CFL Camp Countdown: Argos aim for quality over quantity

Continuing our training camp preview series, here's a look at the Toronto Argonauts. It's based off Wednesday's conference call with head coach/general manager Jim Barker and president/CEO Bob Nicholson (not the Hockey Canada executive). Here are some of the highlights of what they had to say.

— The Argonauts made one of the biggest splashes of the offseason back in March when they traded a first-round draft pick for Winnipeg quarterback Steven Jyles. Barker said Jyles, who underwent shoulder surgery in the offseason, should be ready to go by training camp.

"His velocity is good, his ability to throw on the run is good," Barker said. "He should report to training camp near 100 per cent."

— Barker (pictured above calling a timeout during a game last year) said it's not just the Jyles trade that's upgraded the Argonauts' quarterbacking, but also incumbent Cleo Lemon's year of experience in the CFL and the Toronto system. There's expected to be a competition for the starting job in training camp that mostly features those two. Regardless of who's eventually declared the starter, Barker said he's much more confident in the quarterbacking lineup he has this year than he was in last year's collection of CFL rookies.

"Last year, we had quarterbacks that had no experience in this league," he said. "To me, that's a huge difference."

— That supposed quarterback upgrade prompted a question about if the run-heavy Argonauts would look to throw more often this year, but Barker said their focus is more on improving their pass efficiency than increasing their pass/run ratio.

"I don't think anything's going to change dramatically," he said.

— Toronto recorded a surprising turnaround last season, going from a league-worst 3-15 mark in 2009 to a 9-9 mark in 2010 and an appearance in the East Final. They won't be able to surprise many people this year, but Barker said he isn't worried about that.

"We're going to perform the best we can and we can't control what others think of us," he said.

— The second year of a coach's tenure's always an interesting one thanks to increased familiarity, which can either help players acclimatize to new systems or cause them to tune out the coaching staff. Barker said he's hoping to see the team become more comfortable with his offensive and defensive schemes this year and learn when to modify plays on the field this season, and the experience they've amassed should help with that, making their plays more effective and efficient.

"Last year, it was very much a team that played on paper," Barker said. "If we said 'Go 12 yards,' they went 12 yards. ... Everyone was in exactly the right spot, but we weren't doing the things we needed to do to get open."

— Barker said that increased experience should also benefit the coaches, as they now have a better understanding of what their players are capable of and can modify their plays accordingly.

"Knowing the players, we can devise schemes suited to their talents."

— That should be further aided by their minimal roster turnover. The team brought back every free agent except Eric Taylor (who went to B.C.) and Adriano Belli (who retired), including crucial pieces like receiver Jermaine Copeland and running back/special-teams ace Bryan Crawford. Barker said they deliberately focused on retaining free agents instead of landing new ones to build that familiarity.

"Our whole key this offseason was continuity," he said.

— Their sole free-agent acquisition was veteran Canadian safety Wes Lysack from Calgary. Barker said they signed Lysack as much because of his locker-room presence as his skill on the field.

"He brings the kind of leadership we like," Barker said. "He can augment an already-strong group on defence."

— One defensive spot where there will be some training-camp battles is the defensive line, where a variety of import and non-import players (including recent draft pick Gregory Alexandre out of Montreal) are set to compete to fill Belli's position.

"I expect the competition there to be as fierce as it is at quarterback," Barker said.

— Speaking of those quarterbacks, one quarterback there will be a focus on is Danny Brannagan, who became the first Canadian quarterback to take a regular-season snap for the Argonauts since 1969 last season. Barker said Brannagan's going to have to demonstrate tangible improvement from last season to stay on the roster, as he's now coming in with a full year of experience.

"I don't look at him as a rookie," Barker said.

— There's plenty of pressure on the Argonauts to maintain their success this year, but that doesn't intimidate Barker. He and his group are anxious to show 2010 wasn't a fluke.

"We're very excited about this season."

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