CFL Camp Countdown: Calgary looks to continue their run

Over the next few weeks, the CFL's conducting a series of media conference calls to preview each team heading into training camp. I'll be sitting in on each call and recapping some of the highlights here. If you've got a particular question about a specific team you'd like me to try and get in, let me know via Twitter or e-mail. First up, a recap of the highlights of Tuesday's conference call with Calgary Stampeders' president Lyle Bauer and coach/general manager John Hufnagel. You can find the full audio file of the call here.

— Bauer started things off with the usual sort of optimism you'd expect, commenting "We're obviously very excited about the upcoming season and the job general manager/coach Hufnagel has done." However, he went on to add some more interesting comments about the special things in store for the Stampeders this season. He proved quite enthusiastic about the organization doing events with the 2011 Hall of Fame inductees Sept. 14-18, saying "It's a great honor to host those stars and be a part of it." He also said that the team's involvement in this year's Touchdown Atlantic game represents a chance for the Stampeders to improve their national presence. "We're looking forward to being involved in that."

— Bauer also made some interesting comments on the proposed renovations to McMahon Stadium, saying that other stadium news around the league (see Hamilton, Winnipeg, B.C. and Saskatchewan) both proves the difficulties in getting renovations done or new stadiums built and shows how much facility upgrades are needed in many areas. "As you've seen from stadium developments around the league, we're going to have to work very, very hard to keep pace," he said.

— Hufnagel (pictured above on the sidelines in August) started on an intriguing note, discussing the day's news that the Stampeders had officially signed 2010 third-round picks John Bender and J'Michael Deane (offensive linemen out of Nevada and Michigan State respectively). Both were thought to have some NFL interest in them, so their availability wasn't guaranteed. However, Hufnagel said he knew at the time of the draft that both were likely to sign soon, which allowed him to focus on selecting players that filled other needs. "They gave us a strong indication a deal would be done in the near future," Hufnagel said. "We had earmarked to get a receiver and a defensive lineman in the draft." They did that and more, of course, taking Calgary Dinos receiver Anthony Parker third overall and then picking Bishop's Gaiters defensive lineman Junior Turner ninth overall.

— Hufnagel said the NFL lockout and its prevention of teams from signing undrafted free agents may boost the Stampeders' roster this year, and it may have played a role in Bender and Deane coming north, as they weren't able to find out if NFL teams had much interest in signing them.

"I was very pleased with the talent we had at our free-agent camp in DeLand, Florida," he said. "Whether or not those players did want to think of testing the NFL waters, because of the muddy waters this lockout has created I'm not aware of what their actual thoughts were. With the two players we just signed, I know it created a lot of confusion for them over the past two weeks since the NFL draft, because with no lockout, they would have known what their destiny was. Here, they had to make a decision, and we're very fortunate with the decision they made."

— Although Deane and Bender have the size to potentially play tackle, both are expected to get a look at guard first in training camp. "They'll come in and compete, first at the inside positions at guard," Hufnagel said. "We'll see how they compete at guard, and then we'll evaluate them at the tackle positions."

— A pair of players not likely to be a crucial part of training camp are veteran running back Jesse Lumsden and newly-drafted RB Matt Walter; Lumsden thanks to injury and Walter thanks to his plans to return to the CIS ranks this fall (Update: plans that changed later in the week). Still, both could be interesting parts of the Stampeders' future. Hufnagel said Lumsden won't be available for much of the year, but could help the team down the stretch. "His prognosis is that he will not be ready at the earliest until the end of September, although his rehab is going well."

— One of the Stampeders' most interesting draft picks was Canadian quarterback Brad Sinopoli, who they took in the fourth round. He was the only quarterback picked in this draft (although Edmonton signed Marc Mueller as a free agent shortly thereafter, and Toronto still has Danny Brannagan on their roster). Hufnagel said Sinopoli was selected strictly on talent, not based on any marketing desire to have a Canadian quarterback. "Let me be very clear, I drafted Brad based on his ability," he said.

— There's a widely-held theory that Canadian quarterbacks need more work to adjust to the CFL than American ones, as they don't often get as much position-specific coaching in the high school and college ranks, but Hufnagel said Sinopoli's background in CIS football may even be an advantage for him.

"I don't see his challenges being any different than any other quarterback trying to make the transition from college to the professional level," Hufnagel said. "He may have an advantage, as he has an excellent understanding of what the Canadian game is all about."

— Hufnagel said adjusting to the extra player on each side and the larger field in Canadian football can be extremely difficult for young quarterbacks, and Sinopoli won't have to deal with that. "The composition of the game, the 12th player on offence and defence, it's one more player they have to take into account when they're seeing the field and reading the defence," he said.

— Sinopoli likely won't be making contributions right away, though. Reigning CFL most outstanding player Henry Burris is firmly ensconced at the top of the depth chart, and Drew Tate proved a very capable backup last year. Hufnagel said he doesn't plan to expand Tate's role beyond short yardage and mop-up duty situations yet, but he's been impressed with what he's seen so far.

"Drew did our short yardage package for us and he did it really well," Hufnagel. "I don't see that package expanding. I want to play our best quarterback as long as I can. Drew's an excellent quarterback; his time will come."

— When asked about defensive end Mike Labinjo, pretty much all the information Hufnagel offered was a short "he's on our roster." That doesn't appear to be the case for long, though; Allen Cameron reported that the Stamps seem likely to cut ties with him Wednesday.

— Labinjo is likely being released because of the Canadian depth the Stampeders have picked up on the defensive line. In addition to Turner, they traded the 14th overall pick to Edmonton for Canadian defensive end Brian Bulcke (the sixth-overall selection in last year's draft), and they also drafted Akwasi Antwi in the fourth round. They also have Corey Mace, Justin Phillips, Ian DeGannes-Shaw and Miguel Robede.

— The acquisitions on the line speak to the Stampeders at least partially drafting to fill positions of need, but Hufnagel said their strategy also incorporates best-player-available principles. "It's a combination of both," he said. "We rank players on ability, so you talk about best player available, but we also rank our needs going into the draft, and we talk about how to try and get both."

— One area of focus for the team this year will be the secondary, which lost all-star cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Dwight Anderson in the offseason. Hufnagel said former practice roster player Johnnie Dixon and free-agent signing Geoff Tisdale are the top candidates for the cornerback positions at the moment, but he's confident in the team's depth. "We signed some excellent candidates we believe will come in and compete," he said.

— The Stampeders are coming off a league-best 13-5 record, but will face some issues thanks to the offseason departures of mainstays like Browner, Anderson and left tackle Ben Archibald. Hufnagel said that's to be expected, though. "Pro football in the age of free agency, you're going to have change," he said. "You can't be scared of it."

— Despite that league-best record, the Stampeders fell to Saskatchewan in the West Final last season, and they've suffered notable offseason losses. Hufnagel said the team doesn't have too far to go, though. Their crucial focus this season will be improving their late-season play and putting themselves in positions to win.

"We need to be better at the end of the year than we were at the end of last year," Hufnagel said. "When you come to playoff football, anything can happen."

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