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Dave Naylor

TSN Football Insider

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Sometimes, inauspicious beginnings are not indicative of the road ahead.

Just as the 2019 Saskatchewan Roughriders.

The Riders opened the most recent CFL season with a loss at Hamilton, in which starting quarterback Zach Collaros was knocked out on the game’s opening series, in what proved to be the last time he wore a Saskatchewan uniform.

When the Riders went to Ottawa the next week and surrendered 44 points to fall to 0-2, there were understandably doubts about where this team was headed. Two weeks later, they allowed 37 points to Calgary to fall to 1-3 on the season.

Back then, it was safe to say no one saw 13-5 coming. Or that Collaros’ backup, Cody Fajardo, who’d been a third stringer on two other teams previously, would be the West Division nominee for Most Outstanding Player.

Or that the defence, which was getting torched early, would respond by allowing fewer than 20 points in five consecutive games over the latter part of the summer.

And yet the Roughriders under first-year head coach Craig Dickenson ended up being one of those teams that kept getting better as the season went along, winning six of their final seven regular-season games before narrowly missing a trip to the Grey Cup for the first time since 2013.

Fajardo’s transition from little-used backup to CFL star was remarkable, given that during his first three seasons in the CFL, from 2016 to 2018, he’d completed just 43 passes. In 2019 that number was 338, 18 of which went for touchdowns against just eight interceptions.

It was enough for Saskatchewan to reward him with a new contract before the regular season ended, setting him up as the Roughriders’ franchise quarterback of the future.

About the only thing that didn’t go well for Fajardo was his attempted touchdown pass late in the West Division Final that clanked off the crossbar, sending the Winnipeg Blue Bombers to the Grey Cup game instead of Saskatchewan.

That bitter ending aside, it was a remarkable season for the Roughriders, who won one more game in 2019 than they had the previous year under former head coach Chris Jones and finished in first place in the West for just the second time since 1976.

What They’ve Been Doing Since We last Saw Them

The most surprising change in Saskatchewan, given the success Fajardo enjoyed in 2019, was the decision to replace offensive co-ordinator Steve McAdoo with former Edmonton head coach Jason Maas, a former quarterback who has also worked as an offensive co-ordinator in the league.

The Riders bolstered their defence with a pair of impact players, middle linebacker Larry Dean and defensive lineman Micah Johnson who had spent 2019 with Saskatchewan before inking a one-year deal in B.C. for the season that was never played.

But Dean was among four Roughrider players who suffered serious Achilles tendon injuries during individual workouts before the start of main training camp. Another, Freddie Bishop, was projected to start on the defensive line, while second-overall pick Nelson Lokombo was expected to contribute in the secondary.

Along with losing linebacker Cameron Judge and defensive lineman Charleston Hughes, both of which moved via free agency to Toronto, Saskatchewan’s biggest losses are along the offensive line. Gone from 2019 are linemen Phil Blake, Dariusz Bladek (both in Toronto), and Dakoda Shepley (NFL), plus perennial all-star Brendon Labatte, who opted to sit out this season.

Signing Saskatchewan-bred offensive lineman in Evan Johnson (Ottawa) and Brett Boyko (B.C.) will reinforce the offensive line, but this will be an area of concern.

Backup quarterback Isaac Harker will try to hold onto the job in front of competitors that includes former Denver Broncos 2016 first-round pick Paxton Lynch.

The Riders may be already dealing with a string of tough news injury-wise. But they understand more than any team that adversity early on isn’t necessarily a sign of what’s to come.