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‘I don’t want to be a flash in the pan’: Saskatchewan Roughriders training camp preview

Saskatchewan Roughriders quarterback Cody Fajardo is ready to lead the Saskatchewan Roughriders into the 2021 season. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Matt Smith. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Matt Smith

A lot has changed since the last time the Saskatchewan Roughriders were on the football field on Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019, including many faces on the team’s roster.

While the offence remains largely intact, led by quarterback Cody Fajardo, the defence has had a much larger turnover.

As a look ahead to the Riders opening training camp on Saturday, July 10, here is everything that is different and what has remained the same in the last 600-plus days.

Quarterback

After an incredible 2019 season, now 29-year-old quarterback Cody Fajardo will be entering his second year as the team’s starter hoping to build off his West Division Most Outstanding Player Award.

Behind him, Isaac Harker is the leading backup candidate after dressing in all 18 games in 2019, while seeing action in four of them. As for the third-string guy, or potentially someone to push Harker as the backup, the Riders have brought in former Towson QB Tom Flacco, who is the brother of Super Bowl-winning QB Joe Flacco, as well as former North Texas pivot Mason Fine and former NFL first-round pick Paxton Lynch.

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The team has placed former NFLer Luke Falk on the suspended list. Since they were last on the field, Bryan Bennet and Justice Hansen are no longer with the team either.

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Regardless of who’s behind him, Fajardo is ready to step up and prove his 2019 breakout season was no fluke.

“I don’t want to be a flash in the pan,” said Fajardo. “A lot of quarterbacks, you see that success early and then you kind of get lackadaisical or you take some things for granted. I definitely haven’t done that over the last two years.

“I’m coming into it trying to earn a roster spot as I have my entire CFL career.”

Running back

Like quarterback, the Riders have retained their key running back heading into 2021, with William Powell having signed an extension in December 2020. In his first year with the Riders in 2019, Powell put up his third straight 1,000-yard season. Now 33 years old, the Riders believe he can be the guy again this year.

Behind Powell, veteran Canadian Kienan LaFrance is also back for his sixth CFL season. Along with those two, the Riders are bringing back Jamal Morrow, who spent the entire 2019 season on the Riders’ practice roster.

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The green and white also signed former NFL running back Ralph Webb this off-season. Former NFL return specialist Marcus Murphy is another name to watch, although he will likely be making his mark on special teams, as the leading candidate to handle return duties this year.

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Saskatchewan Roughriders prepare for training camp – Jun 29, 2021

As for fullback, Albert Awachie will likely handle those duties again in his fourth season with the club, with 2020 draft pick Jonathan Femi-Cole backing him up.

Since the 2019 season, the Riders have lost running backs Marcus Thigpen and Atlee Simon, along with fullbacks Patrick Lavoie and Alexandre Gagne. They also recently released the previously signed Xavier Turner and suspended Jeremy Langford.

“I know (Powell) is very eager to come in and build on what he did in 2019,” said Riders head coach Craig Dickenson. “I think he’s still got a lot of good football ahead of him.

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“He’s one of the veterans we’re going to lean on heavily this year.”

Receiver

The key pass catchers for the green and white in 2019 are also back with the club in 2021. Led by CFL all-star Shaq Evans, the Riders have 16 receivers under contract heading into camp. Two other starting spots are likely already locked up as well, with Kyran Moore and Jordan Williams-Lambert returning for their third years with the club.

One player to watch in camp will be Paul McRoberts, who was impressive in 2019 training camp before spending the year on the team’s practice roster. Speedster Carlos Henderson could also push for a permanent spot after suiting up for one game with the team in 2019.

The Riders have also brought in experienced NFL receiver Charon Peake (31 NFL regular-season games), as well as less experienced former NFLers Kermit Whitfield, Xavier Ubosi and Ricardo Louis, and the lone American coming straight from college, Randy Satterfield.

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As for Canadian content, this is where it might get interesting, with six solid players who all have the potential to start at the Canadian receiver spot. Justin McInnis and Brayden Lenius, both 2019 draft picks, return for their second full season as the leading candidates, while Regina product and 2017 draft pick Mitch Picton will be in the mix as well. Thirty-year-old Jake Harty, who is coming off back-to-back missed seasons due to injury, will be pressing for a spot also. And then there is 2021 draft pick Terrell Jana, who the Riders are high on, as well as 2020 draft pick Kian Schaffer-Baker. The Canadian content is certainly not lacking and the team will even have the potential to start two national receivers if they need ratio flexibility.

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Since they last played in 2019, the Riders have lost veteran Americans Manny Arceneaux, Naaman Roosevelt and Kenny Stafford, Canadian Cory Watson and global player Max Zimmermann. After signing with the team earlier this off-season, former NFLer Demarcus Ayers has decided to not come to camp and instead take a coaching position in the States. Previously signed newcomers Sam Coates (44 NFL regular-season games) and Tevin Jones have been placed on the suspended list.

Offensive line

With Brendon LaBatte informing the team he won’t be playing in 2021, it leaves a massive hole at left guard. The 34-year-old LaBatte is a nine-time divisional all-star who has been a key figure on the line over the years. He’s also proven he can play multiple positions, including tackle and centre, when called upon due to injury.

There’s also an opening at right guard with the departures of Dakoda Shepley, Dariusz Bladek and Philip Blake.

The Riders have signed free agent Evan Johnson this off-season and he has experience at both left and right guard, so it’s likely he will nab a starting spot. But who will grab the other? Could 2020 first-round draft pick Mattland Riley step up right away? Or will the position go to a more veteran Canadian like Brett Boyko or Josiah St. John, who were also brought in this off-season?

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A lot to be answered ahead of Saskatchewan Roughriders start in early August – Jun 22, 2021

Logan Bandy, Logan Ferland, Carter Comeau and Jesse Lawson also add to the Canadian depth of the interior group, which will be anchored by nine-year CFL veteran centre Dan Clark, who is now 33 years old.

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As for the tackles, which are customarily Americans, only Terran Vaughn returns from the 2019 team after the club lost Takoby Cofield (retirement) and Thaddeus Coleman (not re-signed). That leaves one tackle position up for grabs between five different candidates: Cameron Jefferson (six-foot-five, 325 pounds, spent time on the Riders’ 2019 practice roster), Cyrus Kouandijo (six-foot-seven, 320 pounds, 30 career NFL regular-season games), Seantrel Henderson (six-foot-seven, 350 pounds, 39 career NFL regular-season games), Andrew Lauderdale (fix-foot-six, 291 pounds, NFL practice squad) and Antonio Garcia (six-foot-seven, 205 pounds, NFL practice squad).

Along with losing LaBatte, Cofield, Coleman, Shepley, Bladek and Blake, the Riders didn’t retain Braden Schram, Jake Bennett and global player Renee Brassea.

Defensive line

On the defence, there are a few more holes with many more departures. Gone is CFL all-star defensive end Charleston Hughes, who led the league in sacks in 2019. His likely replacement will be 31-year-old CFL veteran Freddie Bishop III.

On the other side, A.C. Leonard returns to the green and white for his sixth CFL season. In the interior, it’s like he never left, as three-time CFL all-star defensive tackle Micah Johnson has re-joined the team after initially signing with the B.C. Lions in 2020. Beside him, Charbel Dabire and Makana Henry will compete for the Canadian interior spot.

And while it seems that’s what the starting lineup will be, there is plenty of other American talent with NFL experience that will push for spots, both on the outside and the inside. At defensive end, Jonathan Woodard (six career NFL regular-season games), Tim Williams (20 career NFL regular-season games), Anthony Lanier II (15 career NFL regular-season games) and Pete Robertson (six career NFL regular-season games) will all look to crack the roster and push the CFL veterans.

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The roster also features former NFL practice roster players Markus Jones and Keion Adams. Canadian Jordan Reaves, who will be a key contributor on special teams, also has the ability to line up at defensive end.

As for the interior, while the starting spots are likely decided, there are a few players trying to earn depth roles, including Americans Sterling Shippy (spent the 2019 season on the Riders practice roster), Garrett Marino (spent time with the Dallas Cowboys) and 2021 draft pick Alan Cimankinda (Canadian).

The Riders have only lost Chad Geter and Jeremy Faulk from the 2019 roster. The team also recently released the previously signed Chris Livings and suspended Demetrius Harris, two players straight out of college.

“It’ll be nice to see some of our young pass rushers in camp to see how they will do,” said Roughriders general manager Jeremy O’Day.

Linebacker

The linebackers are probably the most interesting group to watch in 2021, as the Riders have retained none of the three starters from 2019. However, they have filled those vacant holes with some pretty solid names, including CFL veteran Larry Dean, who will start in the middle, replacing Solomon Elimimian.

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With Canadian Cameron Judge also leaving in free agency, the Riders are left with an issue. Can they find another Canadian talent who can start at weak-side linebacker or do they adjust the ratio and make that an American spot?

The Riders signed twin brothers Jordan Herdman-Reed and Justin Herdman-Reed, who both have CFL experience. Micah Teitz, who stepped up as Judge’s replacement for a game in 2019, is another Canadian eager to prove himself, as is Nakas Onyeka, who signed as a free agent from the Toronto Argonauts, and four-year CFL veteran Kevin Francis, who returns to the Riders after spending 2019 in Ottawa. A.J. Allen, a 2020 draft pick, is another Canadian linebacker in the mix, as he will look to earn a depth spot on special teams.

But the WILL spot could very likely be flipped to American, as the Riders recently signed Deon Lacey, who brings experience with 53 career NFL games and 54 career CFL games. And what they do here with the ratio will have impacts elsewhere.

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On the other side, replacing Derrick Moncreif, who went to the NFL, will certainly be no easy task, either. Five-year CFL veteran Louchiez Purifoy, who is listed as a defensive back, has shown in the past he can play the SAM spot as well, so he could be an option to move down as well. Returning from 2019 is Seun Idowu, who looked solid in limited action, along with Gary Johnson Jr., who spent the season on the practice roster.

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The Riders also have Lorenzo Jerome (listed as a defensive back), who they signed from the Calgary Stampeders in free agency. Jerome previously played the SAM position with the Stamps, so he is certainly in the mix. Rounding out the linebacking depth are Nigel Harris (11 career NFL regular-season games), Deshaun Davis (2019 NFL draft pick), Matthew Thomas (10 career NFL regular-season games) and DeMarquis Gates (AAF and NFL practice roster experience).

Along with the departures of Elimimian, Judge and Moncrief, the Riders have lost Alexandre Chevrier, Dyshawn Davis, Sam Hurl and Brandyn Bartlett.

Defensive back

Starting defensive backs Nick Marshall, Ed Gainey, Mike Edem and Purifoy are under contract, however, L.J. McCray has been placed on the suspended list. So, too, has Elie Bouka, but it’s being reported he will join the team in August for the start of the season.

As mentioned in the linebackers section, there could be a change if the Riders choose to move Purifoy down to LB and make his spot a Canadian in order to meet the ratio. If an American wins the WILL spot previously held by Judge, the Riders would likely be forced to either start a second Canadian DB, along with Edem at safety, or else start two Canadian receivers. Bouka has proved he can start in the league and the Riders are also quite high on 2021 second-overall draft pick Nelson Lokombo. Godfrey Onyeka, who comes over after two seasons in Edmonton, is another candidate.

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Read more: Veteran Saskatchewan Roughrider Brendon LaBatte sitting out 2021 CFL season, GM says

The Riders have also brought in some American talent with tons of NFL experience who could start in McCray’s vacant spot (assuming he doesn’t report), including Kenneth Acker (40 career NFL regular-season games), Kentrell Brice (36 career NFL regular-season games) and Deiondre’ Hall (23 career NFL regular-season games). Blace Brown could be in the mix as well, as he previously started at DB for the team in early 2019.

Behind those guys coming into camp are Americans Christian Campbell, Hamp Cheevers, Jeremy Clark, A.J. Hendy, D.Q. Thomas and Damon Webb. Canadians Dexter Janke, Jacob Dearborn and Vincent Dethier will also be looking to crack a roster spot, making their mark on special teams.

Since 2019, the Riders have lost Denzel Radford, Shamar Busby, Jhavonte Dean and global player Javier Garcia. The team also recently released the previously signed Zack Sanchez and suspended Tony Lippett (28 career NFL regular-season games).

Special teams

The makeup of the 2019 special teams group will look similar in 2021 with punter Jon Ryan, kicker Brett Lauther and long snapper Jorgen Hus all set to return. The Riders have brought in global kicker Henry Nell and global punter Ben Scruton as their only two global players. As previously mentioned, Murphy is the leading candidate to handle kick and punt return duties, but the Riders do have other capable hands in veterans Moore, Morrow, Purifoy and Henderson.

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“We’ll probably have a first- or second-year guy win that (returner) job,” hinted Dickenson. “Ideally, you’d like to have a primary returner that gives you depth at other positions. But we will play the best guy.”

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Saskatchewan Roughrider Jorgen Hus reacts to CFL return-to-play plans – Apr 23, 2021

So that makes up the Riders roster heading into training camp, which begins Saturday at Mosaic Stadium. There will no doubt be many battles to watch within each positional group, which will make for an exciting month of practices.

“We’re going to have battles in hopefully every position,” said O’Day. “We’ve done a pretty good job of bringing in talented players that are going to come and compete and hopefully push guys that are here.

“We expect our team to be a bunch of hard-working tough guys,” added Dickenson. “I’ve always believed football is still a game where the team who is usually the toughest and strongest wins.

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“I think we’ve got great talent on that roster but I hope our identity is a team of blue-collar, lunch-pail, hard-working guys that enjoy being around each other and come to work every day.”

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