Claybrooks’ first season as a defensive coordinator was a roaring success, but it didn’t come without its lessons.
The 39-year-old played two seasons with the Alouettes and three with the Stamps as a defensive lineman before joining Calgary’s coaching staff in 2012. After four seasons as the defensive line coach, including a Grey Cup in 2014, a new door opened when Defensive Coordinator Rich Stubler left to take a job with the Argonauts.
Claybrooks was the logical replacement, becoming the defensive mastermind on a team that went 15-2-1 but ultimately fell short in what some have documented as the biggest upset in Grey Cup history.
Sometimes, Claybrooks says, that’s just the way the football bounces.
“You’ve got to be lucky – last year we got a few lucky bounces,” he said. “Some teams get luck too. Ottawa got a few lucky bounces, we got unlucky bounces. The game could have gone either way.”
No one likely envied Claybrooks’ job going into last season. While Hufnagel had left his post as the long-time head coach, the Stamps’ new defensive coordinator was tasked with maintaining one of the CFL’s premier defences.
By the end of it all, the Stamps had allowed a league-low 20.5 points per game along with the second-fewest yards (339.3 per game). Calgary’s 52 sacks also tied for the top of the leaderboard while the Stamps forced the second-most turnovers with 45.
With a large part of his roster back in tow for 2017, Claybrooks will aim for more of the same come the summer.
It starts on the D-line, where Charleston Hughes, Micah Johnson and Cordarro Law all signed contract extensions.
“If you would have told me two months ago we’d be able to find Micah, Cordarro and Charleston and still be able to fit it all in and get it done, I would have said you’re crazy,” said Claybrooks. “It was one of those things where free agency was just keeping your guys.”
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The Stamps’ front four continues to be the back bone of their defence.
While Hughes led the league with 16 sacks, Johnson was impenetrable in the middle of the Stamps’ D-line. Law, on the other hand, joined the Stamps late but recorded three sacks in four games.
“It’s so funny because it’s like, I’ve helped those guys develop into perennial players, “said Claybrooks. “They had to execute but they put in a ton of time and became upper-echelon, elite defensive linemen in the league.”
Frank Beltre (NFL) has departed while the Stamps added some depth in the middle of their D-line with the signing of Bryan Hall. Hall has familiarity with the system having played under Stubler in 2016 and Orlondo Steinauer in Hamilton in 2015.
“I think he’ll be a good pickup,” said Claybrooks. “With the flexibility that we have on our D-line and our defence and offence with our ratio, we’re able to jig a lot of things and I think he’ll give us great depth there at both inside positions.”
The biggest step to be taken might be at linebacker. Deron Mayo is ahead of schedule in his recovery from a season-ending knee injury, Claybrooks said, while sophomore middle linebacker Alex Singleton will aim to take the next step forward as a defensive leader.
Singleton, last year the team’s sixth overall pick, is the quarterback of the Claybrooks’ defence.
“I expect him to expand on his role and I expect him to grow,” said Claybrooks. “As a rookie, you’re still trying to find your way — you don’t want to ruffle anyone’s tail feathers.
“Over the course of the year I was able to tell Alex ‘I don’t care if Charleston’s an eight-year vet, I don’t care if Brandon’s an eight-year vet. If you’re the captain, the quarterback of my defence, you have to direct those guys. You can’t let the star mesmerize you’.”
“You’ve already got the bullseye on your chest and everyone’s gunning for you because you are the Calgary Stampeders — you’re the model of consistency.”
DeVone Claybrooks on getting back to the Grey Cup
Rookie linebacker Alex Singleton emerged as a key figure on Claybrooks’ defence in 2016 (Stampeders.com)
The Stamps’ defence, on paper, is as strong as any in the CFL. And there’s no reason to believe last year’s Most Outstanding Player Bo Levi Mitchell and his myriad of weapons on offence should regress.
All that’s left to do now is to play and win football games. Perhaps easier said than done.
After last year’s ending left a bitter taste in their mouths, the Stamps will try and make it back to the Grey Cup for the second season in a row.
“It’s hard because I’ve been blessed to be here since ’09 and I’m either playing in the Western Final or the Grey Cup – a lot of teams and a lot of coaches can’t say that,” said Claybrooks. “It’s really hard to reload and answer because you’ve already got the bullseye on your chest and everyone’s gunning for you because you are the Calgary Stampeders — you’re the model of consistency.
“You just can’t get complacent. I think my staff works hard and we’re working harder now than we did last year, and it’s actually easier because we’re not implementing our playbook, we’re just adding on,” he added.
“I think we’ve got a shot but a lot of teams have reloaded and answered as well and gotten better.”