REGINA – Some of the faces are different, but Corey Chamblin’s philosophy remains the same.
Saskatchewan embarks on the 2014 CFL season as the defending Grey Cup champion, which in itself comes with added pressure. But the Riders will attempt to win consecutive titles for the first time in their history without some key veterans who were instrumental in last year’s championship run.
That’s of little concern to Chamblin, the CFL’s coach of the year last season who signed a contract extension with the Riders in the off-season.
“That (absence of veterans) is an excuse,” he said. “A lot of teams talk about the Grey Cup but we want to be a championship football team.
“You can’t talk about a Grey Cup until you win your first game. It’s a process. We don’t just want to play against the opponent, we want to make sure that we set a championship standard. There’s a lot of effort and a lot of things that go into that.”
Offensively, the Riders will have to make do without running back Kory Sheets – the MVP of last year’s Grey Cup win over Hamilton who’s now with the NFL’s Oakland Raiders – receivers Geroy Simon (retired), Weston Dressler (Kansas City, NFL) and Kierrie Johnson (Ottawa). Also gone are backup quarterback Drew Willy (Winnipeg) and running back Jock Sanders (Calgary).
“I can tell you our friends in the NFL are looking closely at what’s happening here and I’m sure they’ll be evaluating based upon our experience here this year.”
Sheets was the CFL’s second-leading rusher last year with 1,598 yards and capped his season running for a Grey Cup-record 197 yards in Saskatchewan’s 45-23 win over Hamilton. But the loss of the diminutive Dressler is huge as the five-foot-eight, 179-pound dynamo was a 1,000-yard receiver in five of his six seasons with Saskatchewan.
Dressler’s departure has created an opportunity for newcomer Ryan Smith, a rookie receiver from North Dakota State who at five foot seven and 175 pounds is built in the Dressler mould. But Chamblin said Smith has been intent on establishing his own identity with the Riders.
“He’s a determined individual,” Chamblin said. “You don’t hear him complain a lot, he’s very quiet and just goes about his deal.
“I think the biggest thing for him is he knows he will always be compared to Weston Dressler. I think he’s doing a good job of handling that and not trying to become Weston by finding his own niche to become Ryan.”
While Saskatchewan will have few new faces on offence, the man under centre will remain the same. Darian Durant, 31, enters his ninth CFL season and fifth as the starter and the Riders rewarded him this off-season with a contract extension through 2016.
Chamblin said winning a championship has changed Durant for the better.
“He’s a very confident young man and you can just see not just the poise but the way he attacks things now, the way he carries himself,” Chamblin said. “You can tell that he’s taken the next step, that the championship was something that he needed to say, ‘Hey, I am a championship quarterback.’
“He was already doing good things like coming in early but he’s taken it upon himself to be more of a leader. I could just see him taking that next step to become a great quarterback.”
The five-foot-11, 214-pound native of Florence, S.C., enjoyed a solid 2013 campaign, passing for 4,154 yards and a league-high 31 TD passes with 12 interceptions. He threw for 550 yards and five TDs with no interceptions in leading Saskatchewan to victory in the West semifinal and final.
Durant then threw for 245 yards and three TDs against Hamilton in the Grey Cup game at Mosaic Stadium.
Durant has completed 1,745 of 2,842 passes (61.4 per cent) for 22,711 yards and 125 touchdowns against 87 interceptions over his career. He’s also a two-time Grey Cup champion, having earned his first championship ring in ’07 as a backup with the Riders.
Durant admits the loss of Sheets, Dressler and Simon is huge but believes the Riders are moving on.
“I think we’re well on the way,” he said. “I don’t think you can just replace those guys and their production with one guy.
“It’s going to take a total team effort. I think as a collective group we can replace that production and we’ll be fine.”
There will be a lot of production to replace defensively, with the departures of linebackers Rey Williams and Mike McCullough (both retired), Abraham Kromah (free agent, Hamilton) and Craig Butler (free agent, Hamilton). The defensive line also lost Zack Evans and Keith Shologan (Ottawa expansion draft) and Jermaine McElveen (Montreal) as well as safety Graig Newman (Winnipeg) and linebacker Diamond Ferri (released, Montreal), both backups.
Also gone is punter Ricky Schmitt (free agent, B.C.).
The Riders did obtain linebacker/defensive lineman Shomari Williams and punter Josh Bartel in an off-season trade with Hamilton. It’s a homecoming for Williams, who spent three seasons in Saskatchewan after being taken first overall in the 2010 draft before signing with the Ticats as a free agent in February 2013.
However, the six-foot-one, 232-pound Toronto native played just six games with Hamilton before suffering a season-ending knee injury.
© The Canadian Press, 2014