Darian Durant found another level in helping lead the Saskatchewan Roughriders to a Grey Cup victory last season. For an encore, he'll have to find an even higher level still.
Durant was sensational last year, posting career numbers (325-531 for 4,154 passing yards, and a career best 31 touchdowns to just 12 interceptions), and featuring regularly in the MOP Watch. By the increasingly criticized metric that is Quarterback Rating, Durant had the best year of his career last year at 95.7, a full seven points higher than his career mark.
But Durant had an awful lot of help on the team's third-ranked offence. First and foremost was league all-star and team nominee for Most Outstanding Player Kory Sheets. In his sophomore CFL campaign Sheets was second in league rushing with 1,598 yards and a gaudy 5.6 yards per carry average and 12 touchdowns. His Grey Cup performance will also be remembered in Saskatchewan – and Hamilton, albeit much less fondly – for years to come.
The 29-year-old will be preparing for NFL training camp in Oakland when the Roughriders begin their title defence, and while he's in tough to make the Raiders' roster, the best case scenario for Saskatchewan is a return sometime around Labour Day.
Another Roughriders mainstay and fan favourite Durant will no longer have at his disposal is slight receiver Weston Dressler. The 5'7 slotback was a 1,000-yard receiver in five of his six CFL seasons, falling just 59 yards short in his sophomore campaign, and scored a combined 45 touchdowns.
Durant and Dressler's time in Saskatchewan had coincided, the two emerging together in 2008. But now the favourite target is in Kansas City with no guarantee of returning.
So this year Durant enters the unquestioned leader on offence, and with more unknowns on the roster than previous seasons, he'll have to shoulder a greater load.
The good news of course is that the cupboard isn't completely bare. While Dressler's sure hands and elusiveness will be missed in the receiving corps, two other pass catchers, ones still on the roster, eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark as well last season in Chris Getzlaf, who led the team with 1,045, and Taj Smith, who hit the mark in just his second season.
And if Rob Bagg can stay healthy all year, that will be another receiver for Durant to lean on.
The running back position is much more of a toss-up heading into the season. The team has five RBs with a combined two carries' CFL experience (Clifton Smith, which he gained with the Calgary Stampeders last season). But the last time they tried to replace a solid veteran running back, Wes Cates in 2012, they found a guy who would one day lead them to a Grey Cup victory at home. So, there's hope.
Things could work out around Durant; he may have a support staff as talented as the one hoisting the Grey Cup alongside him last year. But the inexperience and uncertainty heading into the season alone means he'll have to do even more as both a leader and performer to keep the Roughriders in Grey Cup contention.
The football crazy fans in Saskatchewan already love their veteran quarterback; if he can elevate his game and bring more success to the province, they'll cherish him even more.
Roughriders fans were surprised to see DT Keith Shologan get picked by the Ottawa Redblacks in the national portion of the expansion draft after the veteran spent the past six seasons in Saskatchewan. Ottawa also grabbed Shologan's backup in Zack Evans one round later, it being evident the Roughriders were making a ratio change. OT James Lee was Saskatchewan's international loss in the draft.
Coach of the Year
In his second season as head coach of the Roughriders, Corey Chamblin had a dream year. He led Saskatchewan to a scorching start to the season before guiding them to a Grey Cup win in front of a boisterous hometown crowd. Chamblin was awarded in the off-season with the league's Coach of the Year award, beating out former Roughriders coach Kent Austin.
The Roughriders lost a lot more talent in free agency than they signed back. Notable losses included S Craig Butler, LBs Abraham Kromah and Graig Newman, WR Kierre Johnson, RB Jock Sanders, and QB Drew Willy, not to mention Kory Sheets and Weston Dressler who are now in the NFL. The team did lock up some of their pending free agents however, including DBs Paul Woldu and Terrell Maze, and WR Taj Smith.
The Roughriders traded out of the first round, stock piling picks later in the draft. With their first pick in the second round the team landed CFL Combine star Dylan Ainsworth, a DL from Western, before also grabbing WR Alex Pierzchalski from Toronto. Saskatchewan also had two picks in the third round, nabbing John Mark from Calgary and WR Kristopher Bastien from Concordia. Their remaining picks included DB Matt Webster from Queen's and OL Kyle Paterson from Regina in the fifth round, LB Travis Bent from Concordia in the sixth round, and OL Terry Hart from St. Francis Xavier in the seventh round.
New Mosaic Stadium
Roughriders fans got a glimpse at the team's new stadium late in the off-season and not much longer ground was broken. The $278 million project should be completed by August 2016 and will give the 33,000 fans surely to pack the place on a regular basis a more comfortable viewing experience than the one they are getting now.