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May 26, 2017

Chris Jones has kept his shoulder to the wheel

Saskatchewan Roughriders head coach Chris Jones during the 2017 CFL combine in Regina, SK., Saturday, March 25, 2017. (Photo: Johany Jutras)

Chris Jones experienced a different kind of season in 2016, but that didn’t cause him to have a different kind of off-season.

In his first campaign as the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ head coach, general manager and vice-president of football operations, Jones led the CFL team to a 5-13-0 record. It was the first time in Jones’ 15-year career in the league that he had missed the playoffs.

As much as that may have stung, it didn’t alter Jones’ off-season approach.

“We didn’t get where we wanted to be last year, so you go back to the grindstone and you keep grinding and doing all the things you’ve always done,” he said Wednesday during a conference call. “We’ve won everywhere else, so we’ll just keep on grinding.”

Since November, Jones and his staff have criss-crossed North America in search of players to upgrade Saskatchewan’s roster. Tryout camps were followed by a mini-camp in Florida that produced some legitimate candidates for the 2017 roster.

The Roughriders also were buyers on the free-agent market, landing players such as left tackle Derek Dennis (winner of the CFL’s most outstanding offensive lineman award in 2016), defensive tackles Eddie Steele and Zach Minter, linebacker Glenn Love, receiver Chad Owens and tailback Kienan LaFrance.

Jones also was active last off-season after joining the Roughriders from the Edmonton Eskimos, but his activity back then resulted from his desire to rebuild his new team. Now he’s trying to fine-tune the roster.

“(The two off-seasons) are similar in the fact that we’ve been just as busy, or busier,” Jones said. “Our expectation level every year is to be in the playoffs and win the Grey Cup. Unfortunately, we did neither of those (in 2016). The urgency to win and win right now is there with our staff moreso than it is for anybody, so we’ve continued to grind.”

That means beating the bushes for players.

One of the main reasons the Roughriders struggled last season was a lack of quality depth. In some cases when a starter got hurt, his replacement didn’t reach the starter’s level of play — and addressing that dropoff was one of the Roughriders’ main focuses this off-season.

That could result in a lack of chemistry, but quarterback Kevin Glenn — another of the off-season acquisitions — believes that can be overcome quickly.

“The weakness (in the team) would be us gelling together,” Glenn said during the call. “But I don’t think it’s a weakness if we all strive for that one goal, and that one goal is to do whatever we can individually to help the team win.

“The strength is the fact that we have depth on this team now. Last year, the team went through some troubles as far as injuries are concerned. What the coaches did this year was go out and address that concern.”

The Roughriders open training camp May 28 in Saskatoon with a roster full of receivers, including returnees like Rob Bagg, Ricky Collins Jr., Nic Demski, Caleb Holley and Naaman Roosevelt.

CFL veterans like Owens and Bakari Grant were added in free agency, rookies such as Antwane Grant and Jenson Stoshak were discovered at the Roughriders’ mini-camp in Florida, and slotback Mitchell Picton was selected from the University of Regina Rams in the CFL draft.

The receiving corps is so loaded with talent that it’s one area on which Jones said he would focus in training camp.

The veterans who were added at receiver — as well as those who were brought in at other positions — will be relied on for more than just their on-field ability.

“We felt like we had ample leadership (in 2016), but from time to time, because of all the injuries, a lot of those guys weren’t there,” Jones said. “It’s tougher to be a leader when you’re standing on the sidelines.

“We’re hoping that we added enough leadership that, if we do run into the same issue, we’ll still have at least a couple of guys around who can help be leaders on our football team.”

The Roughriders go into camp with question marks at several positions, including quarterback (can Glenn, going on 38 years old, still be a productive starter?), running back (who will start, Cameron Marshall or Daniel Thomas?), offensive line (can Brendon LaBatte stay healthy?) and defensive back (who’s going to replace Justin Cox?).

Jones believes the Roughriders have had a good off-season of searching for answers, but he’s still taking a wait-and-see approach.

“We’re not going to make any bold predictions; that’s for other organizations to do,” Jones said. “The one promise we can make is that we’re going to work and do everything we can possibly do to try to win as many football games as possible.”

Jones also has the memory of 2016 to motivate him, if he’s so inclined.

“It has been a long time since I had a losing season, so we’ll just have to use what we can use,” he said when asked if he would use last season or flush it. “What we can use, we’ll utilize and what we won’t, we’ll get rid of.

“I can tell you this: We won’t dwell on it. Our staff is too positive to sit there and dwell on negatives and feel sorry for ourselves, I can assure you of that.”