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Veteran quarterback Fajardo anxious to help Alouettes defend Grey Cup title

He's a two-time Grey Cup champion, but Cody Fajardo enters the 2024 season once again with something to prove.

The veteran quarterback led an upstart Montreal Alouettes franchise to a stunning Grey Cup title last season. Fajardo headed East looking to rejuvenate his CFL career with a team that didn't land an owner until March and had lost many quality free agents due to the uncertainty surrounding it.

But Fajardo and Co. caught fire in September, winning their final five regular-season contests to finish second in the East Division standings. After downing Hamilton 27-12 in the conference semifinal, the Alouettes upset first-place Toronto (16-2) 38-17 in the conference final.

Then in the Grey Cup, Montreal stunned Winnipeg (14-4, first in West Division) 28-24 at Hamilton's Tim Hortons Field.

"What a crazy 365 days," Fajardo said from his off-season home in Reno, Nevada, during a video conference call Monday. "I think we're excited now to go from the hunters to the hunted.

"If you want to be talked about among the elite quarterbacks, obviously you've got to win a Grey Cup first, which we did last year. But you have to show that consistency year in and year out and that's my main focus going into this season . . . just show that consistency to my team, my coaches, people in the league that I'm here and not a one-hit wonder.'"

Montreal opens the '24 season on the road, visiting Winnipeg in a Grey Cup rematch before heading to Edmonton. The Alouettes' first home game is June 20 versus Ottawa.

Fajardo's first Grey Cup title came in 2017 as a backup with Toronto. He signed with B.C. after that season.

"(In 2018) I didn't get to start a season with a ring ceremony, a banner reveal and all the excitement that goes into winning the Grey Cup," he said. "I think that's what I am looking forward to the most in the early half of the season."

Fajardo, 31 completed 317-of-443 passes (CFL-best 71.6 per cent) last season for 3,847 yards with 14 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 16 starts for Montreal (11-7). The six-foot-two, 215-pound quarterback also ran 57 times for 344 yards and three touchdowns.

Fajardo ended his season completing 21-of-26 passes for 290 yards with three TDs and an interception against Winnipeg. He capped an smart seven-play, 83-yard march with 19-yard TD strike to Tyson Philpot with 13 seconds remaining to earn game MVP honours while Philpot secured the top Canadian award.

Montreal GM Danny Maciocia has spent the off-season working to retain many of the team's core players -- including linebackers Darnell Sankey and Tyrice Beverette and defensive lineman Shawn Lemon -- while also extending Fajardo's deal through 2025. But the Alouettes did lose receiver Austin Mack (Atlanta) and Canadian defensive lineman Lwal Uguak (Tampa Bay) while releasing running back William Stanback and defensive tackle Almondo Sewell.

Stanback signed with B.C. while Sewell remains a free agent.

Maciocia re-signed American running back Walter Fletcher and Canadian Jeshrun Antwi while adding former Saskatchewan receiver Tevin Jones in free agency. He also shored up Montreal's defensive line by adding American Dylan Wynn and Canadians Derek Wiggan and Isaac Adeyemi-Berglund in free agency.

“What I thought we lacked in talent (in 2023), we made up for in team camaraderie," Fajardo said. "Just having a locker room that’s so cohesive and together will help us fine-tune our talents on the field.

"The expectations will be higher. People are probably going to have shorter leashes or patience for us."

Fajardo said Montreal could help itself this season with a quick start. But he added the club's core of experienced veterans is more than capable of keeping everything on an even keel should that not happen.

Last season, for example, Montreal dropped four straight before finishing the '23 campaign with eight consecutive victories.

"I think our confidence is at an all-time high right now, coming off what we did last year," he said. "It’s very hard to repeat (and) I think our goal is set on repeating and I believe this team has the opportunity to do that.

"If things don’t start the way we expect, I know this team can crawl out of a hole and will have confidence doing it. This is a very talented team that knows how to play together and is a force."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 4, 2024.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press