Change is inevitable. And when it comes to the game of football, not even a stellar resume will ensure employment.
For the past five years, the architect of the Montreal Alouettes defense was Noel Thorpe, who took a major liability and flipped it on its ear by establishing this team as a defensive juggernaut. But questionable personnel decisions and reports that Thorpe was becoming difficult to work with led to his dismissal mid-season last year, just as the Alouettes were dove-tailing towards the ground.
Now Thorpe is the defensive coordinator for the Ottawa RedBlacks and it would not surprise me to see him reform that team in his own image. He will also have a number of former Alouettes who excelled under his tutelage with him in the nation’s capital, including Kyries Hebert and Michael Klassen.
So when it came time to replace Thorpe after last year’s trainwreck of a season, Alouettes general manager Kavis Reed reached out and sought former Alouette Khalil Carter. Fresh off back-to-back Grey Cup appearances as the DBs coach for the Calgary Stampeders, Carter was seemingly ready to take that step to the next level in his coaching career. Khalil came in and re-designed the Alouettes defensive playbook with veteran CFL coordinator Rich Stubler assisting him. Pair that with Reed signing some true defensive studs in free agency, there looked to be a LOT to be excited about when training camp got under way.
But then Carter had a change of heart and decided he’d rather forge a path to being a general manager in the CFL instead, stepping away from the DC position and accepting a scouting position with the Alouettes. There are reports that this was, in actuality, a dismissal due to Carter allegedly being too difficult to work with behind the scenes.
In any event, now Stubler has assumed the defensive coordinator role for the Alouettes. While I am leery of both the head coach and DC being in their 60’s, Stubler does know what to do with a defense and has multiple Grey Cup rings to prove it. This still remains a young man’s game and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned that the services of a young defensive mind couldn’t be retained.
As always, training camp will tell us the tale. It’s time to take a look at the Montreal Alouettes defense for the 2018 season.
I said last year that Montreal was slowly shifting the look of this line to eventually become all-National. I thought that it may take 2-3 seasons and so far it’s very much on track with not only the CFL draft but some key free agent signings.
However, there still remains one major international player on this line, for this year at least. The brilliant career of John Bowman is making its final lap this 2018 season. There’s no question that opposing quarterbacks are breathing a sigh of relief knowing that the Alouettes’ all-time leader in sacks will soon be calling it a career. But before he takes his last snap, I expect Bowman to not only add to his legendary stats, but I see him passing the leadership baton and leaving this team better than he found it.
Perhaps that baton will go to the biggest fish in the free agency pond. Jamaal Westerman. Joining his brother Jabar in Montreal this past February, Alouettes fans should be excited as not only did he want to come here, he’s coming in with something to prove. Jamaal still managed seven QB sacks despite only appearing in 11 games last season. This National stud will look to make this line his very own in 2018.
No slouch himself, Jabar Westerman will look to rebound from a down year that saw his numbers drop considerably. I attribute this more to the overall malaise that befell the Alouettes in 2017. With older bro joining him, I expect iron to sharpen iron and Jabar to improve himself and become a solid depth piece for Montreal.
A possible bookend for this D-line comes in the form of Laval native Jesse Joseph. A solid contributor for years, Joseph is better suited on the edge and with Gabriel Knapton being shipped off to the BC Lions, this could be the year that we truly see the potential that Joseph has for Montreal. He will still be a heavy hitter on special teams as well.
Last year’s second round draft pick Fabian Foote came into camp with a great pedigree. He only saw action later in the season and didn’t exactly have the chance to shine. With John Bowman in the twilight of his career, Foote can stand out by providing some solid depth on the interior and allowing another edge rusher to come in and impress right away.
A move that has won a lot of Alouettes fans over is the return of Alan-Michael Cash, who was recently signed after being released by the Toronto Argonauts. Cash spent most of 2017 on the sidelines due to injury. But he’s coming in healthier than ever and despite being a Grey Cup champion, won’t be resting on his laurels. Cash is eager to prove that he still belongs in the discussion amongst the CFL’s defensive elite.
This is one area of the field that has gotten a major makeover and looks stronger than ever before! Despite losing Bear Woods and Kyries Hebert (and likely Chip Cox as well, but nothing has been made official yet), the Alouettes have loaded up the middle of the defense with some major firepower that will seek and destroy.
The most notable addition is the return of Henoc Muamba, who was released from the Saskatchewan Roughriders before being due an off-season bonus. Interesting that Henoc is back because when he was an Alouette, he ended up being released by the tem to avoid being paid an off-season bonus. By returning to Montreal, Henoc clearly doesn’t live in the past and he is looking forward to making an impact with his new “old” squad.
Playing mostly as a safety in 2017 before being missing the bulk of the season due to injury, Chris Ackie looks to be going back to the linebacking spot and he will be a very welcome presence. Though originally a DB in university, he has played well as a linebacker and his physical presence cannot be denied. After all that time off, Chris will be looking to make his name heard once again at Percival Molson Stadium.
The Alouettes’ nominee for Most Outstanding Rookie last season was Branden Dozier, an absolute buzzsaw on defense. He was fast, electric and not afraid to put the wood to someone. with over 60 defensive tackles and even scoring his first touchdown from a Jerome Messam fumble, Dozier made an immediate impact. With a full year under his belt, I am personally looking forward to seeing how he follows up for year two.
The one name that really intrigues me is free agent addition Kyle Knox. While not the flashiest name added in free agency, he had a very solid career as a Winnipeg Blue Bomber and should make an impact in Montreal. While everyone will be focusing on Henoc and whether Chip Cox will finally call it a career or stick around a year too long, I think Knox has potential to be a wildly underrated signing for the Alouettes.
This was an area that took many lumps in 2017, with injuries and less than stellar play. No matter how badly anyone may have critiqued this particular group, it paled in comparison to how Kavis Reed must have felt from his vantage point on the sidelines.
Only keeping a couple of pieces, Reed has majorly overhauled this defensive corps and now it looks to be filled with an absolute murderer’s row of talented players.
The biggest impact move made by Reed was bringing in former Calgary Stampeders Tommie Campbell and Joe Burnett. Both are phenomenal players that have been to the past two Grey Cup games. Many consider Campbell to be the premier shutdown corner in the CFL while Burnett provides a wealth of experience and will push the younger DBs along nicely. How do you top this free agent pairing, you ask?
Simple: You bring in another incredible defensive pairing that actually made their name here in Montreal! The Alouettes have brought back Dominique Ellis and Mitchell White, who has the distinction of winning the past two Grey Cups albeit with different teams. These two were dynamic in their first go-around and will be looking to put their atheticsm and experience to good use.
These four men alone will help strengthen this weakened secondary. But there’s still more! Last season saw Greg Henderson stand up and try to earn a leadership role in Montreal. He was a great presence in the secondary with the now NFL-bound Jonathon Mincy before injuries slowed his progress. Henderson is still young, but you have to admire his tenacity and football presence. I expect him to come out guns blazing.
There’s also the Canadian presence of both Dondre Wright and Ty Cranston. With Wright’s incredible football vision and Cranston’s hard-hitting ability, these two can easily make life a living hell for opposing receivers. Wright had a strong rookie campaign and should only get better with more reps. Cranston was selected in the seventh round of last year’s CFL draft and will look to parlay his successful USports career at the University of Ottawa into a full-time gig with the Alouettes.
Rounding out the list are Jermaine Robinson and Justin Gibbons. Robinson has CFL experience with stops in Ottawa and Hamilton. He was very disruptive and helped contribute to what turned out to be a championship season for the RedBlacks. Robinson was invited to the Alouettes’ mini-camp this past April and was able to turn that performance into a contract.
Gibbons had a solid career at corner for Aurora University and is a physical presence that can contribute immediately to special teams. At 6’5 and 200 pounds, NFL scouts have compared his playing style to Seahawks/49ers cornerback Richard Sherman and if he can have similar success, Alouettes fans should very excited.
The old saying is that defense wins championships. It’s obvious that Kavis Reed believes that to still be true and has assembled a squad that can help re-establish Montreal’s league-wide dominance from years ago.
Tomorrow, we finish up this season preview with the Alouettes’ special teams unit and final thoughts as the doors to training camp officially swing open.