January 3, 2018

Things to watch for in 2018

Photo by Mark Shannon

The year 2018 is here, New Year’s resolutions have been set – some may have already been broken! – and it’s time to look forward to another year of Stampeder football.

What’s in store for 2018? Here are some of the questions that will be asked – and, in theory, eventually answered – in the months ahead.

Secondary of primary importance

One of the first orders of business for the New Year is the last line of defence as the Stamps went into the off-season with every single starter in the secondary eligible for free agency.

Brandon Smith has since signed on for an 11th season in Red and White but the statuses of fellow halfback Jamar Wall, corners Tommie Campbell and Ciante Evans, safety Joshua Bell and SAM Shaquille Richardson remain unresolved as 2018 gets under way. The return of Evans and Richardson, who have caught the eye of NFL scouts, hinges on whether a contract materializes with a team south of the border.

Bell, who turns 33 this month, faces a decision about continuing his playing career. A possibility at safety for 2018 would be national Tunde Adeleke, who filled in at the position last year when Bell was sidelined by injury.

Patrick Levels is another sophomore who could be in line for an expanded role in 2018 depending on what happens with the prospective free agents.

A question within a question is who will mentor the position group as the team is looking to replace defensive backs coach Kahlil Carter, whose contract was not renewed.

Carrying the load

The starting tailback job at McMahon Stadium has been held by a Canadian since Jon Cornish claimed the position in the late stages of the 2011 season.

Cornish, who retired in 2015, eventually handed duties off to Jerome Messam but with the latter eligible for free agency, the Stamps are weighing their options.

Calgary often deployed a lineup that featured more than the mandated minimum of Canadian starters in 2017 and with safety potentially being taken over by a homegrown player, the Stamps have the option of going American at tailback if Messam doesn’t re-sign. Terry Williams made one start for the Stamps in 2017 when Messam was sidelined and delivered a 156-yard, three-touchdown performance.

Whoever gets the call has a tough act to follow – a Stamps running back has won the rushing title four of the past six years and six times in the last decade.

Encore, encore

While impending free agency muddies the waters in both the offensive and defensive backfields, there is no such uncertainty at middle linebacker. Coming off a spectacular sophomore season, Alex Singleton has a lock on the job.

After setting single-season tackle records – including the team mark as well as the league standard for most takedowns by a Canadian – and winning the CFL’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player award, Singleton has certainly set a very high standard for himself. His enthusiastic sideline-to-sideline pursuit of enemy offensive players and penchant for always being around the ball literally and figuratively make him the centrepiece of the Stamps defence.

In addition to Singleton’s dominance in the middle, the Stamps got strong play from their weak-side linebacker position in 2017 as Maleki Harris had a great start before getting hurt, which opened the door for standout rookie Jameer Thurman. If former starter and defensive captain Deron Mayo can get healthy, the outside linebacker position will be one the most interesting battles at training camp.

On the comeback trail

Mayo, who was limited to a single game last year, and Harris are just two of the Stamps players whose 2017 seasons were cut short by injury.

Receiver Lemar Durant was on track for his best season as a pro before going down with a knee injury in Week 8. Defensive tackle Junior Turner’s year was over when he got hurt in the Labour Day rematch in Edmonton. Both players are Canadians and have the potential to be difference-makers on the field and with the ratio if they can return to health.

Then there’s international defensive end Cordarro Law, who never got a chance to play a meaningful down last year after getting injured in the pre-season. Pierre Lavertu, the former starting centre, also missed all of 2017 with medical issues.

Having some or all of those rehabbing players return to their pre-injury form would provide a huge boost for the Red and White.

Sustaining excellence

As has been the case ever since John Hufnagel took over in 2008, the Stamps are facing the daunting challenge of trying to remain among the CFL elite.

The past decade – the first eight with Hufnagel as head coach-GM and the past two with Dave Dickenson running the sideline – has brought sustained success with 10 winning seasons, six first-place finishes, five Grey Cup appearances and two championships.

Calgary has a combined 10 regular-season losses over the past three years, which is fewer defeats than three other CFL teams suffered in 2017 alone. The Stamps have survived injuries, retirements and free-agent defections to maintain their status as a perennial contender.

While the recent track record has been excellent, none of it matters once a new season begins and the Stamps have to prove themselves all over again. With the Blue Bombers and Roughriders organizations having turned the corner in recent seasons, reigning MOP Mike Reilly still calling Edmonton home and a talented BC team looking to rebound from a bitterly disappointing season, the West promises to be tougher than ever.