Free agency and the draft are now in the rear-view mirror. Over the next few weeks Argonaut.ca’s Mike Hogan will examine the roster by positional groups through the eyes of the coaches. First a look at quarterbacks and running backs.
You wouldn’t think it would be a fun time professionally for Ryan Dinwiddie.
Named the Argos head coach on December 12, it’s the Northern Californian’s first shot at being the boss. His apprenticeship as a player, then as an assistant in Montreal and Calgary behind him, Dinwiddie should be in the middle of his first full week of training camp as a head coach.
That’s not the case though. Nobody knows what the future for the season holds, but preparations for an abridged season are underway – just in case.
What’s been the biggest mental obstacle for Dinwiddie?
“Not being depressed about the setbacks,” he told Argonauts.ca in a phone interview from his new home in Oakville, adding there’s still a lot of work to do. “How are we going to handle, if the CFL schedule does come out, who our opponents are going to be? What can we do now to make ourselves better down the line? Whether it be self-scouting, or studying our opponents, let’s not just sit on our butts and just be depressed about the season, let’s get some work done. It keeps your mind fresh and it keeps you happy doing football.”
He’s got a point. The CFL draft was held April 30th, and for CFL fans it was a night to celebrate, albeit briefly, a return to normalcy. TSN’s ratings for the event increased by 116% over last year’s show.
With that in mind, let’s make the coach happy by talking football.
The Argos currently have three quarterbacks under contract. They knew they were going to be active in the free-agent market and were thrilled to sign former Winnipeg Blue Bomber Matt Nichols.
The coach likes what Nichols will bring to the Double Blue.
“I think Matt’s a savvy guy,” explained the coach. “He’s done a lot of great things around the league the last four or five years and taken that next step in his career. He’s a class act as a man and father, and he’s got the intangibles to be a franchise quarterback. There’s a physical toughness and mental toughness, that’s what I appreciate about him.”
We have yet to see what the Dinwiddie offense will look like in Toronto. In Calgary, he had the strong-armed Bo Levi Mitchell at the helm, a different style QB than Nichols. The question will be whether Nichols can execute what Dinwiddie draws up for him.
“With him coming off shoulder surgery there are some things that we’re going to have to modify in terms of pushing the ball down the field,” admitted Dinwiddie. “I don’t want to play against his skill strengths. We want to put in things that our guys are comfortable with. If it’s something I’m comfortable with it and they’re not, what’s the point? I always want it to be a quarterback-friendly system.”
Nichols isn’t the only QB with starting experience on the roster.
Last year McLeod Bethel-Thompson led the CFL in touchdown passes with 26. He also finished third in passing yards with 4,024, despite only starting 13 games for the Argos.
“He’s been through a lot here the last couple of years,” said Dinwiddie of Bethel-Thompson. “He’s battled through it. I think he’s a better athlete than people say. In terms of arm talent, he’s right there with the best in the league. He’s been around a lot of systems, so he knows football. For him it’s a matter of winning football games. I don’t think he’s had the opportunity to do that with what’s surrounded him in the last couple of years. He might shock some people this year. I feel really good about him, it’s going to be a great battle between those two.”
The third QB is Michael O’Connor. He was the Argos third-round draft pick, 20th overall, in 2019. He was mainly a developmental QB in his rookie season but didn’t look out of place when he saw the field during the final two games of the season finishing 15/25 (60%), 173 yards and one touchdown against no interceptions.
“I love the upside on that kid,” said the former-QB-turned-coach. “I watched him at UBC, we had a very high draft grade on him at Calgary. The kid just sits in the pocket and makes the throw. No matter what’s in his face he never flinches. He’s not a great athlete in terms of extending plays, but he will run and move the chains. On second-and-six he’ll get you seven yards. He’s got a chance to develop into a starter, or at least be a backup who can win you games. I just want to see continued growth each day. I want him to take someone’s job too. He’s not coming here just to be a third, he should see himself as a number one as well.”
If you’re the fourth-best receiver on a football team you’re going to see the field a lot. A creative coach will find ways to get two talented running backs on the field at the same time. There is room for just one quarterback on the field though, so when training camp eventually opens, expect a battle to see who emerges as QB1.
“I want open competitions everywhere,” said the head coach. “One guy is going to be the one going into game one, one guy is going to be the two. That doesn’t mean it’s not going to change. Maybe one guy isn’t playing as well as we’d like him to and we’re going to give the other guy a shot. I want them to have a healthy environment in the QB room, but I want them to know it’s anybody’s job to take. I want those guys fighting every rep at practice to prove to me that they’re the guy.”
If the QB situation will be a two-man competition in camp, the running back decision will be a battle royale. Five tailbacks, two with CFL game experience, will be looking to be the main man in the backfield.
A first-time CFL coach will be helping assess the talent. Fred Reid was a three-time all-star with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, a career highlighted by a 260-yard rushing performance against B.C. in 2009, the third-highest game total in CFL history. He’s spent the last few years coaching high-school football in his home state of Florida.
There’s no official depth chart, though if there were the name of Karlos Williams might be atop it. After his career at Florida State, Williams grabbed national headlines as a member of the Buffalo Bills when he tied an NFL record (coincidently held by former Argo Robert Edwards) by scoring a touchdown in each of the first six games of his career.
“He was really explosive and showed some great things in Buffalo,” said Reid of Williams in a Zoom interview from Florida. “He has it all. He’s a big, powerful back. He has speed, he can break tackles. He’s a complete back and I’m glad I have the chance to coach him up. If he comes to camp healthy, he’s got a really good shot of making us do some great things.”
While Williams is the prototypical tailback, Marcus Thigpen is not. Splitting his career between the CFL and NFL, the man who turns 34 on Friday still possesses the speed he once used to win the Michigan state high-school championship in the 100m.
“We’re going to move him in and out, move him around,” said Reid of the former Indiana Hoosier. “He’s going to play some running back and some receiver, he’s one of those type of guys. He’s also a punt returner and kick returner, so he’s going to be everywhere. He can stretch the field, you can use him out of the backfield, there’s multiple things you can do with a guy like that, he’s valuable.”
Bishop Sankey joined the Argos last October 24. Though he didn’t dress for any games, he did get an introduction to three-down football while on the practice roster, giving him an edge on a couple of his competitors. He was a superstar in college before a knee injury ruined his young NFL career.
“Sankey is a guy I’ve always been a fan of back to his time in Washington (NCAA) and Tennessee (NFL),” Reid told Argonauts.ca. “He’s a great back. He has the burst and the ability to break tackles. He catches the ball well out of the backfield. He’s another guy that I’m excited to see what he brings to camp for us.”
A player who did get a taste of action last year was A.J. Oullette, and he didn’t disappoint, averaging 5.0 yards per carry in limited action, but showing off the ability to run for hard yards.
“I’m excited to see A.J. in camp,” said Reid. “I watched him back at Ohio University, he was a great back. Maybe not as explosive as the other backs, but he’s a hard runner. He’s a hard worker. I talked to him a couple of days ago and he’s excited, he’s ready to get to camp. He’s one of those guys who comes to work every day and works hard to earn his time on the field, he’s that kind of guy.”
The fifth back competing for a tailback spot is Trayone Gray. The one-time Miami Hurricane has lost some weight and is now down to around 220 pounds on his 6’2” frame, some 20 pounds below his top playing weight. The astonishing thing about Gray is how fast he is for a man that size.
“He’s a powerful back with speed,” said Reid of Gray. “He ran a 4.37 (40-yard dash at 233 pounds) at his pro day. He can be amazing. He was only at training camp with the Cleveland Browns but showed some good things on film there. With an opportunity he could do some great things for us.”
Reid also talked about the fullbacks. Two players are ready to return, while one was added through the draft.
Declan Cross is ready to come back for a fifth season with the Argos. His offensive production dropped significantly last year in a different system, but the potential is certainly there for a bounce back season.
“He’s the kind of guy you want in your locker room, a tough, smart kid,” said the coach. “I like Declan a lot. He can block in the run game for us, he can run the ball also. He brings a lot of value to us. He’ll bring leadership to the locker room. He’s a hard worker who can do multiple things on special teams.”
It’s been tough for Reid to get a proper handle on Regis Cibasu as an offensive weapon. Cibasu was a highly productive receiver at the university level but made the transition to Cross’ backup at the fullback spot in his rookie year.
“He’s more of a special teams guy,” admitted Reid. “I didn’t get a chance to see him do the same things on offence like Declan does, but he’s got a big body and is more of a Declan Cross-type back.”
The final back on the roster is Dion Pellerin, who was the Argos fifth-round pick in last month’s CFL draft. A tailback at Waterloo, he may have a better chance of cracking the pros as a fullback.
“I really like him. He was my highest back on the draft board,” admitted Reid. “He’s another Declan Cross-type back. He can run, he can catch out of the backfield, he’s going to be able to play multiple special teams for us also. I had a conversation with him the other day and he’s pumped, he’s ready to go and appreciative of the opportunity.”
One of the joys of training camp is watching players battle for positions, particularly those who haven’t played in the organization before. With legitimate battles to be fought, we’ll simply have to wait for training camp to eventually open before we can see how these competitions play out.