The Saskatchewan Roughriders overcame their share of adversity during the 2019 CFL season. Another challenge awaits when they finally step on the field again.
Saskatchewan enters the 2021 campaign as the reigning West Division champion but will be far less than at full strength when it hosts the BC Lions on Friday night in a long-awaited opener for both teams.
Injuries have hit the Roughriders hard leading into their first game since a gut-wrenching 20-13 defeat to eventual Grey Cup champ Winnipeg in the 2019 West Final, as a startling four players suffered torn Achilles’ tendons during workouts prior to the start of training camp. That group includes two projected defensive starters in linebacker Larry Dean and pass-rusher Freddie Bishop as well as defensive back Nelson Lokombo, the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s CFL draft.
Saskatchewan also must deal with the defections of a few core contributors to its banner 2019 squad that went 13-5 under then-rookie coach Craig Dickenson. Charleston Hughes, the CFL leader with 16 sacks in 2019, is now with Toronto, while top tackler Solomon Elimimian retired, and six-time all-star offensive lineman Brendon LaBatte chose to opt out of the season.
“It’s a different group that’s going to play on Friday than we saw on paper in the offseason, but I think it’s going to be a good group,” Dickenson said.
Early obstacles are nothing new for the Roughriders, who lost then-starting quarterback Zach Collaros to a concussion on the initial series of a 2019 season that began with defeats in three of their first four games. Saskatchewan was more than able to right the ship, however, winning 12 of its next 14 games as Cody Fajardo emerged as one of the CFL’s premier signal-callers.
Fajardo, a former backup in BC, finished the season with a league-high 4,302 passing yards and combined for 28 touchdowns (18 passing, 10 rushing) to earn All-CFL honours. The Nevada product is back to lead a potent offence that features other proven playmakers in receivers Shaq Evans (1,334 receiving yards in 2019) and Kyran Moore (996 receiving yards) and three-time 1,000-yard rusher William Powell.
While the Roughriders aim to advance further after coming up just short of a Grey Cup appearance, the Lions are hoping to take several steps forward after a 5-13 finish in 2019 – the franchise’s worst record since 1996.
The Lions return from the hiatus with a new coach and two new general managers, with Rick Campbell holding both roles after being tabbed to share GM duties with front-office holdover Neal McEvoy.
Campbell is no stranger to rebuilding projects, having guided Ottawa during its first year as an expansion franchise in 2014 and taking the Redblacks to the Grey Cup in just their second season. The 50-year-old led Ottawa to a CFL title the following year, though his otherwise successful tenure ended on an ominous note with a dismal 3-15 result in 2019.
With two-time Grey Cup champion quarterback Michael Reilly back for an 11th CFL season and free-agent pickup Dominique Rhymes joining all-league performer Bryan Burnham (100 catches, 1492 yards, 11 TDs in 2019) in the receiving corps, the Lions do have some pieces in place for a potential turnaround.
“This is a roster brimming with talent and a ton of untapped potential,” Campbell said at his introductory press conference. “I can’t wait to get started on building a champion for fans of the Lions.”