June 3, 2023

Rob Vanstone: Prosperous pre-season complicates Roughriders’ roster decisions

Kelly Jeffrey’s “explosive, high-tempo scoring machine” has created an explosive headache for this seasoned scribe. 

The Saskatchewan Roughriders’ offence — choreographed by Jeffrey — has become so productive, so quickly, that any attempt to project the final roster without the benefit of a coach’s expertise or a crystal ball is a mind-bending, ultimately futile, process. 

The pre-season finale was supposed to provide some clarity. So much for that notion. Friday’s 28-16 CFL victory over the host Winnipeg Blue Bombers complicated the already-difficult decisions facing the Roughriders’ coaching staff. 

All four quarterbacks were effective as the Roughriders won both pre-season games for the first time since 2007. (That was, we hasten to remind you, a championship season.) 

The receiving corps is deep and talented — the unavoidable downside being the utter impossibility of retaining everyone as the final cutdown looms. 

The same could be said of the running backs. 

On the other side of the ball, there aren’t nearly enough roster spots to accommodate all the defensive linemen who have demonstrated that they can play. 

So … what to do? 

“We’ll watch the film as a staff,” Head Coach Craig Dickenson said from Winnipeg’s IG Field during a post-game Zoom session with reporters. “Hopefully we’ll get (the video) on the way home and then we’ll meet in the morning and we’ll talk about it. 

“We’ll talk about how we feel about our guys and what we feel is our best team moving forward. 

“It’s going to be a busy, busy 24 hours.” 

Trevor Harris could very well create long days for opposing defensive players throughout the regular season, based on the fantastic first impression he made under game conditions. 

Making his introductory on-field appearance in a Roughriders uniform, Harris was 4-for-4 for 72 yards and one touchdown — a five-yard toss to Derel Walker — on the visiting side’s opening possession. 

That was enough to satisfy Dickenson, who subsequently turned to Mason Fine and Jake Dolegala behind centre. 

As well, Jeffrey selectively deployed quarterback Shea Patterson to considerable effect in short-yardage situations or as a change-of-pace option. 

For the second game in succession, every quarterback who saw duty for Saskatchewan contributed to at least one touchdown drive. 

Over the course of the pre-season, the Roughriders completed 48 of 64 passes — a 75-per-cent accuracy rate. 

This much is certain: Harris will be the starter. After that, well … 

If you pencil in Patterson as the short-yardage specialist — a role in which he sparkled on Friday night — it comes down to Fine or Dolegala as the No. 2 quarterback. 

“I was talking to Mason and Jake during the game and they both said, ‘I don’t know if I’ve ever been part of a training camp where the quarterback room in general has played so well,’ ” Harris said. 

“It has been really, really fun, because we’ve kind of been in this together and we’ve bounced a lot of ideas off one another.” 

Jeffrey, who in his new capacity as the Offensive Co-ordinator envisions an “explosive, high-tempo scoring machine,” has also been a sounding board. 

“K.J. has been really open about listening to things that we’ve thought about and it has become a really friendly offence,” Harris continued. 

“At the same time, we know that this is pre-season. You’re seeing base defences and not a lot of the starters. 

“But to say that it’s not expected from us would be wrong as well. I think we all expect that out of ourselves and we want to make sure that we’re going out there and being efficient and giving our team the best chance to win.” 

The efficiency is such that the Roughriders rang up 26 first downs on Friday after moving the chains 27 times in last Saturday’s 30-27 home-field victory over the B.C. Lions. 

On Friday, Saskatchewan produced 18 more yards along the ground (154) than it had gained over two pre-season games in 2022. 

The running backs’ room includes two returnees (Jamal Morrow and Frankie Hickson) and impressive newcomers such as Javian Hawkins, B.J. Emmons and Rodney Smith. We repeat: What to do? 

A comparable query applies to the wealth of American-born receivers. Walker, Jake Wieneke and Shawn Bane Jr. handled all of the pass-catching during Friday’s Harris-led opening possession. 

Later, Kalija Lipscomb caught a five-yard touchdown pass from Fine. 

Isaiah McKoy made a leaping catch over the middle for a 15-yard gain and maintained possession after absorbing a thunderous hit by Jake Kelly. 

Randy Satterfield had a team-high four receptions on Friday. 

Keith Corbin III and Kendall Watson had each caught six passes in the pre-season opener.  

Factor in Tevin Jones, whose one reception on Friday produced 29 yards, and you have the aforementioned headache — especially when you consider that two of the five front-line receiving spots are to be occupied by Canadians. 

Where, oh where, do you put everyone? 

This is, we hasten to add, an enviable problem to have. 

It speaks to the calibre of recruiting by General Manager/Vice-President of Football Operations Jeremy O’Day and the two assistant GMs — Kyle Carson and Paul Jones. 

The thanks they get for such a stellar job of scouting could very well be a sleepless night as the Roughriders’ football-operations brain trust deliberates over who stays and, alas, who goes. 

It is tough enough to resolve quarterbacking quandary without having to wade through top-tier talent at other positions. 

Over two games, Fine and Dolegala were both 17-for-23. Talk about “too close to call”! 

The consistency was such that the 6-foot-7 Dolegala carried the ball three times for 23 yards in each game. 

Patterson rushed eight times for 38 yards and one score on Friday, six days after going 10-for-14 for 77 yards — including a 22-yard TD toss to Corbin III — versus B.C. 

“All three of them did a great job,” Harris said of his understudies after a game in which Saskatchewan sported a stratospheric quarterback-efficiency rating of 133.5.  

“Shea has been lighting it up in camp and he did everything that he was asked to do tonight, and last week he was lighting it up in the game. 

“You saw Mason on display tonight. He looked like a starter out there. Mason does a great job and then Jake goes out there and lights it up. 

“I’m glad I don’t have to make the decisions.”