After two straight trips to the Grey Cup the Roughirders entered 2011 with high expectations under new head coach Greg Marshall. Hope quickly turned to despair in Riderland though. The team stumbled out of the gate and Marshall was fired along with offensive coordinator Doug Berry after a 1-7 start. Ken Miller returned to the sidelines and provided a brief spark as the team won three straight games. The team couldn't keep the momentum going though and Green Garbage Day came early as Saskatchewan finished the season 5-13, dead last in the CFL.
Change was in the air following the Riders disastrous 2011 campaign and, as expected, the team will have a very different look this year.
To begin with, Ken Miller is gone as head coach and vice-president of football operations after the season. Brendan Taman now has full control of the Rider front office and former Ticats defensive coordinator Corey Chamblin takes over on the sidelines.
|Andy Fantuz was a fan favourite during his tenure in Regina and even had a cereal named in his honour.
On the field the team has also seen plenty of turnover, particularly on offence. One of the team's biggest losses is Andy Fantuz who chose the Hamilton Tiger-Cats over the Riders this off-season. Fantuz, the CFL's 2010 Most Outstanding Canadian rejoined the team late last season after spending time with the NFL's Chicago Bears but was shut down with an ankle injury.
The team will also have an almost entirely new offensive line this season as longtime Rider and fan favourite Gene Makowsky retired while Marc Parenteau and Alexandre Gauthier were both released. Makowsky leaves the game as the Riders all-time leader in games played at 283 in his 17 seasons in Saskatchewan.
The Riders upgraded their front five talent with the additions of two of the biggest free agent prizes this off-season in All-Star guard Brendon LaBatte and centre Dominic Picard.
At running back the team will also feature a new face as the contract of Wes Cates was not renewed.
On the defensive side of the ball the Riders biggest move in the off-season was a trade for defensive end O'Dell Willis who tied for the CFL lead with 13 sacks last season. Willis is a terrific pass-rusher but also brings an array of off-field issues.
The Riders will also have a very different look at linebacker. Jerrell Freeman signed with the Indianapollis Colts while both Barrin Simpson and Sean Lucas both retired.
After bottoming out last season the Roughriders Brendan Taman knew he would be busy this off-season.
First, he filled the head coaching vacancy with 34-year-old Corey Chamblin. The former Ticats defensive coordinator wants to see a Riders team that is fast, disciplined and aggressive in all three facets of the game.
|The Roughriders hope quarterback Darian Durant can return to form after a tough 2011 season.
Chamblin has also made it clear that Darian Durant will be the man to lead the Roughriders offence.
"In my mind I know who the No. 1 quarterback will be and that's Darian Durant," Chamblin said during the Riders pre-season conference call. "We believe in him and we know he will take us where we need to go and where we want to go."
The seven-year veteran was outstanding in 2010, passing for a league-best 5,542 yards while rushing for 618 yards and seven TDs. His production slipped last year as he threw for only 3,653 yards rushed for 381 before missing the final two games with a broken bone in his foot last season.
Durant will be back to full health this year though and has the skills to bounce back. To be most effective he will have to limit his turnovers this year.
The good news on that front is that Durant should have more time to make his decisions thanks to the additions of signing centre Dominic Picard and All-Star guard Brendon LaBatte as free agents before re-signing Chris Best and drafting Ben Heenan of the Saskatchewan Huskies first overall. However, the loss of veteran Gene Makowsky who retired after an illustrious 17-year career definitely leaves a void in terms of leadership.
With Wes Cates' departure second-year back Brandon West, who averaged 5.2 yards per carry last season, should see more action.
At receiver the club will continue to look to Weston Dressler and Chris Getzlaf to lead the way after the departure of Andy Fantuz to Hamilton and Jason Clermont's retirement. The team is also hopeful Rob Bagg, who missed all of last season recovering from a torn ACL, can return to full health. The biggest addition to the receiving corps this off-season is former NFLer Sinorice Moss. Moss brings plenty of speed with him to Regina and could be the big play receiver the team is looking for.
There are plenty of question marks for the Riders on the defensive side of the ball especially at linebacker where all three of the team's 2011 starters are gone. The loss of Jerrell Freeman, who led the CFL with 105 tackles, to the NFL will be particularly tough for a team not deep on defensive playmakers.
On the line, Saskatchewan looked to improve its non-existent pass-rush by acquiring O'Dell Willis from the Blue Bombers. Willis came flying out of the game last year and finished the year with 13 sacks to tie for the league lead but his production dropped significantly in the second half of the year.
The Riders are hoping that Willis and a healthy Brent Hawkins will be able to give them the pressure they need up front as Chamblin is set on making quarterback pressure a top priority this season.
"The most important position in the CFL is the quarterback . . . we have to affect him and the way we affect him is with pass rush," Chamblin said. "Defensive pass rush is huge in making sure they don't have time to be comfortable and make the decisions they want to.
"Sacks can be misleading but if you have 50 sacks you probably have that many more pressures. We want to make sure we disrupt him through pressures and sacks."
The biggest question of course for this team will be can they come together fast enough to be successful this year?
||OL Ben Heenan
||LB Sam Hurl
||LB Kevin Regimbald-Gagne
||WR Ismael Bamba
The Roughriders opened the 2012 CFL Canadian Draft by drafting local offensive line prospect Ben Heenan out of the University of Saskatchewan. Heenan is a kid who posseses great size and excellent footwork on the line and should compete for playing time right away.
After Heenan the Riders looked to address their holes at linebacker by adding some Canadian depth to the position with Calgary's Sam Hurl and Sherbrooke's Kevin Regimbald-Gagne. Neither projects to see time on defence but both could crack the roster on special teams.
With their final pick in the draft the Riders picked up an absolute steal in Sherbrooke receiver Israel Bamba. Bamba was the third-ranked receiver on Duane Forde's rankings heading into the draft and has very good speed and solid hands.