Friday, May 27, 2011

CFL Camp Countdown: Als' rivalries, records and new faces

Continuing our training camp previews, here are some thoughts on how the Montreal Alouettes are shaping up heading into camp based off Thursday's conference call.

— The story that's gotten the most play about Montreal recently actually wasn't really anything to do with that call, but rather developed out of another interview Alouettes' general manager Jim Popp did Thursday morning on Montreal's Team 990. In that interview, Popp took some rather public shots at former running back Avon Cobourne (who signed with Hamilton in the offseason) and the Tiger-Cats' coaching staff. Among his comments: "The funny thing is, is that the people that are in Hamilton that used to work for our organization, when they were here, they didn't want him playing in the backfield," Popp said. "Hamilton laid the red-carpet out for him. They wanted a name signing. I don't know if that was ... a president simply trying to look good publicly." That would seem to be a particular shot at Tiger-Cats' president Scott Mitchell, who Popp apparently called later to apologize to.

— Cobourne (pictured above stiff-arming former Calgary Stampeder and current Alouette Dwight Anderson Oct. 11 last year) then also went on Team 990 Thursday night and did some firing back, as Mark Masters lays out here. Drew Edwards points out that it's pretty rare for one CFL executive to criticize another so publicly, and this kerfuffle could lead to further heightened tensions in the emerging Hamilton-Montreal rivalry. Maybe Montreal replacing Toronto as Hamilton's Labour Day opponent isn't all bad...

— Moving on to Thursday's call and actual matters of substance impacting the Alouettes' roster, one of the most notable points of discussion was the Alouettes' ground game. Cobourne may be a notable loss for them, but they do have plenty of options to replace him, including former NFL star Ahman Green, former Tiger-Cats' feature back DeAndra Cobb and Canadian free agent Yvenson Bernard (who demonstrated plenty of potential with Winnipeg). However, despite their reputations, none of those guys will enter camp as the starter. Head coach Marc Trestman, for the moment at least, has tabbed Cobourne's seldom-used former backup Brandon Whitaker (20 rushes for 111 yards and 11 catches for 96 yards last season) for that job.

"There's a lot of guys in the mix, we're excited to a have all of them, but Brandon's been there for us when we've needed him," Trestman said. "He's performed at a high level. ... He's shown an ability to protect the quarterback and he's been part of our football team. I told Brandon he's got the job. It's his job to lose, but there certainly will be opportunities within the course of training camp for us to give these (other) guys a chance. But I'm focused on Brandon right now. I'm hoping once we give him the ball that first day of camp that he won't give it up."

— Green is an intriguing addition, though, and one who may still wind up making an impact for the Alouettes if he can survive training camp and get some carries in that crowded backfield. It sometimes takes a few seasons for NFL players to adapt to the differences in the CFL game, but Trestman said Green proved to be a quick study at Montreal's Florida off-season workouts.

"We didn't do running or blocking or anything else, just walking through, but what I can say is he was extremely business-like, very focused, took very detailed notes and was completely into what we were trying to do and teach," Trestman said.

Popp was also optimistic about what Green can potentially bring to the team, and cited his experience as a blocker in the Green Bay Packers' single-back sets as something that might make him more suited to the CFL game than your average NFL running back.

"Ahman has a tremendous amount of experience playing in a one-back set, spread offence like we run," said Popp. "And all the years he blocked for Brett Favre, and how many games in a row did he play? He set a record. It should be quite a battle."

— Running back is one of the only places where the Alouettes will likely look different this year. Heading into camp, they have returning starters at every position except running back, slotback, safety, and kicker. Cobourne left in free agency, while oft-injured safety Mathieu Proul and legendary slotback Ben Cahoon retired and kicker Damon Duval wasn't offered a new contract.

— The Alouettes look to have capable backups at all those slots, though; Etienne Boulay performed well in relief of Proulx down the stretch and in the Grey Cup (even if his media-relations skills need some work), S.J. Green should see more time at slotback opposite Jamel Richardson, with Kerry Watkins and Brian Bratton likely maintaining their roles on the outside. Eric Deslauriers, Danny Desriveaux and Prechae Rodriguez are also in the mix in the receiving corps. At kicker, they just acquired Canadian Sean Whyte from B.C. (with first-round selection Brody McKnight potentially providing competition for Whyte in 2012). Popp said the losses will be felt, but he's happy with how many veterans are still around.

"The majority of free agents re-signed," he said. "If you take the starting 12 on both sides, they're all there except three. Big names, no question."

— That doesn't mean those returning players will all start again, though. One spot to watch will be cornerback, where the Alouettes made one of the off-season's biggest splashes, landing free-agent corner Dwight Anderson from Calgary. Anderson will likely grab one of the starting corner spots from either De'Audra Dix or Mark Estelle (who had his own embarrassing moment against Calgary last season, getting run over by Nik Lewis). Cobourne said in his Team 990 interview that the Alouettes cited Anderson's showboating and trash talk (he was named as the CFL's top trash-talker in a player poll last season) as examples of what not to do, but Trestman said on the call that Anderson's fitting into the Montreal locker room quite nicely thus far.

"We really respect his ability and passion for the game," Trestman said. "He's got a bunch of guys around him who will be very clear to him how he has to handle himself. ... Our locker-room will take care of any issues, or what are perceived to be issues, I don't know if they are. I'm excited to have him on our team."

— One position where there's absolutely zero question about who's starting is quarterback, where Anthony Calvillo's potentially-spectacular comeback from cancer surgery following last year's health scare is moving along just fine. Calvillo's only 4,220 yards behind Damon Allen's pro football passing record, well below the 4,839 he put up last year (and that was after missing a couple of games thanks to injury and sitting out the last regular-season game to prepare for the playoffs). The Alouettes set a couple of notable records last year, with Cahoon collecting the league's reception record and the team becoming the first to win back-to-back Grey Cups since Don Matthews' 1996 and 1997 Toronto Argonauts. If Calvillo has even an average year, they should set another one.

— Records, continuity and the chance to win three straight Grey Cups (something no one's done since the Edmonton Eskimos won five in a row in the late 1970s and early 1980s) are one thing, but Trestman maintains that personnel turnover means each team's different. He said this team isn't out to build on last year's success, but rather to be judged on their own accomplishments.

"The players are going to have to earn it on their own merit," Trestman said. "We're not going to turn the page until the ring ceremony on June 3, because we're going to enjoy that and celebrate. ... But when we get on the bus to training camp, that's over."

Amy Smart Sarah Wynter Jaime Pressly Ashanti Jennie Finch

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