Sat Nov 27 02:40pm EST
The Saskatchewan Roughriders have one of the best receiving corps in the CFL, but it's quite an unconventional one thanks to both its depth and its composition. They're led by the league's top receiver in Canadian Andy Fantuz and feature a star import slotback in Weston Dressler, but lost a crucial component (Canadian wide receiver Rob Bagg) midseason and have persevered in the playoffs thanks to huge days from Canadian wide receiver Chris Getzlaf (pictured above running a sideline route and anticipating a Darian Durant pass near the goal line Friday), Canadian slotback Jason Clermont, import WR Cary Koch and others.
The Riders' receivers work as a team, and they seem to get that Saskatchewan's success is more important than individual stats. They block for each other, they run hard to draw coverage even when they're not the target, and they seem to have deep chemistry on and off the field. That was demonstrated at Friday's practice, when Dressler (pictured, right) wore Bagg's number to honour his injured comrade.Like Getzlaf, Fantuz attributes much of the Riders' success to their receiving depth, but he also thinks part of it's thanks to their chemistry and ability to react quickly.
"We work really well together," he said. "I think we have a smart group of receivers. We see the field, we communicate well and we adjust on the fly really well. Playing above the shoulders, playing with what you see out there is our biggest asset."
Fantuz said Friday that Saskatchewan's array of talented receivers means defences have to choose who they're going to shut down. Last week against Calgary, the Stampeders focused on stopping Fantuz and Dressler, and they were largely successful, but they got burned by Getzlaf and Koch.
"They can't cover everybody," Fantuz said. "You've kind of got to pick your poison against us. Certain teams with certain matchups, if they take someone out, we'll look elsewhere. We have confidence in everybody across the board. That's the beauty of having as many good receivers as we do."
It's rare to see so many Canadians playing prominent roles in a receiving corps at the moment, but Fantuz thinks that may not be the case for long.
"I think minor football in Canada is getting better every year," he said. "Coaching is getting better, the universities are getting better. Kids are starting younger, so the talent level is growing every year coming out of college. That in turn makes the CFL draft better and better every year, so the players coming in can contribute right away. You see it on our team, Shomari Williams played all 18 games and has done really well for us, so he's just the prime example of that."
Fantuz was a CIS football star with the Western Mustangs before being drafted by the Riders in 2006. He said he's happy to hear the Vanier Cup will be reunited with the Grey Cup next year in B.C., the first time the two events have been held together since 2007. Fantuz was a member of the Roughriders for that Grey Cup, and said he loved seeing the Vanier in town at the same time.
"I remember in Toronto the Vanier Cup was a big part of the weekend," he said. "Either way, I think they do a good job with the Vanier, but if they play it in the same city, I think they'll have more attendance."
Weather can make the passing game more difficult, and the field at Commonwealth Stadium has seen plenty of snow this week, but Fantuz said he doesn't think it's going to be too much of a factor Sunday.
"The first day was pretty cold, so we modified practice a bit," he said. "The last two days have been gorgeous, so we've got a lot of good work in. We're expecting it to be a little colder than this on game day, but whatever it is, we'll be ready for it."
Fantuz claimed the CFL's Most Outstanding Canadian award for the first time Thursday, and is following in some pretty distinguished footsteps. One two-time winner of the trophy, Clermont, just happens to play on the Riders as well. Fantuz said he's always been a big fan of Clermont's, and has enjoyed working with him.
"I've admired him throughout his whole career," Fantuz said. "I've learned a lot from him. Becoming his teammate, he's just a terrific person, so he's a great friend of mine now. He's a funny guy, keeps it loose in the locker room, and he has great input in the meeting room too. He has a lot of experience, so he knows what works and what doesn't. He helps us out as an offence."
Clermont (pictured at right lining up for a play Friday) downplayed his role in helping younger Canadian receivers like Fantuz and Getzlaf over the last two seasons, but said he's learned from them.
"They were guys thrown into the fire early, young in their careers," he said. "There's not a whole lot they need to learn. I think they learn from each other, and I think I'm able to learn some things from their youthfulness and a lot of the things they do, and I think it's reciprocal."
He said he was thrilled to see Fantuz claim his award Thursday.
"Absolutely," Clermont said. "It was great to see Andy healthy for the season and able to do the things he did and to come in and have our whole team here to see him get that award."
Clermont also expects the Riders' receiving depth to play a crucial role on Sunday.
"It's already been important," he said. "We lost one of our top soldiers in Rob Bagg. We can't replace the things that he does, so we're just trying to fill the void the best way we can."