Going deep: Riders confident offensive explosiveness will return this season

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REGINA — One of the recurring narratives last season for the Saskatchewan Roughriders was their inability to successfully throw the ball deep, with the spotlight falling on quarterback Cody Fajardo.

Heading into the 2022 CFL season, Fajardo says the negativity serves as his motivation to prove the skeptics wrong.

"I think motivation is there every year," said Fajardo, who has been the Riders' starting quarterback since Zach Collaros was injured on the opening series of the 2019 season.

"There's always haters and there's always doubters and that's been my whole career. It hasn't been all rainbows and unicorns. It's been an underdog story. And honestly, the hate and all that motivates me to be better."

The Riders offence lacked explosiveness last season, with the offensive line, offensive co-ordinator Jason Maas and injuries to key players sharing the blame with Fajardo for the dreadful offensive output.

Fajardo averaged 7.4 yards per completion in 2021, which placed him near the bottom of the league rankings. His struggle was surprising given that Fajardo led the league in 2019 with 9.1 yards per completion.

Riders head coach Craig Dickenson says there was more than enough blame to spread around for the offensive struggles.

"Quarterbacks are like coaches — we get too much credit when things are going well and maybe too much blame when they're not. I think he’s developed a little thicker skin and he understands that the opinions that count are the ones in this locker room and we never had an issue with him completing long balls," said Dickenson. "That's it. That's a shared responsibility with the receivers and the offensive line and the quarterback. I think we'll be better this year."

There are a number of reasons for Fajardo’s and Dickenson’s optimism about the potential of the offence. Left tackle Terran Vaughn, who missed the 2021 season due to a shoulder injury, will anchor the offensive line. Receiver Duke Williams, who joined the Riders in the latter stages of the 2021 season after being released by the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, had a full training camp under his belt to develop a comfort level with Fajardo.

Shaq Evans is a deep threat with his speed. Add the eventual return of receiver Kyran Moore, currently recuperating from ACL and MCL surgery to his right knee, and the Riders believe they will field a dynamic offence this season.

"I'm really excited about this offensive unit and hopefully it translates into points," Fajardo said. "I know that we're a very talented offence and we just can't shoot ourselves in the foot, get ourselves in second long or turn the ball over. Hopefully we'll be able to light up the scoreboards."

The defence will have a different look this season with a number of veterans having moved on. Defensive backs Ed Gainey and Loucheiz Purifoy left as free agents. Gainey, who played the previous five seasons with the Riders, is now with the Edmonton Elks while Purifoy signed with the B.C. Lions after three seasons in Saskatchewan.

Defensive tackle Micah Johnson inked a deal with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats after two seasons with the Riders. Defensive lineman Jonathan Woodard, who totalled 10 sacks in 14 games in 2021, left to sign with the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs. Woodard was released on May 5 but has yet to decide whether to continue to shop for another NFL contract or return to Saskatchewan.

Joining the defence are linebackers Derrick Moncrief and Darnell Sankey. Moncrief is on his second tour with the Riders and signed as a free agent in the off-season after spending time with the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams and the Elks in 2021.

Sankey made the most of his first CFL season last year with the Calgary Stampeders, leading the league with 97 tackles and being named a West Division all-star.

Moncrief and Sankey were expected to team up with Canadian linebacker Micah Teitz, who led the Riders in tackles last season with 64 in 13 games. Teitz, however, is dealing with hip and groin injuries and will start the season on the six-game injured list.

Defensive lineman Charleston Hughes is returning to the Riders after spending a disappointing season with the Toronto Argonauts. The Riders are hoping the 38-year-old can regain the form that saw him record 31 sacks in 34 games during his previous two-year stint with the club.

Hughes has 132 career sacks which places him sixth on the CFL’s all-time list. Grover Covington holds the CFL record with 157.

The Riders face additional pressure this season as they are hosting the 2022 Grey Cup game at Mosaic Stadium. The last time the Riders hosted the Grey Cup was in 2013, with Saskatchewan beating Hamilton 45-23 in front of 44,710 spectators.

"We have one goal and that's to be in that game. We'll take it from there," Dickenson said. "You can only do it one week at a time and you can only control one day at a time. The players understand the expectations and I think they relish it. I hope they're looking forward to it all year because it's going to amp up from here."

JUST THE FACTS

GENERAL MANAGER: Jeremy O’Day (fourth season)

HEAD COACH: Craig Dickenson (fourth season)

2021: 9-5-0, second in West Division. Lost 21-17 to Winnipeg in division final.

ADDITIONS: LBs Derrick Moncrief (Edmonton) and Darnell Sankey (Calgary), DL Charleston Hughes (Toronto), QB Jake Dolegala (NFL, Miami).

DEPARTURES: DBs Loucheiz Purifoy (B.C.) and Ed Gainey (Edmonton), DLs Micah Johnson (Hamilton) and Jonathan Woodard (free agent), WRs Jordan Williams-Lambert (free agent) and Brayden Lenius (NFL. Atlanta), RB William Powell (Ottawa), P Jon Ryan (free agent).

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Fajardo, Williams, Moncrief, Sankey.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 10, 2022.

Jeff DeDekker, The Canadian Press

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