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O’Day seeks group effort to change Riders’ fortunes

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Saskatchewan Roughriders general manager Jeremy O’Day says he’s been surprised by his team’s lack of response when facing adversity on the field over the past two seasons. 

The Riders are coming off back-to-back 6-12 campaigns and haven’t made the playoffs since 2021. O’Day, who has been the general manager since 2019, said the team was often left searching for answers when things got tough.

“You give up a tough play, or you give up a touchdown, or you get stopped, and you have to bounce back from that,” O’Day said. “That’s what good teams are able to do. They’re able to not panic and get worried. It seemed like the past couple of years, when we got down…we just didn’t have an answer to come back and pull out those games.”

O’Day enters training camp ahead of the 2024 season still searching for answers, but allowed that it’s a complex problem to tackle.

“I wish it was as easy as you just tweak one or two things, but it takes a group effort to make change,” he said.

O’Day hired former Toronto Argonauts defensive coordinator and three-time Grey Cup champion Corey Mace in November to be the team’s new head coach and a critical part of that group effort. 

Mace has already started building a new culture in the Riders’ locker room. It begins with how he wants his players to communicate with one another. He wants them to be blunt in their constructive criticism in the name of winning football games and having a competitive locker room.

Mace doesn’t want players to take that feedback personally, given it’ll be delivered with the goal of winning.

“Once people are a little more vulnerable in understanding that…they feel like they can make a mistake and, as long as they’re accountable for it, it allows them to play a little more free,” Mace said. “Having them be selfless and vulnerable in their relationships and how they deal with each other – being able to play for more than just themselves [and] being able to play for the players next to them.”

Veteran quarterback Trevor Harris, who missed most of last season with a tibial plateau fracture in his right knee, is a fan of that concept. 

“He wants to implement a culture of us caring about one another,” Harris said of his new head coach.

When players feel like the person next to them is almost like a brother, they can take that feedback in a healthier way, Harris said.

“If you can feel like your teammates are like family, that’s where you really push people even further,” he said. “Now you can coach people hard because they know they’re telling you things because you care…if you don’t think somebody cares about you and you’re getting coached hard, you’re gonna get offended.”

Harris has already chatted with fellow Riders quarterback Antonio Pipkin about committing to holding one another accountable.

“I said that I want to go through some things that I want to accomplish this year and the way I want to go about my process this year, and I want you to hold me accountable,” Harris said. “When you really care about each other, you can hold each other accountable and not really get offended.”

O’Day stressed that the Riders want that family environment. 

“A brotherhood within the team,” he said. “Being together, bonding with your teammates, getting to know your teammates, making sure we all realize that we’re in it together for one common thing.”

Mace and O’Day also want a culture where players and staff embrace being in the city of Regina and province of Saskatchewan. 

“We’re one of the very few teams left in North America that are community owned,” Mace said. “Our fanbase is passionate when times are great and when times aren’t so great…the fanbase is the best in the league. Anywhere you go, everybody is ready to talk about Rider football.”

Harris is optimistic about the season ahead, saying that fans can get excited for what’s in store. O’Day echoed that sentiment, but admitted that one of the biggest challenges will be turning the page and moving on from two tough years.

“The veterans that are coming back, they’ve been on a couple of teams where we’ve had rough seasons and we’ve struggled down the stretch,” O’Day said. “We have to get beyond that for the veteran guys that are coming back. I always say that it’s a new year, but they have to clear their minds and flip the script on how we’re playing down the stretch.

“We want the opposite of what’s happened the last couple of years.”