Thursday, June 18, 2015

Position battles define pre-season's final weekend

Training camp is nearing its end but for eight CFL teams, the bulk of the work comes this weekend. The final weekend of pre-season marks an end to training camp and a final dress rehearsal, while teams must finalize their rosters and determine their depth charts for the start of the regular season.
With roster spots still up in the air, we look at a couple of the top position battles for each CFL team -- ones you may want to keep in mind when following this weekend's pre-season matchups. 
*Not included are the Ottawa REDBLACKS, who have already played two pre-season games.
BC Lions
While Emmanuel Arceneaux and Marco Iannuzzi appear to have the outside receiver spots locked down, competition for playing time in the slot remains fierce. The Lions have some sneaky good options there but only so many can play.
Courtney Taylor, Shawn Gore and Cameron Morrah are currently penciled in as the starters, but Austin Collie, Bryan Burnham and Terence Jeffers-Harris are fighting hard for playing time. Friday's pre-season game is a chance to make one final statement.
Travis Lulay is the Lions' starting quarterback but his injury history suggests someone else better be ready to play. John Beck has been limited, Jordan Rodgers recently retired while Travis Partridge was released, leaving Jonathon Jennings and Greg McGhee in contention to backup Lulay.
Johnson made a statement with a big performance in the Lions' pre-season loss to Calgary. Depending on how he follows up on Friday he could start the season second on the QB depth chart.
Calgary Stampeders
Kick/Punt Returner
Minus Jock Sanders and plus Tim Brown, the Stamps' return situation is still a little muddled as they look to settle on a returner. Brown and Sederrik Cunningham appear to be the front runners for reps, but Brown will have to earn his roster spot as Hufnagel still plans to evaluate his younger options as well. This battle may come down to Friday's pre-season finale.
Defensive Halfback
The Stampeders are deep across the defensive backfield and one battle to watch will be between veterans Brandon Smith, Jamar Wall and Joe Burnett at the halfback positions. Only two of the three can start and all three have strong career resumes so far. Smith and Wall were the starters in pre-season game one, while newcomer Burnett had a team-high three tackles.
Defensive Line
Quinn Smith is proving to be a capable starter filling in for Corey Mace at defensive tackle, while the battle at left defensive end also looms large where Freddie Bishop, Brandon Boudreaux and DeQuin Evans are all vying for playing time.
Edmonton Eskimos
Mike Reilly is one of the CFL's elite passers, but behind him there's a spot up for grabs. Matt Nichols may be losing his grip on the job after a strong performance by James Franklin in last week's win over the Riders in Fort McMurray. The Esks also appear high on Jordan Lynch while Justin Goltz offers some valuable CFL experience. So much depth at quarterback but the roster must be trimmed down after Friday's pre-season finale.
Running Back
The injury to John White opened up fierce competition at the running back position. Chad Simpson made his mark in last week's pre-season win over the Riders, but 23-year-old Shakir Bell made an impact through the air as well as on the ground. Who will be the Esks' lead back when they open the season in Fort McMurray against the Argos?
Hamilton Tiger-Cats
Who will take over for the departed Delvin Breaux? Arguably the CFL's top cover corner, Breaux took off for the NFL in the off-season leaving a void in the Ticats' secondary. Emmanuel Davis and Ed Gainey are the first two options that come to mind, a battle that may not be settled until the final whistle of Friday's pre-season matchup with the Bombers. 
Regular starters Luke Tasker, Andy Fantuz, Bakari Grant and Brandon Banks are no doubt safe as starting Ticat receivers, but who will fit in elsewhere? Seydou Junior Haidara was acquired from the Lions and is looking to take on a much greater role as a national, while Terrence Toliver and Tiquan Underwood have already made an impact as internationals. Terrell Sinkfield and Quincy McDuffie are also x-factors in the Ticat offence.
Injuries have slowed down the Ticats' regulars so far, but Friday night could be a defining one for those vying for playing time in the Ticats' offence this season.
Montreal Alouettes
Running Back
The Alouettes appear to have four international running backs vying for three spots on the roster and a strong case can be made for each and every one. Brandon Whitaker, Brandon Rutley, Tyrell Sutton and Stefan Logan are not only looking to make the roster but become the lead back in the offence. 
Is Whitaker's job totally safe? Can Rutley beat the odds and make the roster? The battle continues through camp and will culminate with Thursday night's pre-season game vs. the Argos.
Aonther veteran whose job may not be a lock is Sean Whyte, facing stern competition from both Boris Bede and Drew Basil. Whyte has the advantage over both of having a Canadian passport, but while he's been an accurate kicker throughout his career, his leg isn't getting any stronger. Bede has a strong leg and will be one to watch on Thursday night as he looks to earn a job as a CFL place kicker.
Saskatchewan Roughriders
Offensive Line
The departures of Ben Heenan and Dominic Picard left two holes on the Riders' offensive line, particularly at the all-importance centre position. Dan Clark looks to be the favourite to win that job but he's facing competition from Corey Watman, while international tackle Levy Adcock appears to be settling into Heenan's former spot on the right side of the line.
Samuel Hurl, Brian Peters and Shomari Williams are all out at linebacker and while Shea Emry will fill one spot, two other linebacker positions are up for grabs. Macho Harris could play some strong-side linebacker while internationals Telvion Clark and Jeff Knox Jr. are each vying for a chance to start on the other side. Either way, expect some new blood for the Riders this season at linebacker.
Toronto Argonauts
Running Back
With Curtis Steele likely on the shelf for the first bit of the season, the Argos have an opening at tailback. Henry Josey and Lyle McCombs are the two internationals on the roster, while recent draft pick Dillon Campbell could also chip in. Chad Kackert spent time in camp with the Argos and could also be an option, although he's not currently under contract.
Returning Anthony Coombs to his natural position might make the most sense for the Argos, but then they're losing out on a receiver.
Defensive Back
The release of Alex Suber showed the Argos are happy with what they've seen from their young secondary so far this training camp, but the depth chart remains unsettled. The Argos have seven international defensive backs with two or fewer years of CFL experience, all of which are vying for a chance to start in the defensive backfield.
For a team with few proven international receivers, the Argos' receiving corps has come much-hyped this training camp. Tori Gurley's CFL debut was eye-catching while Vidal Hazelton and Kenny Shaw have also earned an extended look at starting positions. Nationals Natey Adjei and rookie Kevin Bradfield will also look to take on an elevated role in the offence with the off-season departure of Mike Bradwell.
Many are competing for spots but few will be catching passes on opening night in Fort McMurray.
Winnipeg Blue Bombers
Nick Moore, Clarence Denmark and Rory Kohlert will get all the looks inside, but outside there's plenty of competition for reps in the Winnipeg offence. Toney Clemons and Darvin Adams are among those competing for playing time and a chance to catch passes from Drew Willy in the regular season, and it may take Friday's pre-season finale to determine who lines up where. 
The Bombers' linebacker corps looks a lot different with the departure of Ian Wild and Johnny Sears (a defensive back who also played some linebacker), and while free agent acquisition Samuel Hurl will occupy one spot, two starting positions remain up for grabs. Tony Burnett got some reps in the first pre-season game while nationals Garrett Waggoner and Jesse Briggs are also competing for playing time.