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Questions swirl over Riders heading into main training camp

The Leader-Post's Murray McCormick breaks down some of the questions facing the Riders heading into their main training camp.

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SASKATOON — It’s not known if CFL teams’ main training camps will open on Sunday — uncertainty that stems from the ongoing labour dispute between the league and the players’ association.

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There is less doubt over what will take place on Nov. 20, when Mosaic Stadium will be the host facility for the 109th Grey Cup game.

Jeremy O’Day, the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ vice-president of football operations and general manager, has stated that the team’s objective is always to reach the Grey Cup regardless of where it is to be played.

Toward that end, O’Day signed several key Riders players to extensions before they could test the free-agent waters.

Once the free agency period opened, O’Day signed Darnell Sankey and Derrick Moncrief, boosting the linebacker position to an elite level.

O’Day recently re-signed Charleston Hughes, a free-agent defensive end who had 31 sacks in 34 regular-season games with the Riders over the 2018 and 2019 seasons. Hughes spent the 2021 season with the Toronto Argonauts, recording just two sacks in nine games.

How the team will use the 38-year-old Hughes is one of the primary questions surrounding the Roughriders as they prepare to begin main training camp Sunday at the University of Saskatchewan’s Griffiths Stadium.

CAN THEY USE HUGHES?

Saskatchewan’s defensive line, especially at the end position, was already strong with the returns of A.C. Leonard, Pete Robertson and Keion Adams. Leonard had league-high 11 sacks in 2021. Robertson, who had five sacks in 10 games, is expected to receive more playing time due to Jonathan Woodard turning his 10-sack season into a contract with the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs. Woodard was recently released; the Riders retain his rights if he returns to the CFL. Hughes would ideally be suited to the role of situational pass rusher. He may prove there is still life in those legs and work his way into the starting lineup. How he performs during training camp will go a long way toward determining his role.

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CAN FAJARDO RETURN TO FORM?

Cody Fajardo is the unquestioned starting quarterback, albeit with a few questions heading into training camp. Looming over the 30-year-old pivot is what he’ll be like in 2022. He struggled with completing long passes in 2021 and wasn’t the QB who in 2019 was named the West Division’s most outstanding player and a CFL all-star. However, the Riders did have a 9-4 regular-season record in games started by Fajardo in 2021. One response to the aforementioned questions is it will be the second season for Fajardo with Jason Maas as the Riders’ offensive co-ordinator and quarterbacks coach. Another season of collaboration should be beneficial for both. So will a full training camp and season with receiver Duke Williams, who boosted a moribund Riders’ offence after signing in October. Whatever happens is largely dependent on Fajardo returning to his 2019 form. Improved pass protection wouldn’t hurt, either.

WHO WILL BACK UP FAJARDO?

Based on their showings in rookie camp, Mason Fine and Jake Dolegala will compete for backup duty. Fine appeared in one meaningless game in 2021, but nonetheless played well enough to unseat Isaac Harker as the Riders’ No. 2 quarterback. Fine showed off an accurate arm during rookie camp. The 6-foot-7 Dolegala appears to have a strong arm and also boasts NFL experience. Troy Williams could be in the mix, but his repetitions may be limited during training camp due to time that is devoted to preparing Fajardo for the regular season — which begins June 11.

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WHO WILL CARRY THE BALL?

William Powell joined the Ottawa Redblacks via free agency, creating an opportunity for Jamal Morrow to become the first-string running back. The Riders added some competition to the position with the signing of Shaq Cooper. Both are excellent returners, which creates options for the Riders. One could start at tailback and the other could handle returns. Justin Covington, Frankie Hickson, Shamar Moreland and Troymaine Pope are in also the mix to compete for the starting tailback’s position.

WHO WILL COVER THE SLOTBACKS?

The departures of Ed Gainey and Loucheiz Purifoy via free agency have created openings in the defensive backfield. A.J. Hendy, who bolted the Riders late in the 2021 season due to playing-time issues, is an option. He can also play in the defensive backfield and at linebacker. The Riders are high on defensive halfback Jeremy Clark and cornerback Damon Webb, both of whom saw some action last season. The CFL is a slotback-oriented league, so finding replacements for Gainey and Purifoy is among the imperatives as the Roughriders prepare to kick off training camp.

mmccormick@postmedia.com

twitter.com/murraylp

The sports world is ever-changing, as are the times. Supplement your steady diet of sports coverage by subscribing to the Regina Leader-Post’s 306 Sports Fix newsletter. Each week, sports editor Rob Vanstone will provide additional commentary on the Roughriders, Pats and other teams/sports of interest, along with a peek behind the curtain. Click here to subscribe.

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