Monday, May 27, 2024

It’s camp time: High expectations, huge hopes for Ottawa Redblacks

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Early Sunday morning, it will get very real for the Ottawa Redblacks — with the first “official” day of training camp beginning at 8:30 a.m. at TD Place.

We will know soon enough if what appears to be a positive off-season of key additions pays off with wins, something RNation hasn’t seen nearly enough of going back to 2018.

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With some high-profile newcomers on board, there are high expectations and huge hopes in Redblackland

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Among those expected to step into the Redblacks’ lineup and immediately be difference-makers in 2024: Quarterback Dru Brown, receiver Dominique Rhymes and linebacker/defensive back Adarius Pickett.

The off-season roster tinkering also brings a new scheme on offence, with longtime Hamilton Tiger-Cats offensive co-ordinator Tommy Condell replacing Khari Jones.

Change, especially in the CFL, is inevitable. Injuries happen. It’s adapting and being able to overcome adversity that pushes teams in the right direction.

“There’s always going to be change, you can guarantee that,” Condell said. “You can say this guy is pencilled in, that guy is pencilled in. Things happen, that’s part of football. It’s not like it’s not going to happen to the other eight teams as well.”

For Condell, the job with the Redblacks provides a fresh start after he was replaced by Scott Milanovich early last August after four years as the Ticats’ offensive co-ordinator.

Over the next few weeks, there will be a battle to see who replaces injured Devonte Williams as the starting running back. Asked for what he’s looking for in somebody stepping into the role, Condell said: “It needs to be an all-around back. That means they have to be able to pass protect, they have to have the wherewithal to  be able to run downhill and play physical football. They have to be a team player because we ask them to do so many different things — run, block, catch, all those kinds of things. That, in a nutshell, is what we’re asking for.”

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On the offensive line, there will be eyes on both Dontae Bull, who appears to be in much better football shape, and another former first-round draft choice, Zack Pelehos, the leading candidates to start at right tackle.

With the addition of Rhymes, who had 1,401 yards in catches two years ago with the BC Lions, receiver looks like a position of strength for Ottawa. The Redblacks go into camp with four former 1,000-yard pass catchers (Rhymes, Jaelon Acklin, Bralon Addison and Justin Hardy). It’s a group that mixes size with speed. When the Redblacks were at the height of their success, they had four 1,000-yard receivers (combinations that included Brad Sinopoli, Greg Ellingson, Ernest Jackson, Chris Williams and Diontae Spencer).

After three years of playing behind all-star QB Zach Collaros in Winnipeg, Brown will be given the opportunity to be the Redblacks’ starting quarterback.

While the Redblacks had a two-day rookie camp Thursday and Friday, Condell will now get a chance to see what kind of offensive weapons he has at his disposal. With a bye in Week 1, the Redblacks don’t open their regular season until June 13 with a home game against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

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That gives Condell lots of time to figure out what he has.

“It’s a journey, it’s not going to happen overnight,” Condell said. “It’s a long season, we just have to stack some bricks. You have to climb the proverbial mountain, you hope to move your base camp closer and closer to the summit when you start training camp. We’re going to set expectations and correct day to day.

“With the veterans coming in, that’s when this organically starts growing. One part of the evaluation is can they understand, how fast can they learn, are they going to be comfortable being uncomfortable? You have to see what the development is from one day to the next.”

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To reduce their training camp roster to 85, excluding “non-counters,” the Redblacks have released DBs Bralen Trahan, Elijah Jones, Yusuf Corker and Tareke Lewis, linebackers Tylar Wiltz, Caliph Bruce and Sherrod Greene, defensive linemen Thomas Schaffer, Deyon Sizer and Owen Carney, running back Tyler Hoosman and receivers Kris Thornton, Joseph Walker, Jayson Jackson, Tyler Hudson and KeSean Carter.

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The Redblacks will have five guest coaches — Kristine Walker, Isaiah Johns, Corey Grant, Mike Filer and Kye Stewart — on the field for training camp.

Walker joins the strength and conditioning staff as part of the CFL’s Women in Football program, while Johns will work with the defensive backs, as a member of the league’s Diversity in Football initiative. Grant, the head coach of the Carleton Ravens, will help with the receiver group, Filer, a longtime Tiger-Cat, comes on board to assist with the offensive line, and Stewart (outside linebackers coach at Illinois State) will work with the linebackers and special teams units.

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