Since then, much has changed for both #RNation and Riderville ahead of their Week 2 meeting on Thursday Night Football.
None of the five Roughriders who scored against Ottawa in last year’s Eastern Semi-Final will suit up for the Green and White on Thursday; quarterbacks Kevin Glenn and Vernon Adams along with receiver Bakari Grant are all gone, kicker Tyler Crapigna is out for the year with an injury and running back Marcus Thigpen has one game left on his suspension.
But, with a plethora of new faces which have gelled well early in 2018, the Riders dispatched the Toronto Argonauts last week and now have their attention turned firmly to the task at hand in Ottawa.
“You look, all they do is win football games,” Saskatchewan head coach Chris Jones told Riderville.com of his team’s Thursday opponent. “They’re very good in all three phases and we have to do a good job defending them (and) protecting our quarterback…we’ve got our hands full.”
Last year’s Eastern Semi-Final was decided by a handful of key plays — Marcus Thigpen’s big run, Christion Jones‘s return, etc. — and both the Riders and REDBLACKS definitely have the playmakers to dazzle again this season.
The biggest news of the week in Riderville was the announcement Duron Carter will be starting at cornerback. The enigmatic two-time all-star will replace Nick Marshall — injured last week against Toronto — at boundary corner.
“He’s a better DB now than he was last year against Calgary,” said Jones of the 6-foot-5 Carter, who got a defensive start against the Stampeders late last season. “Getting his eyes in the right spot, being a disciplined DB, that’s the main thing he’s got to work on.”
As if Thursday’s rematch needed any fuel to the fire, Carter may have stoked the flames when he told CKRM’s Rod Pedersen that it’ll be no challenge at all to face the REDBLACKS’ receiving trio of Greg Ellingson, Brad Sinopoli and Diontae Spencer.
“I don’t think they bring any challenges to tell you the truth,” said Carter. “They’re not better than the receivers we go up against in practice. So ya. There you go.”
The flamboyant CFL star was further asked what’s difficult about switching from his regular receiver spot to the corner.
“Nothing at all,” Carter offered. “If it was a challenge I don’t think Coach Jones would put me there. He has the confidence to put me there just like any other player.”
There will be some familiar faces lining up opposite the Saskatchewan offensive line on Thursday, as former Riders A.C. Leonard and Jonathan Newsome will both feature in the REDBLACKS rotation up front.
“They’ve got their game plan, we’ve got ours,” downplayed Jones of the familiarity factor. “They’ve been over there with them all camp, and I haven’t seen Newsome in over a year.”
It was the Rider defence which stole the show in a 27-19 win over the Argos last week, with winter acquisition Charleston Hughes recording three sacks and second-year pro Derrick Moncrief recording eight tackles.
For Willie Jefferson, who played opposite Hughes at D-end against Toronto, the veteran presence of Hughes makes his job easier.
“It’s what they said, man: The hype is real,” said Jefferson of Hughes. “I came out and I did what I do (with two pressures and a pass knockdown) and he played off me and did what he does. He’s a three-time sack leader for a reason. I just wanted to help him and have him help me.”
Moncrief, meanwhile, has taken a winding path to Rider green, and is now excelling at the same linebacker position which sparked his transfer from Auburn to Oklahoma St. in college.
“This is my living,” he told Riderville.com‘s Ian Hamilton. “I’m a versatile player, so I feel like I can mix it up all over the field. As long as I’m making plays and making the defence better and communicating with guys, I feel good about everything.”
Saskatchewan’s roster will see two changes from Week 1; in addition to Nick Marshall, fellow defensive back Denzel Radford hits the injured list this week.
Fullback Albert Awachie and defensive tackle Curt Maggitt draw in; Awachie played multiple positions while at the University of Toronto, while Maggitt played in nine games with the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts in 2016.
The Riders took their walk-through to Parliament Hill on Wednesday, which has seemingly become an annual tradition since Jones’ arrival.
In Ottawa, many of the ‘marquee’ changes have come on the defensive side of the ball, where new defensive coordinator Noel Thorpe has quickly gone about putting his stamp on the REDBLACKS defence.
“Camp was great, we came together as a team especially on D,” defensive end A.C. Leonard told OttawaREDBLACKS.com. “I love this system, it fits me (and) who I am — get to the quarterback, just do my job and that’s all I can ask for.”
Leonard, who recorded five sacks in both 2016 and 2017 as a member of the Riders, admits he has Thursday’s game circled for a while.
“I played in Sask the last two years, so I’m ready,” he grinned following practice Monday. “I’ve been ready since the end of last year, when I found out I was coming here. I’m ready to get it going.”
“We know they’re versatile, they’ve got a lot of weapons (and) a new addition with Zach Collaros, who’s pretty much revamping his career out there,” said Murray, who has tallied 247 tackles and 10 interceptions since entering the CFL in 2013. “They’ve got a lot of weapons they can use, (so) we’re trying to stay fast, physical, fly around and have fun.”
While the defence definitely has a new look, Jaime Elizondo’s REDBLACKS offence returns many of the same key pieces which led it last year.
Trevor Harris is once again looking to solidify himself as an elite quarterback, dynamic running back William Powell will aim to stay healthy and the “buds” receiving duo of Brad Sinopoli and Greg Ellingson is back.
The only new face at skill positions on offence for the REDBLACKS in Week 1 is Noel Thomas Jr.; the 23-year-old receiver out of UConn spent last season on the Detroit Lions’ practice roster and is set to make his first professional start at the field wideout position. Also keep an eye on Dominique Rhymes, who’s getting an opportunity at boundary slotback.
3 – Sacks for Charleston Hughes in his Riders debut last week. Did we mention they were all in the first half? His career total: 102.
13.3 – Yards per punt return in 2017 for Ottawa’s Diontae Spencer, who ranked third in the category (min. 30+ returns).
221 – Days since Saskatchewan’s 31-20 win in last year’s East Semi-Final.
This game is impossible to predict in any way, shape or form.
Many of the Riders’ key playmakers from the Eastern Semi are long gone. The REDBLACKS defence has undergone a complete makeover, too.
Regardless, there’s likely to be a fair amount of bad blood for a Week 2 contest; Jonathan Newsome was cut by the Riders last summer; Zack Evans and A.C. Leonard have swapped colours on their respective D-lines; this is the same Saskatchewan team that ended Ottawa’s season on its own turf last November.
– With files from Riderville.com/OttawaREDBLACKS.com
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