January 5, 2018

Chris Jones talks quarterbacks

After trading Darian Durant in January of 2017, Chris Jones said the Saskatchewan Roughriders would leave no stone unturned in their search for a quarterback.

The CFL team followed through on that plan in 2017, signing pivots including Kevin Glenn, Vince Young, Bryan Bennett, Maty Mauk and Marquise Williams before the 2017 regular season began (only Glenn and Williams stuck), trading for Vernon Adams Jr., during the campaign, and signing David Watford late in the season.

Almost a full calendar year after Jones made that pledge, he’s still walking the walk. Even after trading for Zach Collaros this week, the Roughriders’ head coach and general manager doesn’t seem ready to stop upending rocks.

Asked if Wednesday’s acquisition of Collaros from the Hamilton Tiger-Cats will end the Roughriders’ hunt for a quarterback for 2018, Jones replies: “We’ll see.”

“We never say never,” he adds. “I know we’ve got a couple of good quarterbacks who have played a lot of football. We’ll see exactly how this plays out come the start of mini-camp (in April).”

With Thursday’s release of Glenn — who passed for 4,038 yards and 25 touchdowns while posting a 9-8-0 record in 17 regular-season starts in 2017 — Saskatchewan now has Collaros, Adams, Williams, Watford and Brandon Bridge as its quarterbacks.

A widely held belief was that the Roughriders would take a run in free agency at James Franklin, who played for Jones with the Edmonton Eskimos in 2015. If the trade for Collaros didn’t end that speculation, Franklin’s decision to sign with the Toronto Argonauts on Friday certainly did.

Bridge has started two games in his CFL career (including one for the Roughriders in 2017), while Adams has started three contests (all with the Montreal Alouettes in 2016). Williams and Watford, meanwhile, have yet to start a CFL game in their young careers.

That leaves Collaros (43 starts for Hamilton) as the most-experienced pivot currently on the Roughriders’ roster.

But Jones isn’t anointing his new acquisition as the Roughriders’ starter just yet — and the head coach made that abundantly clear to Bridge when the two talked Wednesday.

“I told him, ‘It’s a situation where I don’t see anything different from last year,’ ” Jones says, referring to a campaign in which Glenn beat out Bridge for the starting job in training camp. “There’s going to be competition like there always is.

“We had an opportunity to add a good, solid, quality quarterback (in Collaros) to the stable that we already have. Anytime that’s available, I think it’s smart to make that move. He’s just another added cog to our dimension at quarterback.”

That said, Collaros certainly has the resumé to be the Roughriders’ answer at the position.

The University of Cincinnati product was the Tiger-Cats’ starting QB for most of the past four seasons before losing the No. 1 job to Jeremiah Masoli midway through the 2017 campaign.

Collaros didn’t play more than 13 games in any of his seasons in Hamilton, thanks to a variety of injuries that put him on the shelf or, in the case of 2017, to an 0-8-0 record to start the season.

But during a media conference held Wednesday to discuss the trade, Roughriders assistant vice-president of football operations and administration Jeremy O’Day noted that the Tiger-Cats’ 2017 season changed for the better when the offensive line was improved — a move that was made before Masoli supplanted Collaros as the starter.

The Roughriders are confident that Collaros’ injury woes are behind him. They also believe that he can get back to being the quarterback he was in Hamilton and, before that, in Toronto (where he was Ricky Ray’s backup/injury replacement).

“Zach is just such a high-character guy; that’s what I feel we added more than anything,” Jones says. “In the locker room, he’s going to command respect. He has got fantastic leadership skills and work habits. People gravitate towards Zach.

“He has had his ups in the league. He has been the highest-paid guy in the league. He has been the best player in the league for a short time. Certainly he has fallen on hard times and been scrutinized, so this is a good opportunity for him to kind of reinvent himself.”

In reality, Jones has firsthand knowledge of what makes the 29-year-old Collaros tick.

Jones was the Argonauts’ defensive co-ordinator and assistant general manager in 2012 when a friend brought up Collaros’ name. Like Collaros, Jones’ acquaintance hails from Steubenville, Ohio, and his scouting report on Collaros eventually earned the young quarterback a contract with the Argonauts.

“Zach did a good job for us in Toronto, and he certainly presents major issues,” says Jones, who left the Argos to become the Eskimos’ head coach in 2014 — the same year that Collaros signed with Hamilton as a free agent.

“When he was playing his best football in 2015, (the Tiger-Cats) smoked us in Edmonton (49-20, with Collaros throwing for 325 yards and three touchdowns). Unfortunately for him, he got hurt in 2015 and hasn’t regained his form since then, so we’re hoping he can regain the form that he had prior to the injury.”

Jones firmly believes Collaros can do that, in part because of their time together in Toronto and in part because of Collaros’ background.

“Steubenville, Ohio, is a place where you’re kind of destined to be a football player,” Jones says. “He has been groomed his whole life to be that guy.”