury, says he pays that no mind.
"I didn't even look at (the rankings) … and that doesn't mean anything, that's just what people's opinions are," Stanback told reporters on Tuesday. "Didn't we make it to the Eastern finals last year? So why are we at the bottom?
"If (other teams) wanna come into the nest thinking it's going to be an easy win, it's not. So they better be ready."
One of Montreal's biggest question marks is at the receiver's position.
Ellingson and Canada Tyson Philpot look like they'll miss at least Week 1 and Reggie White Jr. is on the six-game injury list. Montreal could roll out a starting unit of Kaion Julien-Grant, Hergy Mayala, Cole Spieker, Austin Mack and Keshunn Abram — two of which have never started in the CFL and one who's done so once.
"It's definitely an inexperienced group, but we knew that going in," said Maas. "I think they've done a very good job of picking up the offence … it's just gonna be a matter of them getting their experience as the year goes on now."
Fajardo acknowledges that the receivers he has to work with lack some experience, but says that's not all bad.
"The good thing about young and rookie receivers is nobody around the league knows anything about them, right?" he said. "There's not much tape on them, which I like that, I like to keep my hands close to my chest because we're gonna unleash them here on Saturday, and I think they're going to put a lot of people on notice."
Fajardo is a 2019 CFL outstanding player nominee who's getting a second chance after losing his starting job in Saskatchewan last season.
Despite the team facing some doubts with so many new faces having to come together so quickly, he says they're ready to face the obstacles.
"There's going to be ups and downs on Saturday night, there's going to be some good there's going to be some bad with every football game," he said. "How we handle adversity ... I think is going to speak to the character of the players we have.
"We have a lot of guys who have fought through a lot of adversity and we're really excited just to show this new product to these fans."
Veteran offensive lineman Kristian Matte is the longest-serving Alouette, having played with the team since 2010.
Entering his 12th season in the CFL, the 37-year-old says he's rarely seen a team build chemistry so quickly.
"I don't think I've ever seen in a camp where the coaches and players have come together so quickly before," he said. "There's no separation, other than titles of coach and player, but we're just one big family right now ... all I see is good stuff happening."
Many of the changes, Matte adds, are for the best. And he believes Montreal has steadily built enough of a foundation over the last few years to sustain the turnover.
"Having a local owner makes a huge difference I think in this league, so that's only positive for us," he said. "And then I think we've slowly been building over the last few years with the group of guys that we have.
"Honestly I think we're in a good place right now and we're just looking forward to showcase that."
Fajardo is especially eager to get out onto the field at Molson Stadium to kick off the season.
"I think there always are jitters," he said. "There's always going to be that pre-game atmosphere that you get a little bit of butterflies in your stomach just because you care.
"The second pre-season game in front of our home fans in an atmosphere like that kind of helped me get my feet wet, but now since they're starting to count the wins and losses, it's going to mean a little bit more."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 8, 2023.
Redblacks start CFL season without QB Masoli
OTTAWA — The Ottawa Redblacks' season isn’t even officially underway, and the CFL club is already facing adversity.
The Redblacks set to open the regular season Saturday in Montreal without their No. 1 quarterback. Head coach Bob Dyce said Tuesday that Jeremiah Masoli will at least the first two weeks of the season as he recovers from a broken leg.
Masoli sustained the season-ending injury last year during a Week 5 game against the Saskatchewan Roughriders. While recovery and rehabilitation have gone well, both Masoli and the Redblacks feel he needs additional time to recover, which puts backup pivot Nick Arbuckle in the spotlight.
"Not too much of a change for me in terms of my mentality," said Masoli. "I'm taking it day-by-day, keeping tabs on how the leg feels, how the body feels and all that."
Masoli said he feels close to being ready and is eyeing a June 30 home game against Edmonton as a potential return date.
Arbuckle, the highest paid backup in the league, chose to re-sign with the Redblacks during the off-season, saying Ottawa felt comfortable for his young family.
“We were excited when we signed Nick (Arbuckle) as a free agent and we knew he would likely have to play some games this year," Dyce said. "So, whether it’s Game 1, 1 and 2, or whether it’s Game 8 and 9 ... we knew there was an opportunity and we’re excited he decided to resign back here and we’re excited to watch him play."
Masoli is not the only key piece missing the start of the season. Linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox is also expected to miss the first two weeks of the season with a hamstring injury.
Santos-Knox was signed in the off-season to replace Avery Williams, who was released in February and has since signed with Montreal. Santos-Knox was named an East Division all-star for the first time in his career after making 105 defensive tackles in 17 games.
Ottawa’s receiving corps will be without Shaq Evans after he broke a finger in a pre-season game against Montreal and will need veterans Jaelon Acklin and Nate Behar and second-year player Justin Hardy, to carry much of the workload.
Defensive back Money Hunter (torn pectoral muscle) is out for an extended period of time, while receiver Siaosi Mariner (hamstring) is questionable to start the season.
Defensive end Lorenzo Mauldin, the CFL’s outstanding defensive player last season, will be looking to prove that last year’s impressive performance wasn’t a one-off.
Mauldin set a Redblacks single-season record in 2022 with a CFL-leading 17 sacks and recorded 43 tackles. He was the bright light in an otherwise dreadful season and will be looking to once again be a difference maker.
The Redblacks were 2-2-0 against the Alouettes last year, with both wins coming on the road. They open at home June 15 against the Calgary Stampeders, then enjoy their first bye of the season in Week 3 which should hopefully allow some of the injured to recover.
The Redblacks, who will be looking to advance to the post-season for the first time since 2018, will need to significantly improve their play at TD Place. They were winless there last season and are 1-23 at home since June 2019.
HEAD COACH: Bob Dyce, first season
LAST YEAR: 4-14-0
Jeremiah Masoli: The quarterback is entering his second season with the Redblacks, but is coming off a broken leg. While the team is optimistic he’ll be back soon, his early absence could make things difficult for the team. Fans and players are eager to see what Masoli can do for the Redblacks.
LB Jovan Santos-Knox: An integral part of Hamilton’s defence, Santos-Knox was seen as a key addition to Ottawa’s defence after signing a two-year deal in the off-season. Ottawa will be relying on him heavily once he returns.
THE BIG QUESTION: Will the Redblacks be able to overcome injuries to a number of key players and stay competitive before the season slips away.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 8, 2023.
Veteran quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell welcomes new beginning with Hamilton Tiger-Cats
HAMILTON — Quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats will certainly be hitting the ground running to open the 2023 CFL season.
The 33-year-old Texan embarks on his first full season as Hamilton's starter after spending the previous 10 campaigns with the Calgary Stampeders. But not only will the Ticats open with two road games but they'll be against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (Friday night) and Toronto Argonauts (June 18), the two teams that met in last year's Grey Cup.
Mitchell, who won two Grey Cups and two CFL outstanding player awards during his time with Calgary, is good with opening his Ticats tenure facing last year's league finalists.
"I think it's good for all of us," Mitchell said. "You want a challenge as a team, start off with the two teams that were in the Grey Cup in their house.
"You want to find out who you are as a team and we'll find out pretty quick."
Hamilton's home opener will be June 23 versus the Montreal Alouettes, who defeated the Ticats 28-17 in last year's East Division semifinal.
Mitchell joined Calgary in 2012 and became its starter in 2014, amassing a 90-25-2 regular-season record. He led the franchise to four Grey Cup berths (winning in 2014 and '18) while capturing the CFL's top player award in 2016 and '18.
In January, the six-foot-two, 199-pound Mitchell signed a three-year deal with the Ticats, who had acquired his rights from the Stampeders after the 2022 campaign.
Hamilton is counting heavily upon Mitchell to continue his winning ways given the '23 Grey Cup game will be played Nov. 19 at Tim Hortons Field. The Ticats haven't won a CFL title since 1999 but Orlondo Steinauer, the club's head coach and president of football operations, said the organization hasn't place any expectations on Mitchell.
"He's Bo, that's what I appreciate," Steinauer said. "I've just enjoyed watching it unfold versus having these expectations for him.
"I just want him to be himself. Now, I'm learning a lot more about him and it just comes naturally."
It was a tale of two seasons in 2022 for Hamilton (8-10). The club ended the regular campaign with four straight wins to clinch the third and final East Division playoff spot before its loss in Montreal.
That marked Steinauer's first losing campaign since taking over head-coaching duties in 2019. Steinauer enters the 2023 campaign with a solid 31-19 overall record with the franchise and was a defensive back with Hamilton the last time the franchise won the Grey Cup.
Veteran Matt Shiltz returns for a second season as Hamilton's backup.
Mitchell won't be the lone new face on Hamilton's offence. The club added Joel Figueroa, a towering six-foot-six, 320-pound offensive tackle (last year with B.C.), running back James Butler (1,060 rushing yards last year with the Lions) and Duke Williams, a six foot three, 225-pound veteran receiver, in free agency.
It will be a new-look Hamilton defence, also.
The Ticats continued revamping their front seven Monday, acquiring Canadian defensive lineman Jonathan Kongbo from B.C. During the offseason, Hamilton acquired veteran defensive linemen Casey Sayles (free agent, Winnipeg), Ja'Gared Davis (free agent, Toronto) and Canadian Kwaku Boateng (free agent, Ottawa), linebackers Jameer Thurman (free agent, Calgary) and Chris Edwards (free agent, Toronto).
Veteran linebacker Simoni Lawrence (11th CFL season, 10th with Hamilton) and Canadian defensive lineman Ted Laurent (12th CFL season, ninth with the Ticats) are the unit's two longest-serving players. Canadian safety Tunde Adeleke and defensive back Richard Leonard both return to the secondary.
American kicker Seth Small returns for a second season with Hamilton. Small, who missed all of training camp while being placed on the suspended list, made 39-of-43 field goals (90.7 per cent) last season while hitting on 26-of-27 converts.
Australian Bailey Flint will handle punting duties while sophomore Lawrence Woods III returns as a threat on both punt and kickoff returns.
After roughly three weeks of training camp, Mitchell, for one, is ready to get the season going.
"I love training camp from the sense that being with a new team you get to learn new things and learn each other," he said. "But you play football to play the game."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 8, 2023.
Grey Cup champion Argonauts thankful to start CFL season with opening-week bye
TORONTO — Chad Kelly will have to wait a week to make his debut as the Toronto Argonauts starting quarterback.
The defending Grey Cup champions start the 2023 campaign with an opening-week bye. Kelly and Co. kick off their regular season June 18 hosting the archrival Hamilton Tiger-Cats at BMO Field.
It's the second straight year and third time since 2019 (CFL didn't play in 2020 due to the global pandemic) the Argos have had to wait a week to open a regular season. But this later start is just fine with Toronto head coach Ryan Dinwiddie.
"Right now, (the bye) is good," he said. "We're beat up and we need the work so we're going to use the bye week to get better.
"Most times, you don't want that bye Week 1 but I think we need it."
However, Dinwiddie said Toronto doesn't have the luxury of starting the 2023 season slowly.
"The best part is you don't want to be playing your best football early on, you want to be playing it at the end," he said. "But you've also got to be playing darn good football at the start.
"We want to start fast."
And when the Argos hit the field versus Hamilton, they'll undoubtedly be Kelly's team. The 29-year-old American — whose uncle is former Buffalo Bills star quarterback Jim Kelly — served as veteran McLeod Bethel-Thompson's understudy last season.
Following Toronto's stunning 24-23 Grey Cup victory over Winnipeg, Bethel-Thompson left to join the USFL's New Orleans Breakers for family reasons following five seasons (and two championships) with the Argos. Kelly started the club's regular-season finale versus Montreal but stepped in to make a significant contribution to its Grey Cup victory.
The six-foot-two, 216-pound Kelly replaced Bethel-Thompson (dislocated right thumb) in the fourth quarter and completed four-of-six passes for 43 yards. But it was his crucial 20-yard run on second-and-15 that set up A.J. Ouellette’s five-yard touchdown run that put Toronto ahead 24-23 at 11:36.
Canadian defensive lineman Robbie Smith cemented the stirring win by blocking Marc Liegghio's 47-yard field goal attempt with 54 seconds remaining.
Dinwiddie, who also serves as Toronto's offensive co-ordinator, said he'll be tailoring his offence more to suit Kelly's strengths, including his mobility. But keeping Kelly healthy will be key for the Argos, who have very little CFL experience behind him.
Dinwiddie feels Kelly benefited from having spent 2022 with Bethel-Thompson.
“I think he saw the amount of studying that goes into it, the way Mac commanded the huddle and knew exactly what was going on,” Dinwiddie said. “Mac knew all of the details of the offence.
“I think Chad understands those are the things he learned from McLeod … I think he’ll be more comfortable and he had a great example learning from Mac.”
Kelly becomes a starter for the first time since his final season at Ole Miss (2016).
"Obviously, I've got to prove it on the field and go out every day and just work extremely hard and get the guys to believe," Kelly said. "And then get the guys who aren't on the offensive side of the ball to play hard and believe in me too — that I have their back and they have mine.
"Every day is going to be a grind and we're just going to keep on working hard and do what we do."
The Argos will mount their Grey Cup title defence with Canadian running back Andrew Harris. The Winnipeg native returns in 2023 for the final year of his illustrious CFL career.
The five-foot-10, 216-pound Harris pondered retirement following Toronto's Grey Cup win but will split rushing duties with Ouellette. Harris, 36, will chase a fourth consecutive CFL title (2019 and '21 with Winnipeg) and fifth overall.
Harris is the top-rushing Canadian in CFL history with 10,151 yards on 1,903 carries (5.3-yard average) with 51 TDs. He also has 599 all-time catches for 5,403 yards and 32 touchdowns in 184 career regular-season games.
Harris is just 134 yards behind Charles Roberts (10,285 yards) for fifth in all-time CFL rushing and needs 759 yards to surpass fourth-ranked Johnny Bright (10,909 yards).
Also back is veteran linebacker Henoc Muamba, who captured both top Canadian and MVP honours in the Grey Cup game. He'll be part of a solid unit that features returnee Wynton McManis as well as newcomers Adarius Pickett (free agent, Montreal) and Jordan Williams (trade, B. C. Lions).
Veteran defensive lineman Ja'Gared Davis (free agent, Hamilton) is gone. But towering tackle Shawn Oakman (six foot nine, 287 pounds) will again anchor Toronto's defensive front with newcomer Folarin Orimolade (free agent, Calgary).
Toronto's secondary, though, will have a huge void to fill with the departure of all-star cornerback Jamal Peters (CFL-high six interceptions). Although Peters was recently released by the NFL's Atlanta Falcons, he has yet to re-sign with another team on either side of the border.
Veteran Canadian offensive lineman Philip Blake (Saskatchewan, free agent) has moved on but Ryan Hunter, a native of North Bay, Ont., should benefit from having a full camp with Toronto. The Argos also added veteran Canadian Darius Ciraco this offseason.
Toronto's special teams would appear to be in good hands with veteran American kicker Boris Bede and Australian punter John Haggerty. Versatile American Javon Leake, who had a key 44-yard punt return in the Grey Cup, can return all kicks but also see duty at running back.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 8, 2023.
Revamped offence key as Roughriders ready for redemption season
REGINA — Changes were expected with the Saskatchewan Roughriders after a 2022 season that started with thoughts of playing for a Grey Cup in front of a vocal home crowd before quickly going south.
The Roughriders (6-12) lost their final seven games of the regular season to plummet out of playoff contention, finishing ahead of only the woeful Edmonton Elks in the Western Conference standings and unable to secure a crossover berth in to the traditionally weaker Eastern Conference.
The disappointment in Regina was amplified when the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Toronto Argonauts took to the field at Mosaic Stadium in November to battle for the CFL title. The 2022 Roughriders didn't just fail to duplicate the heroics of the 2013 team, which won a Grey Cup title at home, they didn't come anywhere close to it.
When the dust settled, head coach Craig Dickenson and general manager Jeremy O'Day were given a chance to serve out the final year of their respective contracts. But it will still be a new-look Roughriders team that takes the field in 2023, trying to put last season behind them.
A largely revamped offence will be led by two-time Grey Cup champion Trevor Harris, who signed a two-year contract with the Riders on the first day of free agency.
"We felt like we needed to change in certain areas, so obviously that's what we did," O'Day said. "It makes the off-season long, but hopefully people are going to be excited and going to get behind us like they always have."
Harris, who played the last two season in Montreal, takes over from Cody Fajardo, who led Saskatchewan to two straight appearances in the West Division final but threw for a career-high 13 interceptions last season.
"Like having another coach out there," Dickenson said of Harris during the Riders' rookie camp. "Super mature, understands the game really well, wants to help and lead others, he's great."
Harris will be joined in Saskatchewan with one of his favourite targets in receiver Jake Wieneke, who spent the last three seasons with the Alouettes. He was an all-star in 2021 with 11 touchdowns before seeing his production drop in 2022.
Veteran Derel Walker, who had 874 receiving yards in Edmonton last year, and former Argo wideout Juwan Brescacin add to the revamped offence that will be looking to improve on the 19.8 points per game the Riders put up last year, which was second-last in the league.
The Roughriders also addressed their much-maligned offensive line that gave up a league-leading 77 sacks last year, adding Canadian lineman Philip Blake from the Grey Cup-champion Argonauts and American lineman Peter Godber from the B.C. Lions.
The new unit will have to jell quickly under new offensive co-ordinator Kelly Jeffrey. He replaces Jason Maas, who took over the head coaching vacancy in Montreal.
Early returns are promising, with the Roughriders putting up 30 and 28 points in two pre-season wins. O'Day, however, says the offence won't be truly tested until faced with the ups and downs of an 18-game regular season.
"They're excited," he said. "They just they want to get to the regular season game."
One addition who did not pan out was Canadian running back Kienan LaFrance, who was quickly scooped up by the B.C. Lions after being among the Roughriders' final cuts. O'Day said LaFrance is a good player who was simply the victim of the numbers game.
On defence, veteran lineman A.C. Leonard departed for Edmonton in free agency, but Saskatchewan got an all-star replacement in the returning Micah Johnson. He had 24 defensive tackles and seven sacks with Hamilton last year after spending the 2019 and 2021 seasons in Regina.
The Roughriders kick off their season Sunday in Edmonton. The Elks enter the contest on a 17-game home losing streak, and Saskatchewan doesn't want to start its rebound season being the team to break that streak.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 7, 2023.
Veteran Nick Arbuckle set to start Redblacks season-opening contest
The Ottawa Redblacks will open the 2023 regular season minus quarterback Jeremiah Masoli and linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox.
Masoli continues to recover from a knee injury that forced him to miss most of last season. Santos-Knox, who the Redblacks acquired in free agency, is dealing with a hamstring ailment.
Ottawa head coach Bob Dyce told reporters this week neither player will be available for the Redblacks' first two games of 2023. The club visits the Montreal Alouettes on Saturday before facing the Calgary Stampeders on June 15.
Veteran Nick Arbuckle will start at quarterback against Montreal.
That means Winnipeg's Zach Collaros will be the only quarterback making consecutive opening-day starts (2022-23) with the same team. Collaros will lead the Blue Bombers into their season opener Friday night versus the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
Bo Levi Mitchell, who spent his first 10 CFL seasons with Calgary, will make his first start with Hamilton.
Montreal will also have a new starter when it faces Ottawa. Cody Fajardo, who helped lead the Saskatchewan Roughriders to consecutive West Division final appearances during his time there, joined the Alouettes in free agency.
That reunited Fajardo with Alouettes head coach Jason Maas, who served as Fajardo's offensive co-ordinator in Regina. But Montreal's offence suffered a big hit this off-season when receiver Eugene Lewis signed with the Edmonton Elks as a free agent.
Fajardo joined the Alouettes after starter Trevor Harris and receiver Jake Wieneke -- a close friend of Harris's -- both signed as free agents with Saskatchewan
A big plus for Montreal would be the healthy return of running back William Stanback.
A fractured ankle limited the six-foot, 233-pound Stanback to just 153 rushing yards on 34 carries over five regular-season games last year. In 2021, he led the CFL with 1,176 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 193 carries (6.1-yard average) in 12 regular-season games.
Two years earlier -- the CFL didn't play in 2020 due to the global pandemic -- Stanback had 1,048 yards (6.2-yard average) and five TDS in 14 regular-season appearances. When Stanback is healthy, he's a player opposing defences must not only account for but prepare to face head on.
And without Lewis and Wieneke, the expectation is for Stanback to get the ball often.
B.C. Lions versus Calgary Stampeders (Thursday night)
At Calgary, the Jake Maier era begins as the 26-year-old marks his first full season as the Stampeders' starting quarterback. The team is 8-2 in home openers since 2012 but will be without defensive backs Nick Statz (foot) and Daniel Amoaka (knee) as well as offensive lineman Joshua Coker (ankle). Veteran Vernon Adams Jr. starts under centre for the Lions and is 4-3 versus the Stamps, but B.C. won't have receiver Keon Hatcher (foot) and linebacker Maxime Rouyer (hamstring).
Hamilton Tiger-Cats versus Winnipeg Blue Bombers (Friday night)
At Winnipeg, the Bombers are always tough at IG Field (8-1 last season). Collaros is the one who makes the offence tick, but also returning are receivers Dalton Schoen and Canadian Nic Demski, defensive linemen Willie Jefferson and Jackson Jeffcoat, linebacker Adam Bighill and offensive linemen Stanley Bryant and Jermarcus Hardrick, to name a few. Mitchell makes his Hamilton debut, as will running back James Butler, but earning a season-opening win in Manitoba, while not impossible, is always a big ask.
Saskatchewan Roughriders versus Edmonton Elks (Sunday night)
At Edmonton, the Elks look to shake a dubious CFL-record 17-game home losing streak. They'll have a number of new faces, including Lewis (91 catches, 1,303 yards, 10 TDs), the East Division's outstanding player last season with Montreal. Harris makes his Roughriders' debut, but Saskatchewan will have to do a better job of protecting the passer after surrendering a league-high 77 sacks last season. The Elks were next, allowing 53.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 7, 2023.
Mitchell gone, Stampeders start season with Jake Maier as No. 1 quarterback
CALGARY — The football is now Jake Maier's when the Calgary Stampeders' offence takes the field.
No longer does Maier share a sideline or a dressing room with a future Hall of Fame quarterback.
Maier took over as Calgary's starter midway through last season.
The Californian went 6-3 in the Stampeders' back nine and also started the West Division semifinal loss to the B.C. Lions.
As gracious as Bo Levi Mitchell was about losing his job to Maier, Calgary's all-time passing leader couldn't help but remain an outsized presence given Mitchell's two Grey Cup wins and two league outstanding player awards as a Stampeder.
With Mitchell now a Hamilton Tiger-Cat, the 26-year-old Maier has put in first-team reps in training camp to build teammates' faith that he can carry a team through a season.
"It's a lot more ownership on my end, in the locker room, out in the field, making sure that we're clicking as a group, and there's a lot more leadership that's involved with that," Maier said.
"You have to earn your leadership every single day. You can be the greatest leader in the world in Week 1 and then in Week 10, you do something wrong or maybe you're not putting your best foot forward.
"Guys notice that every single time, so it's something you constantly have to earn, and I look forward to earning that as much as I can."
The Stampeders open their 2023 season Thursday at home against the B.C. Lions.
Calgary and B.C. both finished 12-6 last season behind the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (15-3) atop the West Division.
The Stampeders fell 30-16 to the visiting Lions in the division semifinal, in which Maier completed 12 of 22 pass attempts for 138 yards and no touchdown throws over three-plus quarters.
"It stung big time," Maier said. "We did not put our best foot forward, myself especially, that really drove me throughout the off-season.
"I found myself going back and rewatching that game trying to find different, little things where, 'how can I improve this? If this ever happens to me again, what would I do different?' I think that's really a healthy amount of self-evaluation.
"It's not something I really think much about today at all really. I try to live in the moment, stay in the present, all those cliché things, I really to try to apply that stuff."
Among quarterbacks with seven or more starts in 2022, Maier ranked third in passing percentage (74.7) for 2,389 yards and 14 touchdowns. The six-foot, 227-pound pivot was intercepted seven times.
Maier's two-year contract extension in September, with Mitchell in the last year of his contract, signalled a quarterback succession plan was underway.
Stampeders head coach and general manager Dave Dickenson believes Maier has always been confident in his abilities.
The quarterback now has the stage of potentially a full season to showcase them.
"He's enjoying the process and feeling like his voice is just a little bit stronger," Dickenson said. "He's always had good leadership, but it's easier when you know you're the starter to maybe have a little bit more influence on the team.
"I feel like he's comfortable and I think even last year, surprisingly, with very little time, still executed the offence very well. We'll try to find his strengths. We know what he's hoping to improve upon and so we've been working on that. I guess proof is in the pudding when you actually play a game."
Never the heralded quarterback in his career, Maier is accustomed to having to win people over. He played college ball at both Long Beach City College and NCAA second-tier UC Davis.
"I was a junior college guy and a small-school FCS guy and was not drafted or invited to anything down in the States," Maier said.
"Getting the opportunity to come up here and show this organization who I am, that really meant the world to me, and it's carried me to now. I don't get it twisted just because my status per se has changed within the organization or the league.
"I've always felt like every time I stepped foot on the field, I have to show who I am. I have to prove myself. I have to continue to win this job."
A look at Calgary's major off-season moves:
ADDITIONS: Defensive ends James Vaughters, Julian Howsare; linebacker Micah Awe, receivers Cole Tucker, Rysen John.
DEPARTURES: Defensive ends Shawn Lemon, Folarin Orimolade; linebacker Jamar Thurman; receivers Kamar Jorden, Richard Sindani.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 7, 2023.
B.C. Lions look to make amends for last year's West final loss, aim for Grey Cup
VANCOUVER — B.C. Lions players and staff say there is one goal on their minds heading into the CFL season: make it past the Western final and claim the Grey Cup.
The Lions fell to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in last year's division final, losing 28-20 despite a late comeback bid from former B.C. quarterback Nathan Rourke.
Rourke departed in the off-season for the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars, leaving Vernon Adams Jr. in the starting role.
"In the big picture, it's always winning the Grey Cup but you don't win the Grey Cup today," said head coach Rick Campbell about the team's goals for the season. "It's a matter of getting better day by day and being ready for that first game of the year."
The loss to Winnipeg still irks some of the Lions players and staff, who said they believed they could go the distance.
Wide receiver Lucky Whitehead had 1,011 yards and three touchdowns in 15 games last season. He said his focus this year is to ensure he's healthy for a deep playoff run.
"I've got to be able to take care of myself this season and be able to help the offence as much as possible," he said. "We left some meat on the bone, especially myself."
Wide receivers coach Jason Tucker said while his charges are largely the same, the team has brought in some new players that will help with the push for a Cup.
"We brought in a lot of good guys to help us out and get that one more game. Get over Winnipeg, get over that Winnipeg hump and get to the cup," he said.
The Lions, who open the 2023 season Thursday night at Calgary against the Stampeders, come in to the campaign looking to replicate their high-flying offence from last year.
Despite losing Rourke, the Lions receiving corps has not changed.
Dominique Rhymes, Whitehead, Keon Hatcher and Jevon Cottoy have all returned and all have spoken of their bond with their new quarterback.
Rhymes led the team in 2022 with 1,401 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns, while Hatcher had 1,043 receiving yards and five TDs.
"We know how close we were. We know the work we've got to put in, how we need to stay consistent and good things will happen to us," Rhymes said.
The Lions won their final pre-season tilt against the Stampeders 25-22, surviving a late comeback.
B.C. raced out to a lead led by Adams, who went 12-for-12 and led three touchdown drives. He said he felt connected to his wide receivers.
Adams has previously spoken of the work that needs to be done for a quarterback and his receivers to bond. He hosted several teammates at his California home in the off-season to run informal practices and for everyone to get to know each other.
"These guys are playmakers," he said after the pre-season win about the team's wide receivers.
Campbell said his players are not underestimating their fellow West Division opponents and will face a test from the Stampeders' high-powered offence in the season opener.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 7, 2023.
Winless at home in two straight seasons, Elks embracing culture change in 2023
EDMONTON — Culture change.
Those two words best describe what the Edmonton Elks wanted to accomplish going into the 2023 season. It’s a term being used by general manager and head coach Chris Jones. It’s used by starting quarterback Taylor Cornelius. It’s used by pretty well everyone wearing a green and gold jersey in training camp.
The Elks are one of the CFL’s proudest franchises, but the last couple of seasons have represented the lowest point in the team’s history. Two seasons without a home win. Two last-place finishes in the Western Division.
In 2022, when Jones was brought back to the team he led to the Grey Cup in 2015, he spoke about bringing the green and gold mystique back to Edmonton. He talked about how the Elks should be seen as the Cadillac franchise of the league.
“This is where I try to build a legacy,” he said when he was re-hired.
But, after a year of disappointment, will this season be that first step back towards glory?
One thing is for sure — the mood around this team is different than it was at this time last year.
“Guys have got to enjoy coming to work and being around one another,” said Jones. “It’s a marathon. Guys have to be looking forward — and I am speaking (about) players and coaches — to seeing one another and pulling the same way.”
The Elks had a quarterbacking carousel going into last season. Cornelius didn't dress early in the year with Nick Arbuckle and rookie Tre Ford getting starts.
But Arbuckle was traded to Ottawa and Ford got hurt, opening the door for Cornelius to take the starter’s job. He passed for 2,768 yard in 12 games.
There is no quarterback controversy in 2023. Cornelius is the clear No. 1.
“It’s a confidence lift,” said Cornelius. “Even at the end of last year, it felt the same way. The support that the coaching staff had, Geroy (assistant GM Geroy Simon) and all those guys, it just helps your confidence. It’s exciting.”
Cornelius said that, as training camp wrapped, veteran defensive back Ed Gainey gathered the team and spoke about how things will be different in 2023.
“He talked about the culture change and the way the guys feel and the energy around here,” said Cornelius. “It’s completely different.”
Cornelius will have plenty of new targets. The Elks made a big splash on the free-agent market, bringing in three marquee receivers: Geno Lewis (Montreal), Steven Dunbar Jr. (Hamilton) and Kyran Moore (Saskatchewan).
Lewis amassed 1,303 receiving yards last season, while Dunbar went for 1,000 yards. Moore has fought injuries the last couple of seasons, but the Elks are hoping for a return to his 2019 form, when he registered 996 yards.
Add to that second-year receiver Dillon Mitchell, the deep threat who had 637 yards in half a season.
“For the quarterbacks, for Taylor, we just need them to put it in an area for us,” said Lewis. “We’re going to go out there and make them look good and help them to the best of our ability."
The passing game excels when there is a strong running game. And Kevin Brown, who ran for 486 yards in just seven games, averaged an eye-popping 6.6 yards per carry.
“KB is a dog, man,” Lewis said of his new teammate. “This is my first time really getting to see him. He’s very consistent, works real hard and I am excited to see him keep being successful as his career keeps moving.”
The Elks also shored up the defence, bringing in defensive back Loucheiz Purifoy, who made 55 tackles and picked off three passes for the B.C. Lions last year. And defensive lineman A.C. Leonard, who had 23 sacks over the previous three seasons with the Roughriders, will bolster the Elks’ defensive front.
But there is one free-agent signing that won’t pan out. Kevin Francis, the special-teams ace who led the CFL in kickoff/punt return tackles in 2022, was brought to Edmonton from the Lions. But, soon after the deal was made, Francis publicly stated he wasn’t happy with the contract terms and didn’t report to camp. He’s on the Elks’ suspended list.
The Elks made about 500 seats available as part of a guaranteed win promotion before their home opener Sunday against the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Fans who buy the seats will get to keep coming back, for no extra charge, until the Elks win a game.
Really, they can’t go three years without a home win, can they?
2022 record: 4-14, fifth, West Division
Home record in 2022 (and 2021): Zero wins
Key additions: WR Steven Dunbar Jr. (Hamilton), WR Geno Lewis (Montreal), WR Kyran Moore (Saskatchewan), DB Loucheiz Purifoy (B.C.), DL A.C. Leonard (Saskatchewan)
Key losses: WR Kenny Lawler (Winnipeg), WR Derel Walker (Saskatchewan)
Players to watch: Lewis, Dunbar, WR Dillon Mitchell, RB Kevin Brown
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 7, 2022.
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