1 – BRADENTON, FL: It was a spectacle. Not in a circus sense, but Saturday’s Saskatchewan Roughriders Play-In Day at IMG Academy was a sight to behold. Roughly 150 football players spent a Saturday in the hot Florida sun (31 degrees with the humidity) trying to earn an invite to the club’s 2-day mini-camp later this week. Competition was fierce, and I thoroughly enjoyed every second of it.
2 – A WIDE RANGE: They came from all over. Big ones, little ones, round ones, chiseled ones, you name it. They came from Southern California, Arizona, Oklahoma, Pittsburgh and everywhere in between. They paid a nominal fee which, more than anything else, was to prevent hopefuls like Charles Chaluda from putting on the cleats. In 2011 in Daytona Beach, the 59-year old Chaluda infamously participated in a Rider open tryout in jeans.
3 – RECEIVER U: I watched the tryouts from everywhere, but my favourite spot was on the sidelines amongst the players. My favourite conversation overheard went like this: Receiver 1 “Man if there’s 150 players here, 65 of ’em must be receivers”. Receiver 2 “Ya. And I checked the team website. Their receivers are all 6’2, 6’3″, 6’4. Shoot, they got Duron Carter and he’s 6’5″!” It’s true. Chris Jones likes skyscrapers and if you’re not one, you’d better be extra special.
4 – BY THE NUMBERS: The workout started at 10:00 am and players showed up a few hours before to fill out registration. They were assigned a number which they pinned to their shorts. No names were provided other than that of 34-year old LB Ejiro Kuale who made the trek in from Oklahoma. The 2-time Grey Cup champ (including 2013 with Saskatchewan) refuses to let the dream die, and that’s highly admirable. Unfortunately for E.J., he was injured early and forced to the sidelines.
5 – THE SCHEDULE: The first two hours of the workout were devoted to metrics, and it resembled a high school track & field meet. At various spots on the field, players were run through broad jump, 40-yard dash, the shuttle drill, etc. The next 3-4 hours were spent running one-on-ones, and they were endless. The large number of players made for thousands of reps, each one tracked meticulously and filmed for dissection on Saturday evening. A local college coach came to watch and quipped, “Now I get it. They’re running them into the ground and the last ones standing are the winners!” I said, “Something like that”. How could I have forgotten what an unforgiving taskmaster Chris Jones is? Somebody asked a Rider coach how long they’d be out there for. “The sun goes down at 8:00,” he deadpanned.
6 – FAMILY AFFAIR: While I didn’t see any Rider fans at IMG, several players brought along their families. One Mom introduced herself to just about every staff member, promoting her son’s abilities and desire. Another Mom watched the linemen one-on-ones from only 6 feet away, and looked like someone you wouldn’t want to mess with. Several players brought their girlfriends, with one even getting a backrub from his partner between sessions. Hmmm!
7 – THE TALENT: It was evident. There were spectacular, jaw-dropping plays made all over the field and some of the pass-rushers were unblockable. There were dozens of picturesque catches mixed with acrobatic knockdowns. We were astounded by the verticals of many of the players – both on offense and defense – who seemed to effortlessly “float” up to the ball. I don’t think the decisions are going to be easy.
8 – ARMS RACE: There were a half dozen or so QBs and while some had no troubles adjusting to the CFL football, others never seemed to get a handle on it. Jones was unfazed, yelling to one receiver, “That was a great route! Don’t worry where the pass ended up. You ran a great route!” It’s clear Chris Jones was respectful of each and every player who paid his fee and wanted to earn a shot.
9 – LINEMEN: There was one behemoth on hand, who measured 6’8″, 408 lbs. I wish I caught his name! But to my untrained eye, he was having a tough time staying in front of his opponents. There aren’t a ton of spots open on the 2018 Roughriders roster but you know they’re keeping an eye out for offensive linemen.
10 – JUST NOTES: Like I noted above, a lot of these players did their homework. One receiver even sported a T-Shirt which read, “Chad Owens Part II …”! The trouble for him is, I don’t think Chad Owens Part 1 is done yet! … If Josh Bartel and Tyler Crapigna are reading this, they likely shouldn’t worry. There were only 1 or 2 punters on hand and they plied their trade on an adjacent field, away from the flurry of activity … Other than the weather, this is no holiday for the Rider staff. Saturday night was spent conducting roughly 100 medicals by the training staff, while the coaches met to compare notes … How many players were good enough to move on? We’ll find out in a few days.