OTTAWA — The Ottawa Redblacks believe significant moves made by first-year general manager Shawn Burke, and the integration of new players into the team atmosphere, will help the team improve on its ugly 3-11 record from last year.
Redblacks head coach Paul LaPolice said team-building was a key factor throughout training camp with a number of new faces joining the team.
"We did a lot of team-building stuff over the course of training camp to make sure these guys .. jelled with the new crew," LaPolice said. "I'm proud of that and proud of what they did in (the pre-season) games."
Burke was hired last December after the Redblacks parted ways with Marcel Desjardins, who had been with the organization since its inception in 2014.
Ottawa made three Grey Cup finals under Desjardins, winning it in 2016, but had missed the playoffs in 2019 and 2021. The 2020 season was cancelled due to COVID-19.
One of Burke’s first moves was to sign veteran quarterback Jeremiah Masoli to a two-year deal to provide the Redblacks with some much-needed stability at centre.
Before becoming Ottawa’s general manager Burke spent 15 years with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats organization, where he saw firsthand what Masoli could provide.
The 33-year-old Masoli has been part of three Grey Cup finalists in Hamilton (2014, 2019 and 2021) but has yet to win a championship. He was named the East Division’s outstanding player in 2018 and his rushing ability makes him a dual threat to opposing defences.
"We're operating good, so there’s some small details to iron out, but besides that we're executing pretty well against our defence right now," Masoli said on learning a new system. "But you know we'll see when the bullets start flying, that’s when it gets fun."
The Redblacks won’t be able to ease into the season as they open the schedule with a home-and-home against Winnipeg.
Masoli will carry the brunt of the workload, but will also play the role of mentor to a couple of young QBs.
Caleb Evans returns with the experience he gained last season with the Redblacks. Twenty-five-year-old Tyrie Adams was a pleasant surprise through two exhibition games, but time will tell whether he can overtake Evans on the depth chart.
As much as last year's QBs struggled to produce, averaging 13 points per game, they weren't getting great protection as Ottawa gave up a CFL-worst 52 sacks.
Burke made some improvements to the offensive line with the acquisition of Ucambre Williams, Jacob Ruby, Randy Richards and Hunter Steward.
Burke also signed running back William Powell, who makes his return to the nation’s capital after having played the last two years in Saskatchewan. Powell can be dynamic when he's at the top of his game, but he did not play in either of the two pre-season games.
It appears Devonte Williams will get the start Friday in Winnipeg as late Monday the Redblacks released their injury report and cited Powell as limited due to an Achilles injury.
With Ottawa having finished at or near the bottom of nearly every offensive statistical category last year any improvement would be progress, but this team wants to compete for the playoffs.
Ottawa's defensive backs showed they can be a threat., with the team making four interceptions over two pre-season games.
"We know how important taking the ball away is," LaPolice said. "We preach it and talk about it … but that’s a hard thing to do, so hopefully when we get opportunities we catch a football."
Antoine Pruneau has been a staple with the Redblacks since its inaugural season in 2014. He's now at a stage of his career where he’s unlikely to be a starter as a safety, but he’s come to terms with that.
"I'm excited to see how this group reacts in a game," said the 32-year-old. "At this time of year, it’s hard to say exactly where we stand, but I think everyone has the best intentions and we saw some exciting stuff in pre-season.
"I feel I was able to answer some questions about my own health and I’m proud of what I showed on the field during training camp; the rest is out of my control."
JUST THE FACTS
GENERAL MANAGER: Shawn Burke, first season
HEAD COACH: Paul LaPolice, second season
LAST YEAR: 3-11-0
KEY ADDITIONS: QB Jeremiah Masoli (Hamilton), OL Ucambre Williams (Calgary), RB William Powell (Saskatchewan), WR Shaq Johnson (B.C.), WR Darvin Adams (Winnipeg)
KEY DEPARTURES: WR DeVonte Dedmon (NFL, Miami)
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Masoli, Williams, Powell.
THE BIG QUESTION: Did Burke make enough moves to take the Redblacks out of the basement and make them a competitive force in the East Division?
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 9, 2022.
Lisa Wallace, The Canadian Press