Saturday, June 15, 2024

Justin Howell gives Ottawa Redblacks pep talk before game vs. Ticats

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For the second straight year, Bob Dyce has called on safety Justin Howell to talk to his Ottawa Redblacks teammates, many of them rookies, a couple of hours before they hit the road for their first CFL pre-season game on Saturday afternoon in Hamilton.

The Redblacks starters on Saturday in The Hammer will mostly be newcomers, guys fighting for jobs as training camp begins to wind down.

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Howell, a seventh-round draft pick by the Redblacks in 2018, is the poster boy to illustrate what hard work during the pre-season can do. In his team’s second pre-season game six years ago, he locked down a roster spot with his performance against the Toronto Argos in Guelph.

There is currently heated competition across the board for roster spots. And, so, on Friday, Dyce called Howell to the middle of the huddle to deliver some words of inspiration and hope.

“He talked about being a fifth-string safety (during training camp),” said Dyce. “He made such an impression that (we had to put him on the roster). That’s what I’m looking for from these guys. They have to seize this opportunity and make the decisions as tough as possible for us. That’s on them. I often tell them I never set the depth chart, they do. That’s how they have to look at it.

“It’s been a very competitive camp. You want to stand out within the framework of what we’re trying to do on offence, special teams and defence. You’ve got to show that you have the ability to play here.”

While the Tiger-Cats will have many of their projected starters in the lineup (notable exceptions are running back James Butler, defensive back Jamal Peters and defensive lineman Dewayne Hendrix) for Saturday’s game (2 p.m. start), several of the Redblacks’ key players will sit. That includes receivers Bralon Addison, Justin Hardy, Jaelon Acklin and Dominique Rhymes, defensive backs Howell and Money Hunter, linebackers Adarius Pickett, Jovan Santos-Knox and Frankie Griffin, kicker Lewis Ward, defensive linemen Bryce Carter, Mike Wakefield, Cleyon Laing and Lorenzo Mauldin IV and offensive linemen Dino Boyd and Drew Desjarlais.

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One big exception for the Redblacks: Dru Brown, Ottawa’s starting quarterback, will take the first snaps on Saturday. After spending much of the past three seasons behind Zach Collaros on the Blue Bombers depth chart, Brown is ‘the guy’ in Ottawa. Each opportunity to get more comfortable with new offensive co-ordinator Tommy Condell’s playbook is a good thing.

“Any time you get into a pre-season game, you want to be clean and crisp,” said Brown. “From an analytical sense. I’d like to just execute the offence, help communicate to the young guys where they need to be and what needs to be done and set a standard.”

As training camp begins to blend into the opening of the season, Brown says he’s in a good place.

“I feel comfortable,” he said. “As training camp goes, you’re obviously spending a lot of time with the guys, you’re getting acclimated and starting to build relationships, which is ultimately what it comes down to when you’re in my position. We’re well on our way to creating those relationships and being tight as a unit.

“From a systematic sense, everything is clicking. Pre-season is always fairly vanilla as far as what you’re going to do. So, you’re really just looking for guys to play fast and execute stuff we’ve done since Day 1 of camp.”

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Receiver Keaton Bruggeling, a third-round draft pick (out of Carleton University) in 2022, is one of the players trying to make an impact Saturday. He’s listed as a starter, ahead of Nick Mardner, the team’s first-round pick this year, and with the departure of Nate Behar, there is a starting spot open.

“I feel excellent, the best shape I’ve been in coming into and going through a camp,” said Bruggeling. “I like this offence a lot. I feel like it plays to my strengths. I’m looking forward to showcase what I can do.

“Everyone’s excited to hit somebody. We’ve had a couple of weeks of just running around and not really getting the chance to show what we can do when the ball is live. A lot of guys play better when games are live.”

Asked about the locker-room vibe compared to the Redblacks of 2023, Bruggeling said: “New team, new everything. The coaching staff, everyone is much more positive. There’s much better communication within the offence. I feel the passion, I feel everyone’s bought in. We really think we can do some damage this year.”

And how much does Saturday’s game mean?

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“It’s a winning culture,” said Bruggeling. “Everyone wants to win. If you’re not trying to win, why are you out there?”

Look for the Redbacks to use a veteran-heavy lineup in their second pre-season game, next Friday at home versus Montreal. Ottawa then has a bye during Week 1 of the regular season, opening at home June 13 against Winnipeg.

“This a marathon more than it is a sprint,” said Dyce. “We’re just at the beginning of our journey, we have a long way to go.”
X: @TimCBaines

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