After a long training camp and a couple of decent dress rehearsals, it’s show time for the 2022 Ottawa REDBLACKS. They begin a new season Friday night on the road against the defending champion Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
Of course, Ottawa has struggled in recent years, posting just 3 victories in both 2019 and 2021. In 2020, they had zero wins, of course, with the entire season being cancelled due to COVID. Since the REDBLACKS walked off the field at the 2018 Grey Cup, they’ve won a grand total of two games at home. Two home wins in three calendar years has dampened what was once a party atmosphere at TD Place.
As you might expect, everyone was expecting serious changes in Ottawa. But no one banked on a full, overnight rebuild.
A week before Christmas, the REDBLACKS hired Shawn Burke away from Hamilton to be their new general manager. OSEG apparently got Burke a bunch of gift cards for Christmas because he went on a February shopping spree. The REDBLACKS completely retooled their roster, signing 17 free agents away from other CFL clubs.
REDBLACKS 2022 Free Agent Signings (2021 CFL team) *Canadian player
DB Ty Cranston* (MTL); WR B.J. Cunningham (MTL), DB Monshadrick Hunter (MTL); DB Patrick Levels (MTL); WR Llevi Noel* (TOR); WR Jaelon Acklin (HAM); RB Jackson Bennett* (HAM); OL Darius Ciraco* (HAM); QB Jeremiah Masoli (HAM); DE Lorenzo Mauldin IV (HAM); WR Darvin Adams (WPG); RB William Powell (SASK); OL Ucambre Williams (CGY); DL Kwaku Boateng* (EDM); DB Trumaine Washington (EDM); WR Shaquille Johnson* (BC); OL Hunter Steward* (BC); OL Randy Richards (returning from one year in retirement); OL Jacob Ruby (released by Edmonton due to COVID protocol).*
Cunningham and Washington were the only two free agent signings who failed to make the squad – released in the final wave of cuts. But those particular cuts were telling. You know a team has improved its roster depth when it cuts a quality veteran CFL receiver like Cunningham or, in the case of Washington, last year’s CFL interception leader.
Of course, Burke’s crown jewel free agent signing was Jeremiah Masoli, an experienced, proven CFL starting quarterback. The REDBLACKS simply haven’t had one since Trevor Harris left after the 2018 season. Since then, the results have spoken for themselves and they haven’t spoken kindly.
Masoli started in just one quarter during this year’s preseason but it was more than enough to see how much he upgrades Ottawa’s QB position, especially after last year’s revolving door situation.
The club has now turned the page on most of last year’s group. That includes CFL veteran Matt Nichols (retired), Dominique Davis (Montreal’s third string QB), and former Pittsburgh Steeler Devlin “Duck” Hodges (retired). Caleb Evans is last man standing – now Masoli’s understudy – along with 24-year-old rookie Tyrie Adams, who set pretty much every QB record at Western Carolina. With his fine preseason, Adams has given the REDBLACKS’ brass something to think about should Masoli ever be sidelined.
At running back, the REDBLACKS have circled back to William Powell, who spent the last two seasons in Saskatchewan. Powell was here from 2015-2018, running for a career high 1362 yards in 2018. Unfortunately, he’ll miss at least Ottawa’s first game, still recovering from an Achilles issue. It remains something to keep an eye on after Powell’s entire 2016 season was wiped out by an Achilles injury.
So, the REDBLACKS will start the year with rookie Devonte Williams (not to be confused with Denver Broncos star running back Javonte Williams). At 5 foot 9, Williams is about the same height as Powell, but 40 pounds lighter at 170 pounds. Behind William and Williams, it’s a couple of local Ottawa U grads in Brendan Gillanders and Jackson Bennett. Bennett opened some eyes with perhaps the best run of the preseason, helping lock down an elusive home win over Toronto.
At receiver, Ottawa’s top three receivers from last year are back: R.J Harris, Ryan Davis, and Nate Behar (Carleton U). None of them posted what you’d call huge numbers and so opportunity knocks for others.
Jaelon Acklin, Masoli’s Hamilton teammate, will see plenty of targets. Justin Hardy is another new receiver to watch. The 30-year-old joins the CFL for the first time after playing 73 games for the Atlanta Falcons, making 95 catches and scoring 9 touchdowns. Other newcomers include veterans Darvin Adams, Llevi Noel, Shaq Johnson, and CFL rookie Terry Williams.
Davis (6 game injured list) and Williams may be the ones tasked with trying to replace the electric DeVonte Dedmon on kick returns. Dedmon signed with the Miami Dolphins in January.
Of course, the game is won and lost in the trenches and every so-called “skill position” will be better set up for success with this year’s fully rebuilt, much-improved offensive line. Last year’s crew gave up a league-worst 52 sacks. This year, opponents will discover a 312-pound stumbling block in American Ucambre Williams. After 5 seasons with the Calgary Stampeders, Williams is slated to play the key left tackle position, protecting Masoli’s blindside.
Also stepping into Ottawa’s pass protection void are Canadian veterans Jacob Ruby, Hunter Steward, and Darius Ciraco; Canadian rookies Zack Pelehos (2nd overall, 2022 draft, Ottawa U) and Cyrille Hogan-Saindon (11th overall, 2022 Draft, Laval); and Americans Randy Richards and Dino Boyd. Boyd is the only returning veteran, playing all of three games at the end of last season.
The defensive line has been bolstered this year by newcomers Lorenzo Mauldin and Tre Hornbuckle (Spokane, Indoor league). Kwaku Boateng would have been an elite Canadian addition, but suffered what may have been a season-ending lower body injury in preseason. Cleyon Laing, Praise Martin-Oguike, Davon Coleman, Nigel Romick and Kene Onyeka (Carleton U) have all returned.
The linebacker core is almost untouched. Defensive MVP Avery Williams returns for a fourth season, hoping to build on an 89-tackle performance last year. He’s back with Frankie Griffin, the front runner at weak side linebacker and former Alouette Patrick Levels who slides in at strong side. Shaheed Salmon, Tyron Vrede, Dan Basambombo, Deshawn Stevens and Adam Auclair are all back for a new season.
The REDBLACKS should have one of the league’s strongest secondaries. Along with Levels, they signed Monshadrik “Money” Hunter and Ty Cranston (Ottawa U) from the Alouettes. They’ll nicely complement the likes of veterans Abdul Kanneh, Antoine Pruneau, Justin Howell, Randall Evans, and Canadian rookie Alonzo Addae (13th overall, 2021 Draft, West Virginia).
Finally, fans can count on the kicking game to be elite, as always, with kicker Lewis Ward (Ottawa U) and punter Richie Leone.
The CFL schedule
certainly does the REDBLACKS no favours, throwing them right into the deep end this year. Coming off a three-win season, their first game will be on the road in Winnipeg (June 10th) against the two-time, defending Grey Cup champions. Then Ottawa gets the Bombers again at home in Week 2 (June 17th). Based on last year’s standings, it seems like a major mismatch to kick off the year.
Perhaps the CFL schedule maker has equally high hopes for the Ottawa REDBLACKS this season.
By Steve Warne | Faces Magazine