It’s still kind of weird to be in the month of May be talking in-depth about CFL football. Yet, here we are.
Training camp opened on May 20th for all nine teams of the Canadian Football League, much to the delight of the faithful fans that populate this league. That includes the Montreal Alouettes, who are holding camp in their home city for the first time in ages.
No more jaunts to the rolling countryside of Lennoxville, Quebec for Alouettes fans. To see the construction of what will hopefully be a winning team, all one has to do is set their sights towards the east end of the city and look for the field between Stade Saputo and Olympic Stadium.
It’s stripped down and back to basics for the Birds of Prey. So much so that for the first time in their history, the team isn’t allowing players to wear the team’s logo on their helmets. This movement is being celebrated with the training camp theme of #EarnYourWings, as playing for the Alouettes should be looked at as a privilege and not just a way to earn a paycheque.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers have been doing something similar for years, essentially making their players earn the W that is on their helmets. Their #ForTheW campaign has resonated with their fans for years and become their rallying cry. That team has gone through years of malaise and are finally on the right track back to glory. We’ll see if this small but poignant campaign can resonate here in the 514.
So what else have we learned at Alouettes training camp? Let’s take a look:
So the competition to become the next quarterback for the Montreal Alouettes got a little tighter as week one drew to a close. Former NFL first round draft pick Josh Freeman decided that one underwhelming week of training camp was enough to determine that his football flame had been extinguished.
Freeman announced that his playing career in football was done, but reports suggest that the Alouettes had seen enough and released him. Freeman looked less than impressive in the reps he took. In only three camp sessions, I found him to be quite rusty, as though he didn’t do any off-season training.
Naturally, the Alouettes’ many detractors delighted in using this as further proof that Alouettes general manager Kavis Reed doesn’t know what he’s doing. But in all reality, signing Freeman was no different than inviting any other player to camp. He came up with nothing guaranteed other than an opportunity to prove whether he belonged. But after a few days, it was clear that Freeman simply doesn’t have it anymore.
Despite the league bringing Freeman to CFL Week with the hope that his name would mean something to someone, the end result was a story told many times over the years: Former NFL star comes to CFL, thinking that they can light it up in the so-called “minor league” and return home to the NFL a better player.
Instead, Josh Freeman joins the mile long list of former NFLers that come up here, flame right out and head back home with their tail between their legs. He’s not the first and you can bet your bottom dollar that he won’t be the last.
Not everyone has been squandering their opportunity to make this squad. So who has been making the most of their time here at training camp?
Matthew Shiltz: Right now the entire CFL community is belaboring the notion that the Alouettes “don’t have a quarterback”. Comments like that are fuel for a young man like Shiltz, who has been improving daily and looking very comfortable behind centre. The current thought is that CFL veteran Drew Willy will likely be the team’s Day One starter due to him being the only QB with multiple years’ experience. But don’t be surprised if Matt ends up being the one who rises above it all and ends up leading this team onto the field in 2018.
Ryder Stone: No one is going to unseat Tyrell Sutton as this team’s starting tailback so easily. Even with some strong competition from young hopefuls like Amir Carlisle, William Stanback and Josh Robinson. But Montreal had a plan in mind with the selection of Stone in this year’s CFL draft. He is built just like Sutty and the speed that made people sit up and take notice during his collegiate career at Dartmouth has been on display from day one at camp. I’m really looking forward to seeing Stone in an actual game situation.
Justin Gibbons: With so many talented defensive backs at camp, how has this small schooler managed to stand out? Well, it starts by picking off a former NFL first round draft pick not once, but TWICE. I’m not saying that Gibbons is the reason why Josh Freeman decided to call it a career, but these training camp sessions is where the work is done to establish what you can do on the field. Gibbons has answered the bell every time and his ability to read the quarterback thus far has been impressive. I expect to see a lot of Justin on the field in Ottawa this Thursday and you should keep an eye out for #39 too.
Alan-Michael Cash: Wait a minute, you’ll say. We already know what our boy Cash can do! How can you include him on this list? Simple. This is Alan-Michael’s chance to prove that he’s not a Grey cup champion in name only. The injuries that plagued this beast of a man have subsided and his willingness to leave it all out on the field was made clear early on. On Day Four of camp, Alouettes head coach Mike Sherman said he would give the players the afternoon off if any of the lineman could catch one of four punt attempts. Cash stepped up and made that crucial catch for his teammates. That won’t be the last selfless act this savvy veteran makes for the Alouettes, bank on that.
The Alouettes’ first test of the preseason will be at Ottawa’s TD Place as they face the RedBlacks on Thursday. As of this going viral, Drew Willy will be starting at quarterback for Montreal. But expect to see all four of Montreal’s quarterbacks to see action in the nation’s capital. Coach Sherman had said earlier in the off-season that he wanted to have his starting quarterback established after the first ten days of camp.
With no disrespect meant to Willy, I don’t believe that Sherman is any closer to anointing any one of these QBs as the opening day starter. This is still very much an ongoing race and how these men do under the bright lights will determine how this coaching staff operates during week 2 of camp.
As you watch the game, be it live at TD Place in Ottawa or on TSN in the comfort of your living room, don’t pay attention to the scoreboard as it means absolutely nothing. This is the chance to see just how deep this team is going to be. For many, this may be the only action they see on the field so they better not waste it. Go ahead and tell those guys that the preseason “means nothing” or “doesn’t count”.
We’ll be back to break down this first game here on The ALSternative. As always, be sure to follow along on Twitter for all my thoughts before, during and after the game. Be excited, Alouettes Nation. We finally have a football game to watch.