The 2014 edition of the Saskatchewan Roughriders have a tough act to follow.
After last year’s squad had arguably the most successful season in franchise history — capped off by capturing the Grey Cup on home turf — there are plenty of returning players looking for a repeat of last season.
It was a tough off-season for the green and white as they lost many key players from last year’s championship team — Kory Sheets and Weston Dressler both left to tryout for the NFL while legendary receiver Geroy Simon retired. Jock Sanders, Keith Shologan, Craig Butler and Drew Willy all find themselves playing for new teams.
The toughest challenge for head coach Corey Chamblin leading up to the season will be finding strong talent to fill the giant holes left behind by departed players.
Receiver Brett Swain and running back Anthony Allen will try to replace all-stars Dressler and Sheets. Both were fan favourites, making the job even harder for Swain and Allen. However, they both had a strong pre-season and seem to be capable replacements.
The good news is that quarterback Darian Durant is still with the team and remains hungry to win. Durant, often heavily criticized in Saskatchewan, silenced his naysayers with an incredible playoff run in 2013. The Riders will need him to remain playing at that level as new faces join the offence this season.
Along with Swain, Rob Bagg, Taj Smith and Chris Getzlaf will be Durant’s favourite targets through the air. Eron Riley and Ryan Smith both had strong showings in training camp and will look to add some secondary help in the passing game.
A huge contributor to Sheets and Durant’s success in 2013 was the offensive lines’ ability to win the battle in the trenches. Xavier Fulton, Ben Heenan, Brendon LaBatte, Dominic Picard and Chris Best all return to make up one of the best offensive lines in the league.
The ferocious defensive line remains mostly intact with John Chick, Ricky Foley and Tearrius George returning to sack opposing quarterbacks. These three combined for 24 sacks last season and with the addition of rookie Derek Walker, the front four should wreak havoc all season long.
All-star Craig Butler left for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Rey Williams retired leaving the door open for the young Sam Hurl and Justin Peters to head a new group of linebackers that includes Weldon Brown.
The defensive secondary is almost identical to the last season’s with safety Tyron Brackenridge as the centerpiece to this hard-hitting crew. Dwight Anderson led the team in interceptions last year and will look to have another strong campaign. Other members of the secondary include Rod Williams, Tristan Jackson and Terrell Maze.
Bringing in Josh Bartel — one of the best punters in the league — to compliment placekicker Chris Milo, shows the Riders have planned to improve their special teams. The biggest addition however is that of returner Marshay Green — a fitting last name to play in Rider Nation — who scored the team’s first punt return touchdown in the last decade during the pre-season game against the Ottawa Redblacks.
In 2013, the Roughriders defence was the best in the league, and with many returning faces they should once again carry the green and white. There are some new names on offence, but with Durant still under center and the offensive line not seeing any major changes, the Riders have a decent shot at another championship.