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Days away from his first CFL game in nearly two years, Saskatchewan Roughriders quarterback Cody Fajardo admits there are some nerves.
The 29-year-old had a breakout season in 2019 and after many reps in training camp, the offensive scheme has once again been etched onto his brain.
But Fajardo knows nothing can quite replicate the energy in a stadium just before game time — or the corresponding butterflies that populate his stomach.
“I’ve been playing since I was six years old so I figured (the football side) would come back a little bit easier. And it has," he said. "It feels like riding a bike, when you get back and you just see concepts and you see zone coverages. But getting hit, that’s something I’ve got to get used to again. Or protect myself, I should say.”
Riders head coach Craig Dickenson said his star QB isn't showing any signs of anxiety in practice.
“I’m not sensing he’s nervous. He’s doing a great job of managing the offence and taking command of the huddle," the coach said. "But I think we’re all going to be a little nervous before the game. It’s been a long time. I know I will be as well.”
Fajardo led the Riders through a solid regular season in 2019, with the squad finishing atop the West with a 13-5 record. Saskatchewan's Grey Cup dreams withered, though, with a 20-13 loss to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the Western Conference final.
Though he finished the year as the CFL's top passer with 4,302 yards and 18 touchdowns, Fajardo didn't begin the 2019 campaign in the starter's spot. Instead, he was thrust into the role after Zach Collaros suffered a concussion in the season opener.
Fajardo has grown since taking up the starter's spot, Dickenson said, and comes into the 2021 season a little leaner, a little stronger and little more confident.
“He knows he’s the guy. He’s not trying to win a job, it’s his job and he knows it," the coach said. "So I think you’re seeing a more confident, more self aware and more of a leader from Cody right now. And it looks good on him.”
Others on the Riders roster will get their own opportunity to shine this season.
Dickenson said Tuesday that wide receiver Mitchell Picton will likely be the starter when Saskatchewan kicks off its 2021 CFL season against the B.C. Lions in front of a hometown, sellout crowd on Friday.
Despite the 2020 CFL season being cancelled, the 26-year-old Regina native spent much of the past year at the Riders training facility, working out nearly every day with fellow receiver Brayden Lenius and offensive lineman Logan Ferland, Dickenson said.
Picton, originally selected in the fifth round (37th overall) in the 2017 CFL entry draft, saw action in two games in 2019 but has yet to record his first reception. His performance in training camp has been impressive, though, the coach said.
“Hard work pays off," he said. "Those three guys, look how good their camps’ been this year and look how much they’ve improved. And it’s not because they changed what socks they wore or wore a different shirt. It’s because they worked hard, ate well and they trained.”
Saskatchewan's defensive group will also feature a number of new faces. The club lost several veterans over the extended off-season through free agency and retirement.
Four players also went down with long-term injuries just before training camp officially opened. Linebacker Larry Dean, defensive back Nelson Lokombo, defensive end Freddie Bishop and running back Jonathan Femi-Cole all remain on the six-game injured list after suffering torn Achilles tendons in a workout on July 8.
Defensive coordinator Jason Shivers called the injuries a "freakish" situation.
"It’s just unfortunate and I feel for those players and I hope they have a speedy and good recovery and get to continue their careers," he said during training camp.
Dean was expected to play a key role for the Riders this season. The 32-year-old from Tifton, Ga., signed as a free agent after recording 86 defensive tackles, three special-teams tackles and one sack for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 2019.
The departure of veteran linebackers Solomon Elimimian, Derrick Moncrief and Cameron Judge leave further holes in Shivers' lineup.
"It’s part of the game. We’ve got to continue to move forward. I love all those guys, got good relationships with them. It’s part of the business," the defensive coordinator said.
"And it created an opportunity, that’s how I’m approaching it. An opportunity to meet some new people, get them in some new positions and see what they can do.”
JUST THE FACTS
GENERAL MANAGER: Jeremy O'Day (second season)
HEAD COACH: Craig Dickenson (second season)
2019: Finished the regular season first in the West Division with a 13-5 record, but lost to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the Western Conference final.
HOME FIELD: Mosaic Stadium (33,000)
ADDITIONS: Twin linebackers Justin and Jordan Herdman-Reed, linebackers Deon Lacey and Kevin Francis
DEPARTURES: Defensive lineman Charleston Hughes (Toronto Argonauts), linebackers Cameron Judge (Toronto), Derrick Moncrief (Los Angeles Rams) and Solomon Elimimian (retired)
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Quarterback Cody Fajardo, wide receiver Mitchell Picton
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 4, 2021.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press