The ALSternative — 2017 Season Preview Part 4

Year in and year out, Noel Thorpe turns in a spectacular performance as defensive coordinator of the Montreal Alouettes. Simply put, he is one of the best coaches that this league has to offer.

Since 2013, his troops have kept Montreal in far more games than they had any right to be in. Extremely dedicated to his craft, Thorpe makes good players into great ones and great players into legends. He’s demanding and unapologetic in the fact that he expects the very best from his players every single day.

But incredibly, this constant success has left Thorpe at a crossroads of sorts. When it came time in recent years to seek a new head coach for the Montreal Alouettes, Noel was always the bridesmaid and never the bride. Passed over time and time again. One had to wonder if he will ever get the opportunity to show that he can handle everything aspect of the football field, not just the defense.

Thorpe is in the final year of a contract that he is essentially being forced to honor. The attempt in late 2015 to defect to the Edmonton Eskimos and be their DC was kiboshed by CFL commissioner Jeffrey Orridge, who determined that Thorpe and the Alouettes couldn’t part ways so easily.

Regardless of what kind of season the Alouettes have, I can’t help but feel that Noel Thorpe will finally get that chance to be a head coach when 2017 comes to a close. It just won’t be with this organization. It may be one of the other CFL teams that comes calling. Or perhaps a USports team will lure him in with the promise of a healthy salary and complete autonomy, like what Danny Maciocia has with the Universite de Montreal.

If Noel Thorpe can post yet another outstanding football season with his defensive corps, I expect his stock in the coaching circles of this great nation to skyrocket yet again. But that’s still several months from now.

It’s time to take a look at the Montreal Alouettes defense for the 2017 season.

Defensive Line

In years previous, the Alouettes made it a point to make their offensive line an all-Canadian affair. Starting this year, there’s a shift in that thought process. We are now starting to see Montreal’s D-Line take on a more Canuck flavoring. It may take 2-3 seasons, but we could soon seen this crucial element of the team be represented by all National players!

But until that day comes, there’s still some great International talent on this D-Line. And it starts with the undisputed captain of this Alouettes defense, John Bowman. The Alouettes’ all-time leader in sacks, they don’t come much more feared than big Bow. Time is starting to catch up to him and Bowman has stated that he’s taking his career on a year-by-year basis. His 28 defensive tackles and three forced fumbles last season led this defense by example. And ten times in 2016, John was able to do what he loves to do best; get his big mitts on the opposing quarterback and plant him into the ground. I expect that despite him being the elder statesman of this defense, Bowman will get every opportunity to do what he loves.

Book-ending this D-Line will be none other than a man who hunts wild game during the winter and quarterbacks during the summer. In 2016, Gabriel Knapton stepped up and became a force for the Alouettes. In just three short years, Gabe has racked up 137 defensive tackles and 29 sacks. He’s now entering his prime with a new 2 year contract in hand and will be looking to ascend to the next level. I fully expect Knapton to become a household name in the CFL for 2017.

Now for the Canadian content! It starts with one of the Alouettes’ hardest-working players in Michael Klassen. Last year the Alouettes were robbed of this man’s talents due to an injury while playing in Edmonton versus the Eskimos. In 2015, Klassen also suffered a season-ending injury in that very same building. So perhaps when Montreal plays at Commonwealth Stadium on June 30th, Mike should consider calling in sick that day. If he stays healthy, Klassen will be a full-time starter on the interior.

Also looking to make a full-time name for himself is hometown boy Jesse Joseph. Last year he contributed on special teams and was a force, but this eventual shift to a National D-Line will likely mean a lot more time on the field for this powerhouse from Laval. Joseph also registered his first CFL QB sack last year in Winnipeg and will be looking to add more in 2017. Whatever you do, doncha dare sleep on this guy.

It’s hard to replace an Alan-Michael Cash, who the Alouettes decided to part ways with when free agency hit. But Kavis had a back-up plan to replace this wildly talented individual. Meet Jabar Westerman, formerly of the BC Lions. Westerman came into this league hot, being named the Western nominee for 2012’s Most Outstanding Rookie. He’s put together some impressive stats, with 38 defensive tackles and 8 QB sacks over the past two seasons. Also entering his prime, he will play extremely well with Noel Thorpe’s blitz-heavy schemes and should strike a lot of fear in the opposing quarterbacks.

Another name that should be on everyone’s lips but won’t be is that of former Edmonton Eskimo Donny Oramasionwu. Not because he isn’t talented, but because even I am not 100% certain of how to pronounce his last name! Heaven help the RDS announcing crew who must say it with a French accent! Donny O does bring a solid veteran presence and a hard-working mentality to the Alouettes. He’ll be eager to prove himself in Montreal and show that he still has a place in the CFL.

Rounding out the D-Line is free agent signing Keith Shologan, who’s been a consistent performer in each of his nine CFL seasons. He’s got championship experience, having played in four Grey Cup games and winning a ring in 2013 with the Saskatchewan Roughriders. It wasn’t the best fit for him in Winnipeg last season, but Keith still managed to register a respectable 22 tackles and a pair of QB sacks. I expect that he will be in more of a mentoring role for the young defensive players that were taken in this year’s CFL draft while providing some much-needed depth.

Linebackers

When it comes to this team’s linebacking corps, one of the most feared in the CFL, one looks right away at the 2016 Most Outstanding Player for the Alouettes, Bear Woods. Simply put, Bear is one of the best middle linebackers that this league has to offer. Last season, he put up a ridiculous 126 defensive tackles, 5 QB sacks and a pair of interceptions. Woods plays with such a high motor that it’s hard to believe that he managed to escape injury in 2016. Wildly popular with fans in Montreal, Bear keeps this Alouettes team competing and makes everyone around him that much better.

Another fan favourite in Montreal, Chip Cox is one of those linebackers that never seems to take a play off. Few in this league launch their bodies and hit harder than Chip does on the football field. Those four forced fumbles and his defensive TD last season are nothing to sneeze at either. Chip will be in tough as he is starting to get up there in age and some of the younger players will be looking to unseat this 11 year veteran. But Cox has only missed one game in those eleven years and I can’t imagine him missing any others.

Kyries Hebert; the man is simply Mister Alouette! I’ve suggested that him getting better with age simply makes no logical sense. Hebert looks and plays better than guys ten years younger than him. Another who has made Montreal his full-time home, Ky has been all over the city at charity events that he’s spear-headed as well as the scholastic awareness programs that the team does in Quebec schools. Last year, he stayed healthy and was a wrecking ball on the field. Like Cox, Hebert has the young pups nipping at his heels and will give them a real run for their money.

One of those youngsters is 2015 first-rounder Chris Ackie, who has bided his time on special teams for the past two seasons. With the departure of both Winston Venable and Nick Shortill, the time has come for Ackie to put his tremendous physical gifts to good use and assume a bigger role on this defense. 14 special teams tackles tells me that he’s not afraid to hit people; it’s time for his to start feasting on his opponents.

It’s a homecoming of sorts for Frederic Plesius, who was acquired from the Hamilton Tiger-Cats for fellow linebacker Nick Shortill. The former standout from the Laval Rouge et Or had a brilliant university career, winning a pair of Vanier Cups. He’s been a special teams demon for the Tabbies and will be asked to assume that role in Montreal, along with being able to rotate in on D when called upon.

Secondary

To give you an idea just how good a coach Noel Thorpe is, the 2016 season saw 3 unknown rookies starting in the Alouettes’ secondary. These rookies made mistakes and got burned by opposing receivers. But by year’s end, they gelled and became a viable force that will only get better when the 2017 season gets underway.

Once again leading this squad is veteran Jovon Johnson, who was uncertain if there was still a role for him on ANY team when free agency hit. His persistent campaigning online  worked as he was able to secure another deal with the Alouettes. With Billy Parker now retired and coaching the Alouettes’ secondary, Johnson will be expected to lead by example on the field again and help further the future stars of this defense.

Another veteran that will provide leadership is long-time BC Lion Ryan Phillips, who was one of Kavis Reed’s first big acquisitions when free agency opened this past February. This perennial all-star brings a pair of Grey Cup championships with him as well as 489 defensive tackles, 47 interceptions and 68 knockdowns. Simply put, this guy is a game-changer and will be looking to reinvent himself after years on the West Coast. You can say Ryan is like a defensive version of Nik Lewis; coming in ready to prove doubters wrong.

One of those aforementioned unknown rookies was Jonathon Mincy, whose star shined so brightly that he was the Alouettes’ nominee for Most Outstanding Rookie. Only 24 years old, he turned in a solid season with 5 knockdowns, 2 forced fumbles and one interception. Mincy also played in all 18 games, earning the trust of his coaches and setting the bar for an even better 2017.

The first time I saw Greg Henderson play was in Montreal’s pre-season game versus Winnipeg. He took a pair of dumb penalties that led to the Bombers winning that game. But the Alouettes’ coaching staff saw something in Henderson, declaring that he had one of the best camps of 2016. This determined effort to make this kid a gamer took a while, but by season’s end he really came into his own. Along with Mincy,  I expect Henderson to keep turning heads as his Canadian football career starts to take shape.

The last name that you likely don’t know or remember from the last year’s rookie class is that of Raymon Taylor. He spent the first part of the season on the practice roster as the Alouettes were struggling with Ethan Davis (who has since been traded to Hamilton as part of the Brian Simmons deal). Once Raymon got into the lineup, it became harder and harder to keep him out of it. Cutting his teeth also on special teams, this Detroit native will be given plenty of opportunities to continue proving himself to this fan base.

Montreal discovered a hidden gem when they extended a training camp invite to the undrafted Dominique Termansen. A 2015 Vanier Cup champion with UBC, Termansen impressed early on and was able to parlay that into dressing for all 18 regular season games. Dominique’s first CFL interception versus Hamilton was a thing of beauty after he subbed in for an injured Marc-Olivier Brouillette. His strong play in the second half of the season likely factored in the decision to allow Marc-O to sign as a free agent in Saskatchewan. I expect Termansen to be strongly considered as the Alouettes’ full-time safety in 2017.

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If nothing else, this defense will once again be the strength of the Montreal Alouettes as they look to re-establish themselves on offense. If this season truly will be the swan song for Coach Thorpe, he may as well go out a winner. He deserves nothing less.

Tune in tomorrow as we delve into the Alouettes’ special teams unit.

GO ALS GO!!!

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