In a league where you have two exhibition games to not only evaluate players but acclimatize players to their new stadium, new teammates and new schemes the CFL pre-season is an extremely large task for coaches to squeeze in the essentials. Saturday’s pre-season game was a first for the Toronto Argonauts who now have a new home and of course for many of the players who are looking to secure a CFL job for the 2016 season it was their first live test against QEW rivals the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
The Argonauts have a big job in selecting the insurance policy for Ricky Ray. In the past two seasons Argo fans have had the chance to see Zach Collaros and Trevor Harris fill in and look great at the QB position when Ricky Ray was injured. Learning from Head Coach and ex-QB Scott Milanovich has been the key but so has the fact that Ricky Ray fits the role of a player-coach and helped groom both Collaros and Harris not only into solid back-ups but into #1 QBs as Harris waits to take over for Henry Burris in Ottawa. On Saturday the Argos lined up Logan Kilgore, Cody Fajardo and the recently re-acquired Mitchell Gale into their first exhibition venture.
Kilgore was put in for the start and had a strong showing going 8 for 13 in the passing department , he struggled with a long side line pass attempt which is a staple of the CFL game but was able to rally the offence for a 17-yard TD pass to Vidal Hazelton on a busted pass coverage play from the Ti-Cats side. The key was that when the drive stalled after a run–play that was stuffed and a later sack, he was able to find the big target in Hazelton. The former Middle Tennessee State starter seemed to be comfortable in his next drive and it was impressive to see him check down on the first couple of looks and find receivers in a good spot to make a play.
Ricky Ray came in for a short series and may not even have needed to take a shower after his three pass attempts. Ray will be ready for the start of the season and his focus will be to get comfortable with what is supposed to be an improved offensive line this year with the addition of Josh Bourke.
Next in was Cody Fajardo the Nevada product who is listed at 6’5 and 215 pounds. Fajardo can run and enjoyed a prolific Mountain West career by compiling 100-yard rushing games. It was easy to see why Fajardo is in camp, his speed and size are ideal for a receiver so seeing him scramble as a QB will make every CFL defence think hard on defending him. His 10 for 16 passing was great for his first time and his 5 rushing attempts for 33 yards could easily be a game changer. The one challenge he had was that with a wide field and quick legs you would think he can run East-West and beat the defence but he quickly learned that the CFL is Pro football when the Ti-cats were able to run with him from sideline to sideline he had to dart out of bounds. Once he learns to keep his pass options open when he leaves the safety of the pocket he could be a real threat in the CFL. I’d like to see him stick with the Argos and learn the CFL game by getting reps in practice.
Mitchell Gale came in to play the 4th quarter and with the game on the line went 6 for 6 on passing with the game winning Touchdown drive. Now you could say it was a 4th quarter drive and not against the first string defence but it was impressive as he looked to almost every receiver and spread the ball out. Gale may be in that 2nd position behind Ray after one game and with the fact that he was an Argo from 2013 with the exception of the second half of the season last year you have to be impressed with the fact that he had four years of solid playing time at Abilene Christian University. Most NCAA QBs spend a year or two in an apprenticeship role but Gale’s strong arm played four full seasons and you could tell he could make some long passes with accuracy on Saturday.
The kicking department looked smooth as Liam Hajrullahu looks to regain his 2014 CFL rookie season form. Last year was a tough season for Hajrullahu in Winnipeg and watching him in warm-up in the game made one think that this new start will benefit the St. Catherine’s native. The kicking conditions were great on Saturday so he will earn his keep when the weather becomes adverse and of course his punting for field position will be the key. Hitting a field goal from 37 yards out and extra point from 32 yards out were the highlights for a kicker who was only 15 for 21 on XPs last year. The Argos hope the Canadian can do both jobs and give them one extra spot on their roster to utilize.
During the lead-up to the game Head Coach Scott Milanovich talked about his excitement when it came to seeing the defensive backfield get involved in the game. It was evident from the start that the group was ready to get involved in some big plays. T.J. Heath from Jacksonville State who has had three tours with NFL clubs stood out with two interceptions. One interception was reading a poorly thrown ball from Hamilton QB Jeff Matthews but the second one was a great individual effort where he was on his own. It’s a staple of the CFL game for players in the secondary to be left in some man-on-man coverage’s and Heath looked good under fire. The linebackers and defensive backs worked well in cutting up the field for coverage and really the only struggles you could see were when Hamilton has some long passing routes that drew players out of their zone for coverage. A good DB will tell you that’s on the Defensive Line to get pressure on the QBs but it is a fact in the pass happy CFL that when teams line up their running backs to block that their passing game can get some long looks. Overall Hamilton QBs were 18 for 34 and that was a credit to the defence as much as you could say that Hamilton’s passing game struggled.
With positional battles at QB it’s a good sign for the Argos coaching staff to have seen some great play on Saturday. Having their only kicking option have a good game bodes well and even though Hamilton left some of their better offensive players at home the new defence showed some signs of cohesiveness after two weeks of training camp battles it was good to see the defence do well in game action.
Written by Peter T. Kourtis.