As the Saskatchewan Roughriders get ready to start training camp, they have some questions hovering over top of them as do all CFL teams. The 2019 season saw Craig Dickenson take the green-and-white to the Western final in his first season as head coach. As everyone knows, that evening at Mosaic Stadium did not go the way the organization wanted as Cody Fajardo’s potential game-tying throw hit the crossbar enabling the Winnipeg Blue Bombers to walk off the field as the winner.
The team that left the field in an extremely disappointed mood is not the same team that takes to the field at Mosaic on Saturday. Here are some questions that the team needs to answer before the season begins August 6th.
What does the defence look like?
What was arguably the biggest question going into training camp because of the loss of Charleston Hughes, Cam Judge and Solomon Elimimian became larger this week when Larry Dean, who was scheduled to be Elimimian’s replacement went down with a season-ending achilles injury.
In fact, the entire starting linebacking crew from the Western Final are not back as Derrick Moncrief is now in the NFL and Judge is with Toronto. The linebackers that will be on the field today are returnees Micah Teitz, Oluwaseun Idowu and Gary Johnson Jr. with newcomers being Kevin Francis, DeMarquis Gates, Deon Lacey, Matthew Thomas, Nakas Onyeka, Nigel Harris, Jordan Herdman-Reed, Justin Herdman-Reed, A.J. Allen.
With Hughes having gone to Toronto and his replacement, Freddie Bishop, also out with an achilles injury, the defensive line will look different with Zack Evans having retired. Micah Johnson, Mak Henry and A.C Leonard do provide some veteran experience though.
What does Fajardo for an encore?
Cody Fajardo was the story of the 2019 CFL season. The journeyman CFL quarterback got an opportunity to start in the second series of 2019 after Zach Collaros was injured. Thoughts of a long season by Rider Nation were quickly erased by the performance of Fajardo who ended up being the West nominee for MVP after a season where he threw 4,302 yards and 18 touchdowns with eight interceptions. Fajardo added another 611 yards on the ground along with 10 touchdowns as he became the face of the club while winning the hearts of virtually all of Rider Nation. If the Riders are to be successful, the 29-year-old needs to show he was not a one-year wonder.
While Fajardo does go in as the number one quarterback, the backup battle will be interesting. Isaac Harker, who spent 2019 with the team goes into the camp as the favourite, but former NFL first-round quarterback Paxton Lynch is trying to revive his football career. Another former NFL quarterback, Luke Falk, will not be at camp when it begins and whether or not he comes north of the border is not known as he has been placed on the suspended list.
Who does Fajardo throw to?
The answer to that question is obvious as his favourite receiver is back. Fajardo and Shaq Evans are one of many talented quarterback-receiver combos and it is expected the UCLA product will have a huge 2021. Kyran Moore was just shy of having had a 1000 yard season. Like Evans, he is also expected to put up some big numbers.
After that though, it is anyone’s guess. Speaking with reporters before training camp, Fajardo said he was expecting big things from 2019 draft picks Justin McInnis and Brayden Lenius.
Jordan Williams-Lambert did not produce the impact the team thought he would when he returned from the NFL, but there is no reason to think he can’t come up with a bounceback season.
While Paul McRoberts impressed many at 2019 training camp, he did not get an opportunity to show what he could do in a game.
Other receivers to watch include former Regina Ram Mitch Picton and second-round draft pick Terrell Jana.
Who protects Cody?
Brendon LaBatte informed the team he was not going to play this season. When healthy, LaBatte is still one of the CFL’s premier offensive linemen so that creates a void on the offensive line as does the loss of Dakoda Shepley who now is employed in the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers.
Dan Clark had an all-star season in 2019 and will be back at centre. The only other returning lineman is Terran Vaughn. One player who will get a good look is former Regina Thunder player Logan Ferland. The Melfort product drew rave reviews from LaBatte when he said he wasn’t going to return. He is expected to compete for a starting spot.
One would think free-agent acquisition and Regina product Evan Johnson will be one of the starting five on August 6th against BC, but who joins him, Clark and Vaughn will be a battle to watch with several in the running to be a starter including 2020 draft pick Mattland Riley and Brett Boyko.
With a shortened 14-game season and no pre-season games. the Riders do have a lot of veteran leadership that will be counted on right from day one. With four home games to start the season, the green-and-white can do themselves a big favour by getting some W’s in the bank early in what should be a very competitive Western Division again.