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Veterans Ricky Ray, Jarious Jackson give Argos solid 1-2 punch at quarterback

The Canadian Press

MISSISSAUGA, Ont. - It didn't take Ricky Ray and Jason Barnes long to re-connect.

The obvious chemistry of three seasons together in Edmonton was clearly evident as the two hooked up early and often in passing drills on the opening day of the Toronto Argonauts' mini-camp Saturday.

"With him, I know his body language, I know his speed of routes and where he's going to be," Ray said. "With some of these other guys I still have to get used to that and feel how they run routes, what kind of speed they run their routes and if they do anything weird at the top of their routes.

"With him (Barnes) it comes a lot quicker.''

Saturday's workout was Ray's first with Toronto since being acquired in a stunning trade with Edmonton on Dec. 12 for journeyman quarterback Steven Jyles, kicker Grant Shaw and a 2012 first-round draft pick. The Argos then added a quality backup by signing former B.C. Lion Jarious Jackson as a free agent.

That gives Toronto two experienced quarterbacks who've both been part of Grey Cup-winning teams. Ray led Edmonton to a pair of championships (2003, '05) during his nine seasons there while Jackson, entering his eighth CFL campaign, earned two Grey Cup rings with B.C. (2006, '11).

And although Saturday's workout wasn't in pads or against a defence, it was clearly evident that with Ray and Jackson throwing passes, Toronto is light years ahead of where it has been. Both veterans threw crisp, accurate passes and the ball left their hands quickly and emphatically.

So for the first time since veteran Damon Allen's retirement after the '07 season, there will be no quarterback controversy when Toronto opens training camp in June.

And while rookie head coach Scott Milanovich — himself a former quarterback — has the difficult task of transforming an Argos team that missed the playoffs in 2011 into a Grey Cup contender in a year Toronto is hosting the Grey Cup, he doesn't have to concern himself with developing a quarterback.

"The advantage is having a great quarterback,'' Milanovich said. "We're obviously happy to have Ricky and I thought Jarious did a great job too, he's going to be a great leader in our locker-room as well.

"We've got some veteran guys who are leading this team at quarterback that have won Grey Cups, who've been there and done that and that's going going to help our locker-room.''

Ray came into Saturday's working having spent time studying Milanovich's playbook but added nothing beats practising.

"It's so much different learning it on paper, you feel like you've got it (down) pretty good till you get out here and guys are flying around,'' he said. "Now it's just about translating it from the playbook to the football field.''

So while Toronto appears set at quarterback, the same can't be said about the receiver position where no clear-cut No. 1 exists.

Special-teams dynamo Chad Owens was Toronto's leading receiver last year, registering 70 catches for 722 yards but with no TDs. Slotback Andre Durie was second with 54 receptions for 665 yards and four TDs.

But Barnes and current Argo Maurice Mann have the advantage of familiarity with Ray. Both played three seasons in Edmonton with Ray and enjoyed their best CFL seasons in an Eskimos uniform. Mann had 73 catches for 917 yards and six TDs in 2009 while Barnes registered 50 catches for 869 yards and seven TDs last year, all career highs.

"When I knew Ricky was coming here I was definitely eager to follow," Barnes said. "It definitely feels at home catching balls from Ricky.

"Picking up a new offence will be the most difficult but I'm sure the chemistry is still going to be there.''

Owens doesn't feel he and the other returning Argos receivers are at a disadvantage because they don't have the same level of familiarity with Ray that Barnes and Mann do.

"Ricky is a smart quarterback," Owens said. "He's going to go through his reads and throw to the person he's supposed to throw to and that's what I'm excited about.

"Yeah, every receiver wants the ball but if we're not throwing interceptions and throwing touchdowns that means we're winning games and I'll have nothing to complain about.''

The six-foot-three Barnes reported Saturday looking bigger that usual, and with good reason. At 196 pounds, he's the heaviest he's been during his CFL career, roughly 10 pounds over his usual playing weight due to an off-season conditioning program and diet.

"The diet has been no fun," he said. "No sugar, no dairy, no bread, no grains, no peanut butter. It's just protein, complex carbs and vegetables.

"I've cheated a few times with pizza or cookies but I probably eat worse now that I'm on my diet because I have these weird cravings. I just want to smash something good but it hasn't been too bad.''

Milanovich also served notice Saturday he wants Toronto to play fast and furious this year and that will start with how the club practises. Saturday's session was very much up-tempo and even featured passing plays with no huddle.

"I thought they did a good job of trying to do what we asked them to do,'' he said. "They're going to have to pick up the tempo, that's something that might be new for them.

"We're going to go fast paced and chaotic in practice and you're going to see guys flying around.''

And that's just fine with Owens.

"Coach Milanovich, you see what the expectation is already, you see what we're going to have to do and that's how champions practise, that's how they prepare,'' he said. ''Fast on every play, I love it.

''If we can move at a fast pace we can control the game. In the past couple of years our defence and special teams have controlled games. It's an offensive game, your offence has to control the game and that's what we're going to do. I feel very confident we're going to be prepared going into every game. We're going to have an answer for everything and that's what is exciting.''

And so too is having two proven quarterbacks.

"Two guys who have done it and done it well,'' Owens said. "In years past we've had less experienced quarterbacks, not to say they weren't good but it takes experience and with experience you can move faster, you can do a lot more things.

"I'm very excited to see what's going to come. Training camp is going to be competitive, it's going to be fun, it's going to be live. I'm looking forward to it.''

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