Will Youth Rule in the West?

The Western Division of the CFL, like the rest of the league, has gone through a number of changes in the offseason. Most notably for the West, there will be a lot of new faces that are stepping up to lead the team. This offseason was a busy one and for a number of teams in the West it was not a buying year. Instead they decided to bring the new generation of players through to the starting positions. Two teams in particular did the most to inject youth into their teams as they focus on their young players to lead them. One of these teams is the defending champion B.C. Lions who are riding Travis Lulay, 29 years old, who will be in only his second full year as a starting QB in the CFL. Last year he guided them to the Grey Cup and this year he will be the face of the new breed of QBs coming up. Another team that is looking to a young QB is the Calgary Stampeders who traded their franchise QB Henry Burris in the offseason who had been replaced by Drew Tate, 28 years old. Tate will enter his first full year as a starter and will be an essential part to the new-look offence in Calgary. These QBs are the new generation of QBs in the CFL and when you play in the CFL the QB is the most essential position. The passing offence in the league requires a great arm and a great leader which has been shown in Montreal with Anthony Calvillo. There are plenty of other positions that will see young talent take over as well like in Calgary with a host of receivers like Anthony Parker looking to take over for players who will no longer be with the team like Kenyon Rambo. There is also Brandon west who will take over at running back for the Roughriders and Andrew Harris who will take over full-time as running back for the B.C. Lions. Despite these changes the focus will be on the QBs in the west as Travis Lulay and Drew Tate represent the new generation of QBs in the CFL while the Edmonton Eskimos and Saskatchewan Roughriders will be riding two veterans. The Eskimos made a big change at QB when they traded their longtime franchise QB Ricky Ray leaving a hole that will likely be filled by CFL veteran Stephen Jyles if he can stay healthy. Meanwhile in Saskatchewan it is the same guard as Darian Durant will remain at QB under their new Head coach. It will be a constant comparison throughout the season in the west as veteran leadership will be tested against the creativity and skill of the young QBs. If the young QBs can pick it up and lead their teams to the top veterans will be looked at as old and possibly out of date. If the young talent struggle this year then there will be endless scrutiny while the veterans will be seen as the way to go. There are a number of teams that have gone all out with the gamble in this year as they will look to young or unproven talent to guide them to the Grey Cup but if they pay off it will be worth it. The West is looking to youth and veterans as only one path will pay off and the fans will figure it out after 18 weeks of hard-fought football.

 

B.C. Lions

 

 

 

 

The B.C. Lions are sitting at the top of the heap in the CFL as they will act as the defending Grey Cup Champions. Last year the Lions began the season with a 1-8 start to the season before they had their bye week. After the bye week something seemed to change in BC as the team woke up including the defence. Thanks mainly to the defence the Lions began rattling off victories only losing one more game all season. The emergence of Travis Lulay and Andrew Harris also helped the Lions as the bolted to the top of the standings and finished the season in 1st place in the west. This earned them the bye where they sat back comfortable in the fact that they would play at home for the rest of the season including the Grey Cup if they could make it. Against Edmonton in the Western Division Finals the Lions were able to dominate and overcome a very rough and chippy game to move on to the 99th Grey Cup. There was not much of a challenge in the Grey Cup either as they got past the Winnipeg Blue Bombers to win their 6th Grey Cup Championship. As they moved into the offseason the Lions went through a few changes including a new coach and a number of defensive losses.

 

The biggest changes for the Lions in 2012 will be the change of their head coach as legendary coach Wally Buono has stepped down to become the General Manager and Mike Benevides has stepped in to lead the team. Benevides is not a completely new face though as he served as a coach on the Lions staff since 2003. This will limit the amount of change to the Lions way of doing things as Benevides will bring some new wrinkles to the team but has learned all he knows from Buono. Benevides will need to work with a depleted defence as he will no long have CFL veteran Brent Johnson, the most feared hitter in the CFL Solomon Elimimian, and CFL All-Star Aaron Hunt. These are three essential parts of the defence that were not addressed in the offseason. A big part of the reason was that they believe that a number of players will step up in the absence of these players including Khalif Mitchell, James Yurichuk, and Keron Williams. Instead of focusing on these holes it was the defensive backfield that was addressed as the Lions picked up Lin-J Shell and Byron Parker form the Toronto Argonauts to help provide some veteran presence in coverage. These were two great moves to make their coverage much more physical this year. On offence the team remains the same as the one that won the Grey Cup last year. Travis Lulay will continue to lead the team along with Arland Bruce III and Geroy Simon who provide a one-two punch in the wings. Geroy Simon will be a big focus for the first week as he is close to 60 yards away from the all time receiving record, one he will break this year and likely break in week 1. At running back there will be a new face as Andrew Harris takes over the starting role after an impressive performance late in the year. On special teams Paul McCallum is back and will be a solid presence for them while the return game will not be as essential thanks to their offence. The Lions have reloaded but their defence has some questions especially in the front end. The biggest challenge for them though is that every team will be out to get them in order to say they beat the champions and if the Lions cannot handle that pressure they will likely not survive. Don’t expect them to miss the playoffs though as they will still be fighting for the top spot all year and may walk away with the title again if other teams plans fail to work out.

 

Key Addition:

Byron Parker, DB

– Parker is a big physical corner who has been a staple of the Argonauts defensive backfield for years and this year he will bring his 8 years of experience to the Lions who’s defensive backs were the only weak point of a great defence last year.

 

Key Loss:

Solomon Elimimian, LB

– Voted as the most feared player in the CFL Elimimian took his reputation to the NFL when he signed with the Minnesota Vikings and left a gaping hole in the linebacking corps that will no long have an intimidating force to scare runners away from the middle

 

One to Watch:

Andrew Harris, RB

– He will enter his first full season as a starter this year after winning the Most Outstanding Canadian of the 99th Grey Cup but will he be able to handle the role as the starting running back or was his performance just a fluke?

 

Calgary Stampeders

 

 

 

 

 

In 2011 the Calgary Stampeders were a tale of two teams as they struggled to get anything going at the beginning of the season yet still finished strong. The first part of the year in 2011 was a challenging one for the Stamps offence as they seemed to be lost. Under Henry Burris the offence could not repeat their performance of 2010 and struggled to score despite having some top talent in the skilled positions. Despite the lack of offence the Stamps still remained in the fight for the top spot in the West giving them a good opportunity but if they hoped to win it all they needed to improve the offence. So the Stamps looked to make changes in the offence as they tried to get their offence back. The biggest change was that the Stamps decided to go with Drew Tate at quarterback as they sat longtime QB Henry Burris. Under Drew Tate the Stamps finished in third place making the playoffs with a much improved offence. In the semi-finals the Stamps could not get past their longtime rivals in Edmonton as their playoff run was cut short. This year they hope to continue their strong play from the end of the season and avenge the playoff loss as they look to a new leader for their chance.

 

This year the Stamps made one of the biggest splashes in the offseason as they determined 100% who they were looking to for leadership. Henry Burris made it clear that he would not play back up this year yet that was the path he was on as Drew Tate had been pegged as the starter for 2012. The Stampeders decided to trade their franchise QB to the Hamilton Tiger Cats for Kevin Glenn (QB), Mark Dewit (OL), and a conditional draft pick. Tate will take over and will have plenty of help on offence though as he will have a very deep receiving corps and a veteran presence in the backfield. The receiving corps will be led by Nik Lewis after Ken-Yon Rambo was cut from the team during the last round of training camp cuts. Along with Lewis will be Chris Bauman, Arjei Franklin, Jabari Arthur, Johnny Forzani, Larry Taylor, and Anthony Parker. There are plenty of options for Tate but he will need to get it to them to be effective. Behind Tate will be a familiar face as well with Jon Cornish taking over as full-time running back and will provide a stabilizing force in the offence. On defence the Stamps will be looking to a strengthened linebacking corps to lead the entire team. Juwan Simpson, and Malik Jackson will be joined by Joe Lobendahn to create a solid middle defence that should be the strength of the Stamps. The Stamps did not have any impact player on the line that could put pressure on the quarterback. This year they will get some reinforcements as Corey Mace returns from an injury that kept him out of the lineup all season. Mace along with Kenny Pettway and Charleston Hughes should provide a better presence on the defensive line. If these three cannot get pressure a lot of the workload will fall on Brandon Smith and the defensive backfield but they can only handle so much. The special teams have remained the same as the Stamps will likely go with a two kicker rotation with Rob Maver punting and Rene Paredes placekicking. The Stamps offence looks much more powerful than it did last year as long as Drew Tate can lead them. The biggest question will be on defence as they will need to get more pressure on the QB in order to take the pressure off of the defensive backfield. Overall the Stampeders look to be a good team this year that will make the playoffs but if Tate can’t get the offence going they may struggle even if Kevin Glenn steps in.

 

Key Addition:

Joe Lobendahn, LB

– The veteran linebacker was a key component of the Swaggerville defence in Winnipeg last year and his addition to the Stampeders will provide a great presence up the middle of the defence and create what could be the best linebacking corps in the lead

 

Key Loss:

Henry Burris, QB

– He was the face of the franchise for years as he led the Stamps to two Grey Cups in his career and his loss will be a major issue as he was the leader and veteran presence on the team that will leave some big shoes to fill

 

Who to Watch:

Drew Tate, QB

– He took over for Burris last year but this will mark his first year as the starter from week one and he will need to fill the shoes of one of the best QBs that the Stamps have seen the big question is whether or not he can handle that pressure?

 

Edmonton Eskimos

 

 

 

 

The Edmonton Eskimos had a very interesting season last year as they seemed to limp through the entire season. With a new regime in place the Eskies were expecting a rough start to the season. Instead Kavis Reed had his team in sync from the start of the year springing out to a 5-0 start to the season. Then came the 3 game losing streak but Reed would not let his team get down and rallied them for the Labour Day Classic. They moved on to finish the season with an 11-7 record taking the second place spot in the West after missing the playoffs the year before. They moved on to the semi-finals where they took on their longtime provincial rivals in the Calgary Stampeders. They easily got past the Stamps thanks in large part to Jerome Messam’s performance that he continue throughout the season. The moved on to the Western Division finals where they took on the B.C. Lions but their luck ran out as they were easily beaten by the Lions. Their season ended and a great turnaround was limited to the regular season. This year Reed has lost some key pieces of his offence but he will try to move on and continue to lead the Eskies to the top of the division.

 

The offseason for the Eskies was a big one as Edmonton was one half of the biggest deal of the season. This deal was the trade of the face of the franchise and franchise QB, Ricky Ray to the Toronto Argonauts. In exchange the Eskimos received Stephen Jyles (QB), Grant Shaw (K) and Toronto’s 1st round draft pick in 2012. Ricky Ray was never the most popular quarterback in Edmonton as he had a long battle with Jason Maas for the starting job where many fans were cheering for Maas. Now the Eskimos are left without their QB who won them two Grey Cup Championships. In his place will be Stephen Jyles who struggled with injuries last year in Toronto and then struggled to find a rhythm with the team. This year he has a full camp and will be a starter from the first week meaning he will have a better opportunity to mesh with his wide receivers. He will have a mix of receivers some with experience and others with none, making the receiving corps a work in progress. The leader of the receivers will be the two slot-backs as Fred Stamps and Adarius Bowman will need to act as mentors to a host of young receivers. The highlights of the young receiving corps could be the last two draft picks as Nate Coehoorn and Shamawd Chambers who will play alongside Cary Koch and Greg Carr giving Jyles a young but untested group to through to. The Eskies also lost reigning Outstanding Canadian Jerome Messam, RB who moved to the NFL and is recovering from a knee injury. On defence the Eskimos do not really have any standout players as they did not add any big play names. Other than JC Sherritt, who could be a great defensive leader, the Eskimos seem to be a team first defence that have few individuals but are good as a team. On special teams the Eskies have many options for kickers with Grant Shaw, Derek Schiavone, and punter Burke Dales. The Eskimos have lost a lot this year and most of it was on their offence making them a big question mark. The Eskimos defence is not a strength either as they have no game changers on the defensive side of the ball. It looks to be a tough year for the Eskimos who will struggle to find a rhythm on offence and do not have the defence to make up for it. They will likely fight for a playoff spot at the end of the year and could be out of playoff contention unless their offence can click.

 

Key Addition:

Greg Carr, WR

– He is not the experienced receiver they need but Carr’s big body and solid frame has already played dividends in the CFL and his addition to the Eskimos receiving corps and could become a favorite target of Stephen Jyles

 

Key Loss:

Ricky Ray, QB

– The franchise was tethered to Ray and his two Grey Cup Championships and with his trade the Eskimos are without a proven CFL QB who has shown his ability to adjust and lead a team which will be missed in Edmonton

 

Who to Watch:

Stephen Jyles, QB

– Jyles has been in the league 6 years and has had one great year in 2010 when he was part of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and last year he struggled with the Toronto Argonauts but this year he will be the key to the Eskimos offence and their playoff hopes

 

Saskatchewan Roughriders

 

 

 

The Roughriders began last season with some big hopes as they were coming off of two straight seasons where they went to the Grey Cup. Still they had lost both years and were not the best team in 2010 yet still made it to the Grey Cup. The 2011 season was a season where many expected the Riders to get back into the playoffs. Instead the Riders seemed completely lost as they came out to a 1-7 record. The season was a giant disappointment for the Riders as they couldn’t seem to get anything right all season. The season started off on a bad note as Andy Fantuz went to the NFL leaving the team without a big receiving threat. In his place would be Chris Getzlaf who did his best to fill the void but could not be the new Fantuz. On defence the team broke down completely as they were unable to stop anything. The cost was a head coach and a playoff spot as the Riders went from the top of the West to the bottom. The entire season was a wash as the Riders seemed to be out of it from the start and when the season ended that’s where then ended up. This year they will look to recover from the disappointing season last year and they will do so with a slightly reloaded roster.

 

The Riders this year will be under yet another new head coach after Greg Marshall was fired last year and Ken Miller finally stepped away from Football. So they go into this season with Corey Chamblin, former Hamilton Tiger-Cats defensive Coordinator, leading the way. He will try to recover the Riders back to the team they were two years ago. Darian Durant was not the same person as he used to be when Andy Fantuz was on the team. He will need to work out the chemistry between him and his wide receivers including Chris Getzlaf, Weston Dressler, and Rob Bagg if they hope to have a chance. Durant will have more time to gain that comfort level as they will have a revamped offensive line. The line is where the Riders made their most moves as they were able to land two of the best free agents in the CFL in Brendon LaBatte and Dominic Picard. These two signings plus the top draft pick in Ben Heenan create a brand new and very skilled line that will provide Durant with more than enough protection. At running back they will have to move on form a Rider staple in Wes Cates who was not resigned by the team as Brandon West takes over. On the defence the Riders made a number of changes to improve a very weak defensive effort last year. Their biggest addition is O’Dell Willis, the former “Mayor of Swaggerville” in Winnipeg. Willis is a solid defensive lineman who reached 13 sacks last season to tie for the lead in the CFL. They will need all the help they can get up front as they lost three linebackers last year with Jerrell Freeman signing in the NFL and Barrin Simpson and Sean Lucas retiring. In their place will be Shomari Williams, Abraham Kromah, and Tyron Brackenridge. All three linebackers will get their first chance to shine this year as they look to replace some great linebackers. On special teams Chris Milo will be the main kicker all season as a dependable leg for the team. It is clear that the Riders made some small improvements to look at their biggest holes and on offence it could all pay off but the question will be whether or not the linebacking corps can hold up. It is a big question but the Riders will be rebuilding the right way and it may take some time to get back to the old form. Still with some uncertainty in the West the Riders will be battling for a playoff spot and could take it unless the East can beat them.

 

Key Addition:

O’Dell Willis, DE

– his off the field issues are the reason he left Winnipeg but the Riders will take what they can get as Willis is a great pass rusher who totaled 13 sacks last year to tie him for the lead in the CFL as he looks to bring those 13 sacks to Saskatchewan

 

Key Loss:

Andy Fantuz, WR

– Fantuz did not play much last year after signing with the Chicago Bears and then suffering an ankle injury that kept him out of the season but it is clear he is one of the best receivers in the game and the Riders will miss him

 

Who to Watch:

Brandon West, RB

– Taking over for the durable fan favorite Wes Cates will not be an easy job for West but this is what he will be up against as he takes over the starting role full time and will try to be a go to guy on the offence this year

 

Prediction:

1. *B.C. Lions

2. *Calgary Stampeders

3. Saskatchewan Roughriders

4. Edmonton Eskimos

*playoff berth

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