As a lifelong fan of the league, it’s pretty darn easy to get excited about this. But the subplots heading into this brand new campaign make for more intrigue than an Agatha Christie novel…
- Quarterback Shuffle… four teams have brand-new starting pivots to start the season. Ricky Ray will lead the Argos ship in Toronto, Henry Burris in Hamilton, Steven Jyles in Edmonton and Drew Tate in Calgary. Ray and Burris will instantly make the Battle of Ontario something worth watching. Jyles and Tate bring a ‘wait and see’ flavour to the Battle of Alberta, and both have well-established veterans behind them in Kerry Joseph and Kevin Glenn should they fall flat.
Head of the Class… Form east to west, there are plenty of fresh faces when it comes to head coaches. After many successful seasons as an assistant coach, George Cortez finally has a head coaching gig in Hamilton. His familiarity with Henry Burris, they teamed up to win the 2008 Grey Cup in Calgary, should help the Tabbies get off to a solid start to the season. Scott Milanovich is the new boss in Toronto after some incredibly successful seasons as Offensive Co-ordinator in Montreal. Cory Chamblin will try to bring the Roughriders back to respectability in his first season as a CFL head coach. And Mike Benevides, a trusty sidekick of Wally Buono’s for many years, looks to lead the BC Lions to a second straight Grey Cup title as he takes over for his mentor (who will no doubt be keeping a close eye on things in his first season as GM-only.)
- Getting Defensive… even more so than quarterbacks there is a massive turnover this year when it comes to Defensive Co-ordinators. Six, yes six, of eight teams have new DC’s for 2012. Only Richie Hall in Saskatchewan and Tim Burke in Winnipeg are returning to the same positions they held last year. Rich Stubler moves out west to BC while Mark Nelson takes over in Edmonton. Rick Campbell replaces Chris Jones in Calgary after he jumped ship to Toronto. Casey Creehan becomes a DC for the first time in Hamilton. And, most exciting for me, Jeff Reinbold is back in the CFL as the new DC in Montreal (anyone who remembers his tumultuous tenure as head coach in Winnipeg in the 90’s will know exactly why I’m smiling as I write this!) It will be fascinating to see what each of these men has come up with in their attempt to curb opposing offences.
- Born To Run… Joffrey Reynolds, Wes Cates, Jerome Messam, Fred Reid. Those familiar faces amongst others will not be seen in any CFL backfields this season, not as of now at least. Toronto’s Cory Boyd and Hamilton’s Avon Cobourne suddenly become the ‘grey beards’ among league running backs. Otherwise, it’s a crop of new starters that will be carrying the load for their respective teams. Notably, Jon Cornish will look to become the first Canadian running back to lead the league in rushing in about a quarter century.
- Stadium Swan Songs… Two teams will be playing their final seasons in their legendary long time homes. Hamilton has a full year of celebrations planned as they say goodbye to Ivor Wynne Stadium (2013 is shaping up to be quite interesting as the Tiger Cats have yet to find a place to play while their new stadium in Hamilton is being built). It’s a less celebratory mood in Winnipeg as the Blue Bombers play one more season in Canad Inns (Winnipeg) Stadium. They were hoping to have their new stadium ready in time for play this summer, so much so that the Bombers scheduled their first four games of the season on the road. But construction is so far behind that the blue and gold and their fans are stuck in their old barn for one more year.
- Ahead By A Century… 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of the Grey Cup. The CFL took a massive gamble by awarding the big game to the City of Toronto. But with last week’s announcement that the game is already sold out it appears the gamble is already paying off. Earl Grey’s mug will be touring across Canada throughout the season… by train. The tour will include stops in all eight CFL cities as well as dozens of stops in other Canadian communities. (For my money, a tour stop in Red Deer is a no-brainer as the cup travels from Edmonton to Calgary!)
It’s tough to come up with a ‘power rankings’ list on opening day but here’s how my list would look…
1. BC – all the defending champs did in the off-season was get better
2. CALGARY – Stamps have good pieces in place, Tate will need to find his stride as the new starter
3. EDMONTON – yup, quarterbacking will be the key to any Eskimos success
4. SASKATCHEWAN – Riders will have at least 16 new starters this season
1. HAMILTON – Burris and Fantuz highlight a revamped offense, defense should be solid too
2. MONTREAL – Calvillo still has plenty of weapons, and a huge chip on his shoulder
3. TORONTO – Argos will be dangerous if their defence matches what should be a potent offense
4. WINNIPEG – other teams in the division got better during the off-season, the Bombers didn’t
When it comes to players who could be making headlines in 2012, here are a few I will have a close eye on…
- Sam Giguere (Receiver, Hamilton)… The Tabbies first drafted Giguere way back in 2008 but he hasn’t made it to Steeltown until now after spending time on NFL practice rosters in Indianapolis and New York. Giguere has speed to burn and will team up with Fantuz and Dave Stala for a potent Hamilton version of the ‘Canadian Air Force.’
- Jason Barnes (Receiver, Toronto)… Especially early in the season, Ricky Ray should be looking toward his familiar target from their Edmonton days. Injury trouble is all that has held back Barnes from being a 1,000-yard receiver in the CFL. In my opinion, he is poised for a big year for the Argos.
- Trent Guy (Receiver, Montreal) – Jim Popp and the Alouettes have had an uncanny knack for finding great kick returners. Guy could be the next in line as he’s been given the nod for week one versus Calgary. He could also become a valuable part of the receiving core to help out Jamal Richardson and crew.
- Chad Simpson (Running Back, Winnipeg) – The Bombers were dealt another huge blow this past week when Chad Garrett was lost for the season. They also lost Fred Reid late last season. That creates an opening for a new running back to take the lead. Simpson showed some impressive flashes during preseason action. He enters week one number two on Winnipeg’s depth chart but could jump to number one if given the chance.
- Sam Hurl (Linebacker, Saskatchewan) – Hurl is a rookie with the Riders after an impressive CIS career with the Calgary Dinos (including being Canada West Defensive Player of the Year). Hurl will undoubtedly be used primarily on special teams to start the season. But if he progresses as expected over the course of his first CFL season Hurl should see himself taking plenty of defensive reps as well.
- Hugh Charles (Running Back, Edmonton) – With the departure of Ricky Ray to the Argos and Jerome Messam (1,000 yard rusher and 2011 CFL Most Outstanding Canadian) Charles will be relied on heavily to help the Eskimos establish itself to start the season. The challenge will be for Charles, who was acquired late last season from the Riders, to step up and be an offensive leader.
- Corey Mace (Defensive Tackle, Calgary) – Similar to Giguere, Mace was drafted a few years ago (2007 by Winnipeg) but spent time in the NFL before landing north of the border. His rights were sent to Toronto and then Hamilton before eventually Calgary. Mace looked poised for a breakout campaign in 2011 and had a sack in the Stamps season opener before an Achilles injury took him out for the entire season. A healthy Mace should be a force to be reckoned with for Calgary.
- Marco Iannuzzi (Receiver, BC) – Drafted 6th overall in the 2011 Canadian Draft, Wally Buono has high hopes for this talented canuck pass catcher. With a full season and a Grey Cup title now under his belt, Iannuzzi could indeed be ready to become an impact player for the Lions both as a receiver and possibly as a kick returner.
There you have it, my thoughts on the opening day of the CFL regular season. I’m historically horrible at making Grey Cup predictions in June… but I’ll go with BC vs. Hamilton in the big game with the Leos winning their second straight title (talk about going out on a limb, I know). The beauty of the CFL is that anything can, and usually does, happen so it could just as easily be Edmonton vs. Toronto in the big game or something crazy like that. Regardless, it’ll be fun to sit back and see what happens.