10 juin 2024

Le ROUGE ET NOIR se préparent pour la saison régulière

From the comfort of their own homes, the Ottawa REDBLACKS were spectators in the opening week of the Canadian Football League season.

After a two-win preseason schedule, they were handed the much-maligned Week 1 bye, both a positive and negative, depending on your point of view. This bye week has been different than most, however, with players remaining in Ottawa, and taking part in practice on Thursday afternoon, before a highly anticipated trip to Gatineau on Saturday.

Their lengthy preparation for the first game of the season, which comes on July 13th against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, has been a continuation of training camp’s mindset: there are no days off when you’re trying to win football games.

“There’s always a great sense of urgency,” said Head Coach Bob Dyce. “Our results haven’t been where they need to be [in previous seasons]. Camp is a foundation, and we have to build on that and move forward.”

Mere hours after taking down the Montreal Alouettes at home to end the exhibition schedule, the REDBLACKS’ brass was tasked with the difficult decision of cutting down the roster. In total, 20 players were cut, 12 of whom were placed on the practice roster.

“It’s probably one of the toughest days every year,” Dyce said. “You realize how much energy these guys have invested into their future, and to tell some of them that – at least here in Ottawa – a little bit of their journey is going to end is a tough [thing]. At the same time, it’s a bright day because we have formed the 2024 version of our team.”

A competitive training camp is a double-edged sword for a coaching staff. On the one hand, it sets a great tone for the rest of the season, but it makes decision day complicated. There wasn’t much separating many of the cuts and making the roster, forcing tough choices.

“Across the board, there was a whole lot of competition,” Dyce explained. “There was a lot in the defensive secondary, from young guys to veteran guys. In the backfield, both Ryquell Armstead and Kylin Hill did a great job for us, both physical and strong runners. I could name the whole team, but the receivers are a talented crew, and it was tough to crack. Making sure we made the right decision took a lot of time and evaluation.”

Stepping out onto the field for the first time after cuts is always bittersweet, but a look around the field leaves you holding back a smile. There are playmakers all over the place, some of whom have been here before, and others who joined the franchise over the winter.

Whether at quarterback, the offensive line, or in the defensive backfield, there is not a position on the field where Dyce feels the REDBLACKS haven’t taken a step forward.

“We’ve improved in all areas,” he said. “I think when you add veterans like Dariusz Bladek on the offensive line, and have guys like Dontae Bull and Zach Pelehos with another year of experience, they become even better players than they were before. You can say the same thing at quarterback with Dustin Crum growing into his second year, operating a new offence, and with Dru Brown, there’s a real strength in the quarterback room.”

One of the biggest reasons for optimism this season for the REDBLACKS is their depth, featuring many young options. Rookies including Nick Mardner and Daniel Okpoko are added to a youthful group, and Alijah McGhee, Ryquell Armstead, and Deandre Lamont all return to the fold with a touch more experience.

All standouts at camp, Dyce also named Kalil Pimpleton, who finished the preseason with seven catches for 101 yards, immediately when asked who had made a lasting impression over the past couple of weeks.

“I had obviously heard of who he is, but he did a phenomenal job,” Dyce said. “One of the things we always talk about is consistency, and he did a good job of getting better every single day. If you watch practice, you notice him making explosive plays here and there. What impressed me, though, are the other areas where he improved his game, he’s a complete receiver and he’s able to do more things.”

Following Winnipeg’s Week 1 loss to the Alouettes, the REDBLACKS know they’ll be seeing a miffed Bombers side, and won’t take the challenge lightly. In search of the fifth-consecutive trip to the Grey Cup, and their third win in five years, Winnipeg was held to just 12 points in the opener, scoring only one touchdown, which came near the game’s expiration, with the result all but finalized.

This week’s preparation will play an important role for Dyce and the rest of his coaching staff. Of course, they’ll comb through everything the Blue Bombers have to offer, but they’ll also be looking to solidify their first game-day roster of the season, slotting everyone into the right position.

“Winnipeg has a good foundation, and they have been a pretty successful team,” Dyce said. “We’ll build based on what they have done in the past, but there’s two components. We’ll break down and analyze all the film available to us up until this point, but we’re still in the mindset that we have to be better ourselves. The first thing we need to do is make sure we aren’t beating ourselves.”

The time for talk is over, and the REDBLACKS are ready to put it all on film.

“These regular season games are what we live for,” Dyce said excitedly. “Really jumping into the details of a game and preparation [is why we do this].”