Over the last few weeks Argonaut.ca’s Mike Hogan has been examining the Argos roster position group by position group through the eyes of the coaches. This week, a look at the defensive line.
The 2019 Toronto Argonauts defence was a disaster.
Big changes were needed, and big changes were made. The defensive line was not spared. New players were brought in via free agency, another was selected high in the draft.
The reasons for the changes were obvious. The Argos gave up a league-worst 2,135 rushing yards. They allowed 36 TDs, the most in the league, surrendering an untenable 31 points per game.
Glen Young was brought in to run the defence and Mike Davis is now the defensive line coach.
Davis spent the last four seasons in Saskatchewan, three as the manager of player personnel before returning to the coaching ranks as the d-line coach last year.
Prior to that he had been the head coach of the arena league’s Nebraska Danger, where he won three consecutive conference championships and was inducted into the team’s Hall of Fame.
How did he initially make his way to the CFL?
“It was Coach (Chris) Jones,” Davis explained in a Zoom interview from his home in Regina. “I’ve known Coach Jones for probably 15-plus years. Every year I was sending four or five guys to Jones in Edmonton and then when he started in Sask. We had gone to four straight (arena) championships and Jones said he might have something up here for me, so I came up and visited. They were 0-9 at the time. He called me on a Thursday, I flew up Friday morning, they played Friday night, I watched the game, we hung out Saturday and Sunday and they offered me a job Monday morning.”
He’s now in Toronto, working with Glen Young. He likes what he’s seen so far.
“It’s been good,” said Davis. “It’s nice to see some different ideas. It’s tough right now because you can’t get hands on because we’re not in the office together, but we’re still meeting as a staff and we put ideas and thoughts around, what we like, what we don’t like and things like that.”
Davis has a large group to work with, 15 linemen including 2020 draft pick Sam Acheampong. The size of the group doesn’t faze the coach.
“It always works itself out,” said Davis. ”Some guys struggle because they can’t pick up the playbook, and the playbook is not hard. Some guys can’t get the competition or don’t know how to be a pro. With a shortened training camp potentially, the cream will rise to the top very fast because it’s going to have to.”
Davis broke down the group player by player for Argonauts.ca. The notes after each player are provided by Argonauts.ca, all the quotes are from Davis.
Sam Acheampong: 6’5”, 247. DT. A Brampton native who was the Argos territorial pick in the second round, 20th overall, in this year’s CFL Draft. A First Team OUA All-Star last year who finished his Laurier career with 11.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss. “He’s got American-type ability as a Canadian player. He’s got some twitch. He’s a big guy who is really good inside because he’s quick. He can stretch out and play outside if you were in a pinch, but he has a ton of upside. There’s a few fundamental technique things like learning to play lower and things like that, but he’s got a bright future if he matures like he should.”
Alex Bazzie: 6’1”, 228. DE. He was a free agent signing this year. Recorded a career high 11 sacks in 2016 with B.C., posted eight sacks with Edmonton in 2018. Played just seven games last year due to injury. “Fundamentally he’s got an array of different pass-rush moves. He’s a lot stronger and more powerful than you think. He can go around you, he can go through you. He’s got a great speed to power move, he’s got a great spin move. When you try to run the ball on him, he’s stout enough to play the run and shed blockers. I’m excited to work with Alex because he’s probably got more to prove than anybody. He’s a guy that’s more than just a spot-duty pass rusher. He can play the run. I’m excited to see him now that he’s healthy and hungry to play well to show people that he’s still got it.”
Ryan Davis: 6’2”, 275. DE/DT. Played six seasons in the NFL, mostly with Jacksonville. Recorded a career high 6.5 sacks in 2014 with the Jaguars. Last year was waived by New England, then played two games in the AAF before being injured. “Probably the most intriguing guy on the d-line. The guy had 14 NFL sacks, can play inside, can play outside. He could be an outside guy for us most likely. Anytime you’ve got a guy who has played down south in the NFL and had that type of success, you’ve got to be excited about what he can bring to a group, into a room of d-linemen.”
Fabion Foote: 6’2”, 285. DT. A Rexdale product who signed with the Argos after spending his first three CFL seasons in Montreal. The Alouettes second round pick, 12th overall, in the 2017 CFL Draft. Had four sacks in his senior season at McMaster. “One of the most athletic kids you have up front. We’ve got to refine some of his tools in his tool bag to get him better, but he’s strong as all get out, he’s quick. I think he just wants to be in a situation where he can be a guy, where he doesn’t have to come in and say the d-tackle spot is going to be a ratio spot for us. We don’t have to do that. There’s no pressure on him so he just has to line up and play football.”
Obinna Iheoma: 6’2”, 245. DE. Attended Northwestern State after two seasons at a JUCO. In his two seasons as a Demon he recorded 16 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss in 22 games. “A small school kid. It’s crazy to even compare him to this, but he’ll remind you of Charleston Hughes coming out of Norfolk. Same height, same build, he’s got that kind of dead-leg first step that Charleston has to get around the edge. He’s got good bend and is just tenacious when he gets off the ball. It’s probably not a fair comparison for him, but if you saw Charleston coming out of college and you saw Obie coming out of college, you’ll look at them both say he reminds me of somebody. They’re very, very, very similar.”
Julian McCleod: 6’3”, 285. DT. Signed with the Argos in April after wrapping up his NCAA career at Wagner last year. A three-year starter who totaled 102 tackles. “Julian has got a ton of upside as well. He probably wouldn’t be with us if he was able to have a pro day. He was a small school kid coming out of Wagner that just didn’t get a chance to be seen by NFL scouts. If he would have, he would have put up good enough numbers to get into some kind of training camp. Again, not a fair comparison, but he has Micah Johnson type qualities as a young kid. If you watch film, Micah’s got that quick twitch, so does Julian.”
Rickey Neal: 6’2”, 237. DE. Signed with Calgary last year after being released by the Vikings after attending their mini-camp. Played end and linebacker at Northern Iowa where he finished his career with 142 tackles, 21 sacks and 39 tackles for loss. “He was amazing coming out of Northern Iowa. He was in Calgary last year. I actually recruited him to play arena when he was coming out of college. He didn’t really find a fit in Calgary, played a couple different positions and was just swimming with the playbook. Here he’s going to come in and strictly rush the passer and be a ‘rush’ or a ‘quick’ for us. A long, athletic kid and if he can just find his senior year highlight ability and have the game slow down for him, he’s got a bright future up here.”
Drake Nevis: 6’0” 300. DT. Signed as a free agent after three seasons in Winnipeg, spending his rookie season in Hamilton. Had 24 tackles and three sacks last year. In his senior season at LSU he was named the SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week four times. “For as big and athletic as he is, he knows when people are trying to double him and he still finds a way to get pressure. People see him as just a two-gap run stopping, take the double kind of interior player and he’s not. He’s got pass-rush ability. What I like about Drake is his ability to teach the young kids. I’ve been on the phone with Drake at least once a week and he just wants to talk ball. He wants to know what he can do to help the d-line room, and what he can do to keep the group together, and I just want him to play. He can be the glue to keep everyone together.”
Earl Okine: 6’7”, 280. DE/DT. Signed with the Argos last December after spending 2019 in the AAF, then in the CFL with Saskatchewan where he played six games. His Rider career was highlighted by a 55-yard scoop and score against Montreal. Had five AAF sacks with Orlando in eight games. A product of the University of Florida. The only player on the Argos that Davis has worked with before, spending last season with him in Regina. “It all depends on which Earl shows up, and I’ve told him this. If the Earl shows up that I saw in the NFL and the AAF we’ve hit a home run. If the Earl shows up who is a little bit lazy then he’ll be going back to Florida. I think he’s more motivated than ever after getting cut in Sask. It wasn’t anything he did, we needed a roster spot. He’s another guy that can play inside or outside. He’s long and athletic and knows how to get to the quarterback.”
Ronald Ollie: 6’2”, 292. DT. Best known for his appearance in the first season of the Netflix series “Last Chance U”, where he was prominently featured. Signed with the Oakland Raiders, but was waived in July. “He’ll remind you of a young Drake Nevis. If he grabs on to Drake and follows his lead we’ll have something special for a long time. I think he got a bad rap because of his “Last Chance U” stuff. He didn’t know how to be a pro when he got to the Raiders, I think that was a little humbling for him. He’s motivated to show people that him leaving Oakland was a fluke.”
Whitney Richardson: 6’4”, 250. DE. Signed with the Argos in January. Named the Division-II Defensive Player of the Year in 2016 while at Lane College. Had 17.5 sacks and 32.5 tackles for loss in just 10 games. Was a candidate for the Harlon Hill Trophy, the D-II version of the Heisman. Spent 2017 with the San Diego Chargers. “A kid we looked at in Sask. Athletic. He’s Trent Richardson’s cousin. He’s a guy that’s going to have to come in and really take to the coaching because he’s very raw. Can he find his niche and soak up the playbook and be a pro?”
Craig Roh: 6’4”, 254. DE. A first-day free agent signing this year. Had recorded 6-8 sacks in each of his five CFL seasons. Played for DC Glen Young in Winnipeg last year. A Second-Team All-Big-10 player at Michigan. “Craig is a great pass-rush guy. Knows what he can and can’t do. He’s one of those guys that’s never been a starter, so if you ask a guy to come in and be a starter it’s not fair to him, so you’ve got to let it play out. This is not a knock on Craig at all, but he’s a six, eight, nine sack a year guy that’s going to come in and you’re not going to have a drop off, but we need him to take the next step. We don’t need him to be the starter, but if he is it will be a pleasant surprise.”
Robbie Smith: 6’2”, 247. DE. The Argos second round pick, ninth overall, in the 2019 CFL draft. The Brampton native had three sacks in his rookie season, including two against Ottawa September 7. A two-time OUA All-Star who set the Laurier school record with a 4.5-sack game against Queen’s. “I’m looking forward to coaching Robbie. We’ve had some good conversations, for him it’s just some technical things that we need to clean up. He’s got tons of pass rush ability. Being a smaller guy, he plays the run better than people give him credit for. We need him to step up. If you can have Robbie, Fabion and Sam as a three person rotational d-line ratio position, and it doesn’t have to happen this year, but if they can grow enough where next year we could have them as a rotational set, you’re winning on all levels.”
Jhaustin Thomas: 6’5”, 282. DT/DE. Started five games with the Argos at tackle last year. Recorded his first CFL sack in the Labour Day Classic at Hamilton. Voted Second-Team All-Big-12 at Iowa State. “He looks the part. He’s huge. I think he’s going to be better playing d-tackle. Because of his size and athleticism he can create some one-on-one mismatches. We can create some things for him that he can take advantage of his length and his size, but he’s a guy that because of an injury could bounce out to the edge and you’re not going to miss much.”
Prince Unaegbu: 6’5”, 250. DE. Signed with the Argos last November. Played three seasons as a tight end at Pace University before moving to defensive end as a senior, recording five sacks in this final three games. “Another small school kid. Great size. Can he get with the talent? Is the competition going to be too much for him? He’s only been playing defensive line for three years, so (in pro terms) he doesn’t really know what he’s doing. He’s super raw and super athletic.”