Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Battle to replace RB Williams a focus as Redblacks camp kicks off

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“From what I’ve seen, it’s an extremely competitive group.”

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Six months after dealing with the immediate anguish of a 4-14 record in his first full season as the Ottawa Redblacks’ head coach, Bob Dyce had a “very happy feeling” when he gazed at and around the TD Place turf Thursday, Day 1 of the team’s 2024 two-day rookie camp.

“When you look at the guys that our personnel department has brought in you can tell this group is a little different from what we’ve seen here in the last little while,” Dyce said. “Good size, good athletic ability … Having the opportunity to speak with these guys in meetings and whatnot, it’s a very attentive group.

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“It’s been a fantastic start.”

Along with what he witnessed from the 75 or so players running drills, Dyce appreciated having veterans such as quarterback Jeremiah Masoli and wide receiver Keaton Bruggeling watching from the sidelines.

“You see some of the veteran guys who didn’t have to be here kind of chomping at the bit to get back on the field,” he said. “It seems like we haven’t been here for a while and really got some unfinished business to take care of, so we’re excited to start working towards our goal.”

Dyce had told the rookies to look at Thursday and Friday as a “fantastic opportunity” to get a good idea of what the Canadian Football League was all about so that, when the veterans suit up for the main camp starting Sunday, “they’re competing at the same level.”

He also reminded them that they earned the opportunity to be here.

“I told them, ‘Be confident in yourself, have strong belief, we wouldn’t have brought you here for no reason … You’re a great player and let that shine through,’” Dyce said. “We all perform our best when we’re confident and prepared. And that’s what professional football is all about. That’s what they’ve got to work on.”

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Asked how many players from the rookie camp would be moving on to the main camp, Dyce wouldn’t commit.

“They’re going to really dictate that,” he said. “At the end of the day, we’ve got to make sure we’ve got to be better than what we were. And so they’re going to have the opportunity to come in and compete. I don’t want to limit them by saying a number. They’ve got to come out here and then compete … maybe a lot more than what we anticipate. From what I’ve seen, it’s an extremely competitive group.”

“We’re hoping to get surprised,” he added. “The better they are and the more they push our veterans or exceed them, the better team we’re going to be.”

One glaring opening is at the starting running back position.

Owning the job last season was Devonte Williams, who was fifth in league rushing with 1,002 yards despite playing just 15 games.

In training for an encore performance, Williams suffered an Achilles injury that required surgery and will likely keep him out of the season.

The top two candidates to replace him appear to be Ryquell Armstead, a fifth-round pick of the National Football League’s Jacksonville Jaguars in 2019, who was with the Redblacks for about a month last season, but was never activated, and Kylin Hill, a seventh-round pick of the Green Bay Packers in 2021.

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“We probably have a little better vision of who Ryquell is, having seen them last year,” Dyce said. “He’s come here in fantastic shape. Even last year, when he was a little bit heavier, he exhibited fantastic feet for a man his size and ran with power.

“Really what they have to do is come in and embrace the offence, get a great understanding of the offence, which under (new offensive co-ordinator) Tommy (Condell) is slightly different than what we’ve done here before. Their protection skills are going to be really important, as is them having the understanding we want really big strong downhill runners with these guys. We know our offensive line is going to push and lean on people, but these guys got to be able to move the pile themselves. They have outstanding feet, they both exhibit great quickness, so I’m really looking forward to see them advance as camp goes through.”

Ryquell Armstead Ottawa Redblacks
Ryquell Armstead spent some time with the Redblacks in 2023, but was not activated to the roster. Photo by Jean Levac /POSTMEDIA

Armstead, who is listed at 5-11 and 220 pounds, played 18 games with the Jaguars. Google his name and you’ll immediate notice a video of him “trucking” an Indianapolis Colts defender in 2022.

“First and foremost, I want to give prayers to Devonte,” Armstead said when asked about the job he’s applying for. “I came here last year for about a month and I was able to come underneath him and get to play with him. This whole offseason I’ve been working my tail off, training, in preparation of coming in and competing with Devonte. So that’s sad for us, but it’s an opportunity. I’ve been working, I’m ready, I feel great.

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“All in all, the new OC is amazing. I’m loving the system, the schemes. I feel more free. A lot of, a lot of space, the opportunity, and I’m just taking advantage of it.”

Bob Dyce
Ottawa Redblacks head coach Bob Dyce. Photo by Heywood Yu /THE CANADIAN PRESS

Armstead said he was “very confident” in himself and his abilities.

“Like I said, a long time ago, a lot of people gave up on me and I’ve just been building myself up from the ground up,” he said. “I’m here and I’m ready to push.

“I’m real. I’m myself at all times,” he said when asked about his greatest attribute. “On the field I’m elusive. I can do it all. I can catch, run and hit the home run. I can do it all.”

Hill was a star at Mississippi State from 2017 to 2020 and was lined up to be Green Bay’s return specialist when he torn his ACL as an NFL rookie.

He credits Packers veterans Aaron Rodgers and David Bakhtiari with getting him back in the game.

“The rehab was hard, but they told me to attack it and stay focused,” Hill said. “You’re on the sideline, watching guys, so the hardest thing is focusing.”

Hill credited Rodgers, the quarterback, with helping him become a better running back.

“He taught me how to run routes, taught me where I should be, where he want me to be on certain plays,” Hill said. “He welcomed me in with open arms.”

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Like Armstead, Hill is confident he can help the Redblacks.

“I feel like with my skill set, I can bring in big-play energy,” he said. “I can catch the ball … Whenever they need a play I feel I can deliver. Or whenever we need energy, when the offence is down, I can do that.”

HASHMARKS: Rookie camp concludes with Friday’s on-field session from 1 to 3 p.m, while main camp begins with players taking the field Sunday at 8:30 a.m. to 11 a.m.. That is also the usual time slot for all of next week. Camp is open to the public.

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