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CFL Camp Countdown: Riders' air force takes a hit

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June 1 officially marks the first day of the CFL's training camps, but the Saskatchewan Roughriders had already seen notable attrition before opening camp today. Continuing our training camp preview series, here are some musings on the Roughriders from last week's preview conference call (transcript here) and a host of late-breaking developments that have happened since then.

— One piece of significant news on the Riders' front came out today, with the team's announcement that wide receiver Rob Bagg had reinjured his ACL in off-season training and was set to undergo surgery today. Bagg (pictured above trying to evade Toronto's Byron Parker in a October 2 game last year) had three touchdowns and 688 receiving yards for Saskatchewan last season before tearing his ACL against Calgary in October. Bagg was undrafted in 2007, but signed with Saskatchewan in 2008 after finishing his CIS career with Queen's University and has been a rising part of the Riders' receiving corps since then, so he's a notable loss. He's been added to the nine-game injury list, and Sportsnet's Arash Madani reports that he's likely done for the season. That's a substantial hit for Saskatchewan's Canadian depth in the receiving corps, as they already lost Andy Fantuz to the NFL, but they still have plenty of talented receivers, including non-imports Chris Getzlaf, Jason Clermont, Obed Cetoute and Jordan Sisco. The air force may not be as Canadian as it has been in the past, though; we'll see how they adapt to Bagg's loss this year.

— Along those lines, here's what head coach Greg Marshall said last week about if Fantuz would be replaced with an import or a non-import player. Much of this could apply to the loss of Bagg as well. It's also notable that he doesn't mention Bagg in this answer, so perhaps the Riders already had an inkling of his injury (this Allan Maki piece would seem to suggest that they did).

"We're going into camp wide-open," Marshall said. "We're hoping that Jordan Sisco can step up. Jason Clermont hopefully will be able to step up and play a bigger role. We have Obed Cetoute. All those guys are going to be asked to increase their role and make a bigger contribution. The other thing that we did during free agency was the signing of Alex Gauthier; that allows us to change the ratio on the offensive line and therefore we have an extra import spot to play somewhere else. We'll see what materializes in training camp with some of the guys who have been here as well as some of the guys that we've signed. That's kind of an ongoing process during camp and we'll put that together as we go forward."

— Another former Queen's player who seems unlikely to suit up for Saskatchewan this year may still be wearing green. As Neate Sager covered this morning, offensive lineman Matt O'Donnell (who the Riders took with their second selection in this year's draft, 15th overall in the second round) is apparently trying out for the NBA's Boston Celtics. Although it's certainly unconventional, the idea isn't completely ridiculous. O'Donnell hasn't played competitive basketball since high school, but he has the size (he was listed at 6'10'' and 329 pounds in the April prospect rankings) and athleticism to perhaps be a force on the court.

— Keep in mind that Michael Oher went from a basketball player to a renowned left tackle and the star subject of a book, and other players like Antonio Gates have gone from basketball to football with great success, so the reverse transition may work as well. Moreover, much like left tackles, the pool of potential NBA power forwards and centres is extremely shallow (there aren't many guys who are 6'10'' or better with plenty of athleticism), and teams are more willing to take risks on "project" players at both positions. O'Donnell told the Queen's Journal he's been working out with former NBA point guard Bimbo Coles, which should certainly help. He also mentioned that this is a very preliminary tryout though, so it may not lead to anything.

— However, still on the O'Donnell front, there's an interesting angle that hasn't fully been explored. That would be O'Donnell's choice of agent, Washington, D.C.-based Johnathon Hardaway. If that name sounds familiar, it should; Hardaway represents another guy with Kingston ties, Cory Greenwood, who ditched the Toronto Argonauts for the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs. He also represents Winnipeg's first overall draft pick this year, Henoc Muamba, and wound up in quite a kerfuffle there over the terms of the CFL's option year. Muamba eventually signed with the Bombers earlier this week, but there's no word on whether he's there for two or three years (apparently the initial sticking point in negotiations). Hardaway's NFL connections can't be ignored, and that's what makes a passage from Mike Koreen's story in the Kingston Whig-Standard particularly notable:

[Matt's father] Jim said Matt also is receiving "serious consideration" from a National Football League team. However, with the NFL in a lockout, teams can't sign any undrafted free agents.

Friday is a key date for the NFL lockout as arguments will be made in St. Louis for the league's appeal of a court's injunction to lift the lockout.

"Unfortunately, with the NFL being in a position where they can't sign him right now, we just have to be patient," Jim O'Donnell said.

"The kid's got a lot of options."

Asked where his son would most like to be, Jim O'Donnell said, "I think probably the NFL right now, but that's just me. He'd really love to have an opportunity to showcase himself down there. But he'd be very pleased and honoured to play for the Roughriders."

O'Donnell spent much of his off-season training in the United States and also was one of two Canadians selected to play in the East-West Shrine Game in Orlando, a showcase for college seniors.

— Thus, it certainly seems at least within the realm of plausibility that the NBA tryout could be a convenient delaying tactic in case there's a break in the NFL lockout that knocks out the undrafted free-agent freeze and gives O'Donnell a shot at four-down football. It's also worth mentioning that O'Donnell didn't seem to show much interest in varsity basketball during his Queen's career, and he probably could have made the Gaels' squad if he wanted; Queen's football teammate Scott Stinson (not the National Post columnist) did just that very successfully a few years back. Regardless of how O'Donnell's NBA tryout goes, he may or may not wind up in Rider green any time soon.

— That could be a loss for the Riders, as general manager Brendan Taman was quite complimentary of O'Donnell's abilities last week.

"He's obviously a very big guy who has a lot of athletic ability," Taman said. "Our staff evaluated him at length over the draft process. He's a 21-year-old, he's a young guy who's going to come in during camp and hopefully learn a lot. We'll just see how he matches up to our other young guys. We have a good group coming in with Matt. He's just a guy we evaluated and thought would be a good option to choose at that point.''

That evaluation seems to view him as a bit of a project, though (which fits with the general CFL consensus), and the Gauthier signing in particular means O'Donnell was likely to be a backup at best this year, so losing him for a year or two isn't necessarily that bad.

— O'Donnell is the only Riders' draft pick not expected to be in camp, though, as their other four selections have already signed with the team. Top pick Craig Butler (a defensive back out of Western, chosen 12th overall) seems like the most likely player to make an immediate impact, but kicker Christopher Milo and offensive lineman Alexander Krausnick-Groh could also fit in to Saskatchewan's plans. Running back/fullback Kyle Exume may have a chance to fill the role of Chris Szarka, who was released Wednesday, but that seems more likely to go to Stu Foord or the recently-acquired Graeme Bell; if Exume makes the squad this year, it will probably be as a special-teams player.

— Special teams were a notable concern for many Saskatchewan fans last year, and there are still questions around that unit heading into training camp. Former coordinator Jim Daley has been replaced with Craig Dickenson (older brother of legendary CFL quarterback and current Calgary offensive coordinator Dave), but there are still questions around who's going to handle the kicking and return-game roles. The most interesting punter in the world appears set to retain his role and perhaps add field goals as well thanks to the departure of Warren Kean and the continuing injury struggles of Luca Congi, but Milo could give the Riders another option in the kicking game and former Edmonton Eskimo Tristan Jackson seems likely to be the first choice at returner. All that could change depending on how camp goes, though. Here's what Marshall had to say last week about the kicking game:

"One of the conversations we've had is that Eddie (Johnson) is going to be asked to see if he can handle all three roles," Marshall said. "He's a very good punter. He has been very good at kicking off. He hasn't been asked to be the field-goal kicker here, but he had those duties for a time in Toronto before he was injured and did quite well. In fact, coming out of training camp a few years ago, he had beaten out Justin Medlock for the position of doing all three in Toronto, so we feel like he has the capabilities and we want to give him that opportunity. We've got to wait and see what Luca's situation is with his injury, so that'll be a question that has to be answered during training camp. And then, obviously, drafting kicker Christopher Milo from Laval, we think he's a very good field-goal kicker. He needs to develop as a punter. But, again, with Craig Dickenson here as our special-teams coach, we're confident that he can help him develop, and we feel very good about our kicking situation.''

— Another change on the coaching staff worth mentioning is the departure of Gary Etcheverry, the former defensive coordinator who was set to have more of a roving role this year but stepped down suddenly last week. Here's what former head coach and current vice-president of football operations Ken Miller had to say on the Etcheverry front last week:

"He is going to pursue a business opportunity and concentrate on family considerations," Miller said. "Although Etch's resignation is untimely, we understand and support his decision, and we thank Etch for what he has contributed to us here over the past three years and we wish him the very best as he moves forward with his plans and his obligations.''

Marshall said the decision wasn't thanks to Etcheverry's change in job description.

"In my discussion with Etch when this situation arose, his Number 1 concern was that he didn't want this to be perceived as a problem because of a change in his responsibilities," Marshall said. "This is strictly a personal decision based on some things away from football. It had nothing to do with his role here. We talked at length about it. I was disappointed when it came about, and I enjoyed the time we had to work together and get to know each other a little bit better.''

— The Roughriders are going into this season with plenty of expectations. They've made it to two straight Grey Cup games and have come very close to winning both of them. They've also got a veteran-heavy lineup, which seems to suggest they're focused on winning now. One key to winning now may be the performance of quarterback Darian Durant; Marshall said he has been effective, but he can be even better, and retaining Doug Berry as offensive coordinator should allow Durant greater comfort in the Saskatchewan offence.

"I'm excited to see Darian take another step forward," Marshall said. "He's nowhere near the ceiling yet. I think that he's got a big upside to him. One of the reasons that I'm excited about the upcoming season is that being able to retain Doug Berry as the offensive co-ordinator is a big thing for us, because it gives continuity to the offence and hopefully we can hit the ground running and not have to go through that feeling-out process that maybe has happened over the course of Darian's five years here. He has always seemed to have a different co-ordinator, so hopefully continuity will help him.''

It's going to be an interesting season out in Saskatchewan, and it all starts with this training camp. They then play pre-season games against Edmonton on June 17 and B.C. on June 22 before starting their quest to get back to the Grey Cup Sunday, July 3 against the Eskimos.

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