May 12, 2024

Mace’s paces: Roughriders poised to begin main training camp

SASKATOON — Welcome to Sunday, which doubles as Thor’s Day.

A.J. Ouellette, proud possessor of the trademark Thor hammer, is to make his on-field debut with the Saskatchewan Roughriders on the much-anticipated first day of Coors Light Training Camp.

Main training camp, anyway.

After putting the rookies through their paces on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at Griffiths Stadium, the Roughriders’ coaches are poised to conduct a series of workouts for the entire group.

“For the rooks, they’ve got three days in, so they’ve got experience and they’ve sort of jockeyed for position among themselves,” Head Coach Corey Mace says.

“The vets come in and they’re going to see some guys who are a little more polished. It’s just a matter of re-establishing themselves.

“There’s the buzz of knowing that who we’re going to go with is here and we’re on the field. That’s the main thing. I know the vets have been watching things on the iPad, too, so they’re ready to get going and it’s an exciting time.”

Day 1 of main camp is also “a unique experience,” in the words of Mace, because of the accompanying excitement over the dawn of football season and the intriguing battles ahead.

“We breed competition in everything we do, so you can’t pull back from that,” Mace says. “You’ve got to embrace it and slug it out, baby.”

Although the competition will be across the board — with every repetition, every snap, being recorded and appraised — certain areas stand out.

On defence, the secondary will be one of the primary areas to watch.

“There’s going to be some spots open in the back end — corner spots,” Mace says, “and there’s going to be some competition.”

The linebacking corps looms as an area of strength with the additions via free agency of Jameer Thurman (who is expected to man the middle) and the re-signing of C.J. Reavis (who excelled on the strong side last season).

As well, the Roughriders added National linebacker Adam Auclair via free agency. Auclair, who registered 10 defensive tackles for the Ottawa REDBLACKS when they played host to the Roughriders on Sept. 22, will get a long look at the weak-side position.

“We’re really excited about Auclair,” Mace says, “but he’s going to be pushed by some these young guys.”

On offence, the left tackle position is “something we’ve got to keep a close eye on,” according to Mace. The position, likely to be filled by an American, is up for grabs.

“Some of these (new) guys out here have an opportunity to make waves and push for a position,” Mace says.

There is a deep pool of receiving prospects to accompany returning 1,000-yard producers Samuel Emilus and Shawn Bane Jr.

Kian Schaffer-Baker could easily join the 1,000-yard club as a fourth-year CFLer. Keep in mind that he amassed 1,037 yards from scrimmage — 960 on receptions and 67 along the ground — in 2022.

There is a long lineup of candidates for the remaining two starting sports in the receiving corps.

As a contrast, there isn’t any mystery as to the identity of the starting quarterback. But who will back up Trevor Harris?

The ranks of the signal-callers also includes returnees Mason Fine, Shea Patterson, Antonio Pipkin. Newcomer Jack Coan completes the quarterbacking picture.

Fine, a fourth-year Roughrider, started four games last season.

Patterson and Pipkin have an opportunity to expand their roles after working primarily with the short-yardage unit in 2023.

Coan, who started with the Wisconsin Badgers and Notre Dame Fighting Irish, arrives with impressive credentials.

As camp unfolds, Harris and his quarterbacking colleagues will be dispensing handoffs to Ouellette — a marquee free-agent signing who rushed for 1,009 yards with the Toronto Argonauts last season.

In this day and age, football teams require multiple ball-carriers.

With that in mind, who will complement Ouellette? Frankie Hickson and Thomas Bertrand-Hudon return to the Roughriders. Jerrion Ealy is a promising newcomer at tailback.

“Certainly, having the ball in your hands possesses something that sparks interest, but the main thing is if you can’t help keep our quarterback upright, it’s going to be tough for us to keep you,” Mace says.

A player can enhance his chances of being retained by sparkling on special teams.

“These rookies understand that,” Mace says. “We’ve been very vocal about how you make a team. If you can’t contribute right away on the offensive or defensive side of the ball, it’s going to be through special teams.

“Up here, special teams are so important, and in this building it’s extremely important. We believe that’s one of the key ingredients to success and winning football.

“If you look at the drills and the time that we spend on special teams, that should tell you how important that is to us. These guys understand that. Even (on Friday) in one of the special teams drills, they were competing their tails off against one another.

“It’s in there, that dog mentality, and as we get to camp the vets are going to have to match it.”