TORONTO – Okay Argo fans, if at the beginning of the season, I would have told you that the Double Blue would play six of their first nine games on the road, play a home game against Edmonton in Fort McMurray, Alberta and be without key contributors like Ricky Ray, Andre Durie, Swayze Waters and Chad Owens, you would have thought I was crazy to predict a 6-3 record. Frankly, I wouldn’t have predicted it either.
But as the old cliché goes, “that’s why you play the game.” Officially at the halfway point of the CFL season, the Argonauts not only find themselves with a 6-3 record but tied atop the CFL East Division with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
So, just how did Argonauts get to this point? Let’s examine the three main aspects of the game and how they’ve fared through the first nine games of their 2015 campaign.
At the start of training camp most of the attention surrounding the team had to do with the absence of starting quarterback Ricky Ray, who hadn’t recovered from off-season shoulder surgery. Many wondered if fourth-year backup Trevor Harris would be able to carry the load with just one start under his belt heading into this season. So far, Harris has delivered. He’s completed close to 75% of his passes, totalling 2,453 yards to along with a league-best 19 touchdown passes and only six interceptions.
One factor contributing to the success of the first-year starter has been the receiving core. With a season-ending injury to slotback Andre Durie and an ankle injury to slotback Chad Owens, rookie wide outs Tori Gurley, Vidal Hazelton, Kevn Elliott and Diontae Spencer have stepped in and given the offence consistent play that, at times, has even bordered on the spectacular. Presently, Hazelton sits third in the CFL in receiving yards with 528, while Gurley ranks with six touchdown receptions. As the season goes on, I would expect this core to only improve and continue to provide Harris with a myriad of offensive weapons.
Unfortunately, as good as the passing game has been this season, the running game has been largely ineffective. A knee injury to second-year running back Curtis Steele has forced the team to have a carousel at the running back position. Brandon Whitaker and Chad Kackert comprise the latest tandem, and while each player has enjoyed some level of success, the team currently ranks eighth in total rushing yards, averaging just 69 yards per game. Head coach Scott Milanovich points to the team’s slow starts and early deficits as the reason why the running game is abandoned as the game progresses. Through nine games, the Double Blue have led at the half only once. A better start with some early leads would definitely allow the team to be more patient in developing a productive running attack.
Defensively, the overriding theme for the Argonauts this season has been “bend but don’t break.” Through nine games, the team sits eighth in the league against the pass and sixth against the run. That places the Argos with the sixth-best defence in terms of yardage allowed in the league. While much discussion has centred on Toronto’s rookies on the offensive end, little attention has been given to those debuting on the defensive side of the ball. Rookies A.J. Jefferson, Devin Smith and Akwasi Owusu-Ansah have helped form a solid secondary. While Toronto does sit eighth in the league in total passing yards allowed, the group has done an excellent job in adapting to the rules and intricacies of the CFL game. And while not all yards gained through the air are the blame of the secondary both Jefferson and Owusu-Ansah have contributed with game changing interceptions for touchdowns in both road and home games against Saskatchewan that helped turn the tide for an Argo victory.
Overall, the defensive line has perhaps been the most consistent unit. The team currently sits tied for fourth with Hamilton totalling 24 quarter back sacks. All four starters have recorded four quarterback sacks each with second year defensive lineman from Fresno State Tristan Okpalaugo leading the team with five. The team has also received a significant contribution from their second round selection of the 2015 CFL Draft out of Western University Darryl Waud who has contributed with two quarterback sacks of his own and has shown steady progress in his development as a vital piece going forward.
The linebacking core has been productive, to say the least. Cory Greenwood from Concordia University has done nothing but make plays. His big play capability and stellar tacking was a driving force that allowed for the big offseason trade that saw Canadian Shea Emery traded to Saskatchewan for Ricky Foley. Along with Greenwood second-year linebacker Gregory Jones out of Michigan State is having a stellar season and is currently ranked fourth in the league with 49 total tackles.
As the Argos’ offence has been praised all season for their late game heroics, it’s extremely important to remember that it’s been the defence that has come up big late and games and has surrendered only 60 points in the fourth quarter. More crucial stops down the stretch will certainly be required if the Argos hope to improve on their 6-3 record.
Special teams for the Argo so far haven’t been very, you guessed it, special. An injury to Special Team Player of the Year Swayze Waters in week 1 versus the Eskimos forced the team to find a replacement via a tryout. Ultimately the job was won by rookie Rookie kicker from Sir Wilfrid Laurier Ronnie Pfeffer. Pfeffer did an admiral job with the highlight being a 50-yard field against the Roughriders to mark his debut. The return game has been largely enigmatic with solid but not spectacular play. Frankly that’s been true of most receivers not named Speedy Banks or Stefan Logan. The one highlight would be A.J. Jefferson’s fourth quarter punt return for a touchdown in Week Eight match- up against Winnipeg at Investors Group Field. With the return of Waters and the eventual return of Chad Owens look for the Argos to gain significant advantages in the field position battle as the season continues.
Overall it’s been an exciting start to the season for the 2015 Toronto Argonauts. West coast trip are finished and six games against East await. Those games will decide their place in the standings. The one overriding elephant in the room that will need to be dealt with soon has to be the return of veteran QB Ricky Ray. Ray is currently on the six-game injured list but you would have to wonder just how the team deals with his return. Do they stay with Harris or do they bring back the Hall of Fame quarterback. Throw that in with a potential HOME game in Hamilton and the second half looks to be very much like the first: completely unpredictable.
Written By: Anthony Ciardulli
Follow Anthony on Twitter: @comicanthony!