While the coaching staff saw a lot of changes, the player roster also endured its fair share of change. A new head coach means some new philosophies, so it will be interesting to see where some players fit. I’ll start with the most important position on the field and work my way down: the quarterback.
To say that Darian Durant had a disappointing 2011 season would be an understatement; he had a downright terrible and frustrating season compared to his league leading stats of 2010.
I generally divide Roughrider fans into two categories: Durant backers and Durant bashers.
I consider myself in the latter group and really don’t blame the Riders’ 2011 performance on him. His offensive coordinator was fired for being terrible and then wasn’t replaced by anybody so Durant had to often call his own plays. He then got injured and for some reason still played as Saskatchewan had a “mathematical chance” at the playoffs. While the 2011 season was a complete gongshow, Durant will have no excuse for 2012 and will have to perform to prove the bashers wrong.
The startling news with quarterbacks in the offseason was the release of backups Ryan Dinwiddie and Cole Bergquist, leaving the team with no backups with CFL experience. To me, this is a huge risk as the learning curve can be huge for American quarterbacks playing the Canadian game. If Durant goes down with injury, the Roughriders could be in big trouble, especially with a rookie head coach who has to follow a bad 2011 season. The upside to this move is that these new guys will be cheap, and if the Riders can develop these quarterbacks, they could earn trade value down the road. For those wondering, the Riders have four QBs competing for backup roles with Drew Willy, Levi Brown, Colt Brennan, and newly signed old-timer J. T. O’Sullivan all vying for roster spots.
The Roughriders have also decided to go in a different direction with running back, letting the franchise’s second all-time leading rusher Wes Cates’ contract expire and leaving backup non-import running back Stu Foord to sign with the BC Lions. This is another wide open competition as 2011 holdovers Brandon West and Yvenson Bernard will be competing with four other players for the starting running back position. I think this was a necessary move since Cates had hit the age where running backs become less effective and it was time to move on. With six players competing for one spot, I’m confident that the Roughriders will find their guy who can be a game changer, and, if healthy, hit 1000 yards. Demetrius Crawford, Kory Sheets, Louis Rankin, and DeShawn Wynn are the newcomers competing for the top spot. Neal Hughes and Graeme Bell return as fullbacks, with Bell supposedly looking to earn more playing time on offense.
The offensive line doesn’t usually garner much attention, but in this past offseason, the Roughriders have made it one of the flashiest positions around town. The club released starting left tackle Alex Gauthier, starting centre Marc Parenteau, and backup lineman George Hudson. While Saskatchewan couldn’t sign receiver Andy Fantuz, it meant they had plenty in the bank to sign Saskatchewan-born guard Brendan LaBatte and prized free agent centre Dominic Picard – both of whom are all-star calibre players. The signing of LaBatte and the emergence of starting guard Chris Best meant the retirement of long-time Roughrider, Gene Makowsky. Makowsky has played the most games as a Roughrider in the 100+ year history of the franchise and will no doubt be missed. But as Saskatchewan looks to the future, they seem to be sitting pretty with the interior of the offensive line. A big question still lingers, however, as the club is still looking for a starting left tackle and right tackle Dan Goodspeed wasn’t exactly earning his pay. Import Nerraw McCormack and non-imports Patrick Neufeld and Nick Hutchins will be among those competing for tackle spots, assuming the team will sign or draft more players to compete for a starting spot.
In total, the Roughriders will likely have just three returning starters out of the seven starting roles mentioned here. Change is a part of professional sports and in this case, the Roughriders are looking to upgrade substantially in positions that were points of weakness for them last year.
- Cam Melnyk