REGINA – The Saskatchewan Roughriders’ offensive line isn’t getting a lot of media attention, and that suits quarterback Darian Durant just fine.
With much of the buzz in Regina centred on big changes on both sides of the football, the starting fivesome on the Riders’ dependable offensive line remains intact for a third consecutive season.
Tackles Xavier Fulton and Ben Heenan, guards Brendon LaBatte and Chris Best, along with centre Dominic Picard will once again provide protection for Durant as the Roughriders open up their defence of their Grey Cup title Sunday at home against Hamilton.
“Those guys don’t get a lot of the publicity that a lot of us get, but they’re the unsung heroes on this team,” Durant said. “Everything starts up front with this team and everyone here knows that.”
“I feel good just knowing that I’m behind a wall like that. All of those guys have been all-stars at some point, so that makes me a lot more comfortable being behind them.
“The holes that they can open up for the running game gives us that balance we’ll need to be successful.”
Elsewhere the Riders are less stable. Injuries and key departures mean the Riders’ offence will see a handful of first-year CFLers in Sunday’s game, including the possibility of three new receivers and a fresh face at running back.
Durant explained he and the new receivers are working to find chemistry, and the three new running backs on the roster are learning the schemes and blocking tendencies.
Meanwhile, the offensive linemen are already ahead of the curve at this stage of the game. Having worked alongside the same guys for a few years allows such luxuries.
“We’re starting to evolve with some of our stuff where we’re able to work in dummy calls or multiple calls that mean the same thing,” said LaBatte, the league’s most outstanding lineman in 2013.
“When you can expand on some of your concepts you can really start to get into a defensive lineman’s head just by what you’re saying and how you communicate.”
Durant will work with offensive co-ordinator George Cortez for the second straight season, continuity the 31-year-old quarterback hasn’t experienced since he became the full-time starter in 2009.
But a few key Riders that were a part of the second highest-scoring offence in the league a year ago are gone.
Kory Sheets, the MVP from the Grey Cup game, who was second in rushing yards during the regular season, signed with the NFL’s Oakland Raiders during the off-season.
Speedy slotback Weston Dressler, one of three Riders who eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards a season ago, signed with the Kansas City Chiefs. Future Hall of Fame receiver Geroy Simon retired prior to training camp.
Best said as long as the line does its part, the Riders’ offence will be fine.
“If we keep Darian clean in the pocket and if we open up some holes for the guys to run the ball then we’re going to have a lot of success,” said Best, an eight-year veteran on the Riders’ offensive line.
“It warms our heart when we see those guys get picked as all-stars or pile up the stats because it means we did a good job.
“It takes a while to embrace that kind of job as an O-lineman, but once you figure it out you’ll get to celebrate in the end zone with them.”
Just how much celebrating Durant and the Riders’ offence will do this season remains to be seen. The receiving corps returns Taj Smith, Rob Bagg and Chris Getzlaf, although Getzlaf missed a good chunk of training camp with an injury. He has been limited in practices this week, too.
Running backs Keith Toston, Anthony Allen and the recently signed Hugh Charles are battling for the starter’s job. All three are new in Green and White this season.
“The dynamic of (the offence) is different,” Durant said. “We’re missing No.1 (Sheets) and No. 7 (Dressler). I guess that’s the obvious part. We have a different identity, we have new guys and we have to find out what we’re good at and what we need to work on.”
No work required along the offensive line.
NOTES: Former Riders linebacker Jerrell Freeman, now a member of the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts, will lead the team onto the field on Sunday. At halftime, members of the 2013 Grey Cup championship team will be introduced, along with players from the championship teams from 1966, 1989 and 2007.
© The Canadian Press, 2014