MONTREAL — For all the veterans the Montreal Alouettes signed in the off-season, the most important job on the field is yet to be filled — quarterback.
CFL veteran Drew Willy, sophomores Matt Shiltz and Antonio Pipkin, newcomer Garrett Fugate and former NFL star Josh Freeman are battling for the position in camp, with Willy and Shiltz as a the front-runners.
New coach Mike Sherman hopes to name a starter as soon as possible, but feels it is too early to make a call.
"I'll make the decision once it's obvious to me who the starter is and we'll move forward from there," Sherman said Tuesday. "They're competing with each other but, at the same time, it's a good group. They get along with each other. They help each other. I'm impressed."
Quarterback has been a headache for the Alouettes since Anthony Calvillo played his last game in August, 2013. When Shiltz made his first CFL start in the final game of the regular season in November, he was the 12th to start a game since the league's all-time passing leader retired.
They got a proven starter when they signed Kevin Glenn in 2016, but he didn't last the season. In 2017, it was Darian Durant, but the former Saskatchewan star struggled on a 3-15 team that had multiple injuries on the offensive line. He was released in January.
General manager Kavis Reed, who spent the winter signing top talent on defence, opted to avoid the quarterback market, other than bringing in prospect Fugate and taking a look at Freeman, who has been out of football for two years.
Willy seems the likely starter, mainly because he's done the job before with Winnipeg and Toronto, although Shiltz is highly regarded and should give the 31-year-old a run for his money.
"I've always loved to compete, I'm enjoying it," said Willy, who entered the CFL in 2012 with Saskatchewan and has played 52 games. "I enjoy being in the room with coach (Khari) Jones and the rest of the quarterbacks.
"I think we're off to a good start. All I can control is my play. I have to make sure I'm focused and mentally and physically prepared to play well. I think I've done a good job so far."
The six-foot-four Willy signed with Montreal last June as a backup to Durant. He completed 54 passes for 547 yards and one touchdown in six games.
Shiltz, 25, was out of football, working as an accountant, when he was invited to the Alouettes mini-camp in April, 2017. He impressed enough to be signed to a contract and spent most of the season as the third quarterback, seeing action in four games.
"I'm definitely more comfortable than last year," said the six-foot-two Shiltz. "Drew's still around and we spent time together last year.
"He's been a great role model, inspiration, leader-type in the locker room and it helps me out in the competition. We're fighting for a spot, but it's friendly competition. We're good friends and we want each other to succeed."
Shiltz feels his main strength is passing, but what jumps out is that he is very quick on his feet if he opts to run with the ball. Whether that gives him an edge for the starting job remains to be seen.
"I don't really feel any pressure," he said. "You grow up competing. It's not the first quarterback competition that I've been in."
The six-foot-three Pipkin joined Montreal in mid-season and saw little action, completing two of nine passes for 14 yards.
The six-foot-six Freeman brings an impressive resume. He was Tampa Bay's first-round draft pick in 2009 and was the Buccaneers' starter through the 2013 campaign, before moving to Minnesota and Indianapolis. He played his last game for the Colts in January, 2016.
Early reports from camp were that Freeman was struggling, but Sherman said it is more a case of learning the 12-man game and adapting to a new environment.
"When you go into a new system and you're dealing with 12 players on defence and trying to figure out where everyone's at, it's a challenge," said Sherman. "He's battling through that change, let's put it that way."
Freeman said he feels strong physically and is upbeat about the chance he's been given to revive his career.
"I'm in shape. I have an open mind, willing to learn," he said. "I'm taking it one day at a time.
"There are guys on the team with more CFL experience. We're all having a good time in our quarterback room with Khari. I'll just work as hard as I can. It's all out of my hands."