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TORONTO — He's been a very good player throughout his CFL career, but Ja'Gared Davis has also proven to be somewhat of a good-luck charm.
Every year he's been in the league with the Calgary Stampeders (2016-18) and Hamilton Tiger-Cats (2019, '21), Davis has finished the season in the Grey Cup game. The Toronto Argonauts hope that trend continues after signing the six-foot-one, 238-pound defensive lineman as a free agent in February.
Toronto last won the Grey Cup in 2017.
"I've been very fortunate and blessed to play with many great teams, many great coaches," Davis said. "To come here where I know half of the coaching staff already . . . I left one family to join another.
"Just being able to come over here and be a part of what they're planning to get together and want to do, it has great opportunity."
The 31-year-old American had 93 tackles, 19 sacks, and three forced fumbles in two seasons with Hamilton. Over his five CFL campaigns, Davis has registered 216 tackles and 42 sacks.
While he's with a new team, Davis is in familiar surroundings.
Argos head coach Ryan Dinwiddie is a former Calgary assistant coach and defensive co-ordinator, and Toronto defensive co-ordinator Corey Mace was Davis's defensive line coach when he first joined the Stampeders. Defensive backs coach Joshua Bell was also a teammate of Davis's in Calgary (2016-17).
"It's like rekindling an old flame," Davis said of reuniting with Mace. "I still use a lot of stuff he taught me way back.
"(It's great) just being able to hear it again and help the new guys here learn his philosophies and get everyone on the same page."
Toronto finished atop the East Division in 2021 with a 9-5 record but lost 27-19 to Davis and the Ticats in the conference final.
Toronto hopes the hiring of Mace will bring stability to the Argos' defence. Glen Young began last season as the defensive co-ordinator but was replaced by Chris Jones during the season. Following Toronto's playoff defeat, Jones left to become the Edmonton Elks head coach/GM.
"I love where we are on defence," said veteran Canadian linebacker Henoc Muamba. "Coach Mace does a great job of communicating and connecting with the guys.
"As soon as he signed, I had a bunch of conversations with him and I knew the kind of coach he was going to be. It's good to see he's consistent in what he was saying to me specifically before the season started to now."
After six CFL seasons as a defensive lineman, Mace served as Calgary's defensive line coach (2016-21). The Stampeders led the league in sacks three times during that time while also allowing the fewest rushing yards (2018), points scored (2017) and touchdowns (2016).
Toronto's defence was fourth last year in fewest offensive points allowed (19.6 per game). But it was seventh against the run (111.6 yards per game), allowing a league-worst 5.7 yards per attempt.
The Argos' pass defence was sixth overall (295.5 yards per game) and their 29 sacks were eighth in the nine-team CFL.
Offensively, veteran McLeod Bethel-Thompson returns as the starting quarterback. In 2021, he alternated with Nick Arbuckle before Arbuckle was dealt to Edmonton late in the year.
Bethel-Thompson, entering his fifth season with Toronto, finished fifth among CFL passers with 2,303 yards, completing 203-of-306 attempts (66.3 per cent). He also had 13 TDs with 11 interceptions.
"We're just so much further than we were this time last year," Bethel-Thompson said. "There's some experience and guys are sharing their experiences with the younger guys so the learning experience has sped up.
"We still have some more fluidity to go but I think we're going in the right direction, for sure."
Toronto's offence will feature two prominent new faces: Canadian running back Andrew Harris and American receiver Brandon Banks.
Harris, 35, signed as a free agent following a stellar five-year run with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. The five-foot-10, 216-pound Harris led the CFL in rushing three times and won two Grey Cups while with his hometown franchise.
Overall, Harris has won three Grey Cups (including 2011 with B.C.), been named a CFL all-star five times and its top Canadian (2017). And in 2019, he became the first player to be named the Grey Cup MVP and top Canadian in the same game.
Harris is also the top-rushing Canadian in CFL history and needs just 339 yards to hit 10,000 for his illustrious career. He didn't play during the pre-season, and with Toronto having an opening-week bye before starting its season hosting the Montreal Alouettes on Thursday, Harris and the Argos should be well-rested.
"To have Andrew here . . . he knows the game so well," Bethel-Thompson said. "He's a dynamic runner, obviously, with what he's done in this league.
"I can't wait to get on the field with him as well."
Banks, 34, also signed as a free agent after he and Hamilton mutually parted ways. Over eight seasons with the Ticats, Banks was a league all-star four times and in '19 captured the CFL's outstanding player award after registering a club-record 112 catches for 1,550 yards and 13 TDs.
Banks had 422 catches for 5,678 yards and 44 TDs over 111 career regular-season contests with Hamilton. But he battled injuries in 2021, registering 44 receptions for 474 yards and two TDs in 10 regular-season games.
Banks played in Toronto's 18-17 exhibition loss to Hamilton on Friday night in Guelph, Ont., registering three catches for 34 yards. But Bethel-Thompson targeted Banks seven times in the game.
"I missed him a couple of times," Bethel-Thompson said. "The more I can throw to receivers the more I can feel where they're going.
"I'm more a feel thrower in that way . . .I'm glad we missed throws because if we make the throws then sometimes you skip the process so it was good to miss some to him. We'll get in the film room and clean that up."
A healthy Bethel-Thompson will be crucial for Toronto as neither of his backups have CFL experience. Chad Kelly, the nephew of former NFL great Jim Kelly, beat out veteran Antonio Pipkin for the No. 2 spot, while rookie Austin Simmons will serve as the short-yardage quarterback.
Muamba said the disappointment of last year's playoff defeat remains in the back of his head.
"Everything that happens in life you have to use as fuel to move forward," he said. "Football is a weird sport where many times you want to have a short memory.
"This is one of the few situations in football where you want to have a long-term memory to remember the bitter taste that was in our mouth at the end of the season."
JUST THE FACTS
GENERAL MANAGER: Michael Clemons (second full season)
HEAD COACH: Ryan Dinwiddie (second season)
2021: Finished first in East Division (9-5). Lost 27-19 to Hamilton in conference final.
ADDITIONS: RB Andrew Harris (Winnipeg), QB Chad Kelly (NFL, Indianapolis), WRs Brandon Banks (Hamilton) and Markeith Ambles (Calgary), DL Ja'Gared Davis (Hamilton), DBs DaShaun Amos and Royce Metchie (Calgary) and LB Wynton McManis (Calgary).
DEPARTURES: QB Antonio Pipkin (B.C.), WR Chandler Worthy (Montreal), RB D.J. Foster, DE/LB Cam Judge (Calgary), DE Charleston Hughes (Saskatchewan), DB Crezdon Butler, OL Jamal Campbell (Saskatchewan).
PLAYERS TO WATCH: QB McLeod Bethel-Thompson, Harris, Banks, Davis, Muamba, WRs DaVaris Daniels and Eric Rogers, DL Shawn Oakman, K Boris Bede.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 10, 2022.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press