• Ben Grant

Pleasant Surprises


And on the seventh day, they rested.


Well, there was a brief walkthrough, but then they rested.


After six fast-paced days of long practices, the Argonauts needed a mental and physical break. The first week of training camp started out perfectly, but over the past few days, the number of players with nagging injuries increased significantly and the mental wear and tear was starting to show.


So, where do things stand after the first week of Argos football in over 20 months? Overall, it was a great opening week. Head coach, Ryan Dinwiddie appears to be everything fans hoped and the same can be said for quarterback Nick Arbuckle. Newly signed CFL veterans like Charleston Hughes, Henoc Muamba, and Eric Rogers also look as advertised.


But there have been disappointments as well. Not so much in the quality of play, but rather in the number of bodies still missing due to late arrivals to camp. Sure, there were the high-profile suspensions of Martavis Bryant and Kendall Wright, neither of whom have yet to arrive and begin their quarantine. But 14 non-suspended players still hadn’t completed their quarantine through the first five days of camp including projected starting running back John White.


There is a silver lining, however, as some of these absences provided opportunities for players to shine. In fact, through the first week of camp the number of pleasant surprises and discovered diamonds in the rough by far outweigh the disappointments.


Quarterback – McLeod Bethel-Thompson

He’s not exactly a diamond in the rough having led the CFL in touchdown passes in 2019, but he wasn’t even on the radar until a month and a half ago. He’s also not nearly as far behind Nick Arbuckle as most people assumed he’d be.


“He’s been through the install last year,” Coach Dinwiddie explained. “He’s been through it before, so it’s not foreign to him either, so he’s picked it up and he’s playing fast.”


When asked to rank Arbuckle and Bethel-Thompson, Dinwiddie explained that he has two starting quarterbacks. And it looks like that in practice. Both are getting reps with the first team, and while Arbuckle looks slightly more comfortable with the offense, Bethel-Thompson is right there. He took command late in the week aggressively correcting receivers lined up incorrectly or missing assignments. If the Argonauts need two starting quarterbacks, as Coach Dinwiddie insists they do, they’re in luck.


Running Back – AJ Ouellette

All eyes were on CFL All-Star John White and former NFL stars Bishop Sankey and Karlos Williams. But Williams retired suddenly in April, followed by Sankey just a week ago, and White spent the first week of camp in quarantine.


Oh yeah, AJ Ouellette. He’s surprisingly easy to forget about. Maybe it’s because he was only on the 2019 team at the very end of the year when fans had already moved on, or maybe it’s because he’s not flashy, but he’s a great running back and he’s been fantastic this week taking first team reps.


Ouellette isn’t as proven as White, but he’s faster and more agile, his hands are better, and he gets more yards after contact. He might not be a better overall running back than White, but his performance this week has served as a reminder that the Argos aren’t an injury away from catastrophe.


Wide Receiver – Dres Anderson

Who? This probably wasn’t the name you were expecting to see at one of the most talented positional groups on the team. He had decent production at Utah, but he went undrafted and bounced around NFL practice squads for four years before signing with the Salt Lake Stallions of the AAF. Injuries seemed to derail every professional opportunity he was given.


His measurables may not stand out, but his play this past week has been spectacular. He has routinely torched man coverage and he’s made some incredible catches, high-pointing back shoulder passes and underthrown balls from quarterbacks who underestimated his speed. His route-running has improved over the years and his body control is elite. The coaching staff seems to have noticed, subbing him in with the first unit when DaVaris Daniels needed a breather. He’s still a long shot to make the team, but there’s no doubt he can play in this league.


Offensive Line – Peter Nicastro

So, this is why they selected him with their first round draft pick a few months ago. Nicastro hasn’t had a perfect training camp, but he has made more progress than anyone out there. He looked a step slow in the first few days, taking second team reps behind Grey Cup champion Cody Speller. He also struggled with his shotgun snap in the rain. But by the end of the week, Nicastro was getting reps with the first team and his snap was on point having worked on it before and after practice since experiencing issues.


With the team placing Cody Speller on their suspended list Thursday, those first string snaps will certainly continue, especially with Eric Starczala banged up. Nicastro might get the second string reps too. Fortunately for him, Philip Blake, the man on his left, is the most experienced center on the roster, and in a great position to help him with protection calls and assignments.


If the Argonauts need Peter Nicastro to start at center, he’ll be ready.


Defensive Line – Shane Ray

How can an NFL first round draft pick and Super Bowl winner be a pleasant surprise? NFL stars never succeed in the CFL. It just doesn’t happen. Plus, Ray was coming off multiple serious wrist injuries that some speculated would end his football career.


So far, he looks like a game-changer. He was a blur in one-on-ones. His first step is outstanding, but it’s the speed at which he can assess his opposition and decide which move to apply that makes him elite.


“I think he can set the edge in the run game,” said Coach Dinwiddie. “He’s a very physical player, and then, you already know as a pass rusher he’s going to get after the quarterback. The first day he came in here, he brought a level of physicality, he raised the bar, and helped our defense get to another level.”


He looks like a coach on the field, always talking to players after their reps and demonstrating technique. His attitude is perfect. Unlike a lot of former NFL stars, he doesn’t think he’s too good for the CFL. He’s honest about knowing nothing about the league, but he’s genuinely excited to play CFL football and he’ll make this entire unit better.


Linebacker – Dexter McCoil

The pleasant surprise here isn’t how good a player Dexter McCoil is, it’s how strong he looks as a true linebacker. In his first two stints in the CFL, McCoil was used as a defensive back, playing mostly at SAM, but also at field half and safety. When he was signed by the Argonauts in late June, the assumption was he’d fill those same roles. But that’s not what we’ve seen so far.


Early in the week, McCoil was playing WILL with the first unit, and near the end of the week, he was getting reps with that unit at MAC. He didn’t look out of place at either position. Cameron Judge and Henoc Muamba are expected to start at those spots, so it’s still possible McCoil will settle in at SAM, but his positional versatility gives defensive coordinator Glen Young tremendous creative flexibility and injury insurance.


Defensive Back – Jeff Richards

Speaking of positional versatility, Jeff Richards can play anywhere in the defensive secondary and look good doing it. Despite winning a Grey Cup with Ottawa in 2016, the signing of Richards didn’t make the front pages due to all the other high profile acquisitions the Argos made during the extended offseason. Richards can flat out play. He started the week at SAM and then moved just about everywhere else before settling in at field half.


Richards is one of those players who seems to know what the play is before the snap. His processing speed and reaction time are elite. His communication is also excellent. When he comes to the sideline, it’s a given that he’ll find the man next to him to talk through what they saw. He has been a huge help to rookie halfbacks Davontae Merriweather and Tigie Sankoh who look to him for advice. In one week, Jeff Richards has gone from a decent bet to make the team to a guaranteed starter.


Special Teams – Boris Bede

The fact that CFL All-Star Boris Bede is on this list should tell you how good he has looked through the first week of camp. Consider that Global draft pick Toshiki Sato has been superb. He’s hit 55-yard field goals, nailed coffin corner punts, and done everything that was asked of him, and yet it’s not even a competition. Bede has an absolute cannon. He’s hit field goals from 60 yards away that would have been good from 70 and you can clock his hang time on a sundial.


“When we made the commitment with Boris,” explained Coach Dinwiddie, “we did that knowing he could do all three [kicking duties]. We were planning on him to do all three, so that’s going to help us out. We’re not going to have to dress two kickers, so we have another specialist playing on the roster. Yeah, that’s a win-win situation for us.”


It sounds like the decision has already been made.


The good thing for Toshiki is that Bede has made it his mission to make him a better football player. Bede really demonstrated maturity in his comments this week, recalling the poor treatment he received when he was a rookie. He wants to make sure his protégé gets every advantage he never had. Their relationship on the field looks almost brotherly. They compete, but they cheer each other on as well. Bede’s attitude seems to have rubbed off on other veterans who have embraced this same mentality in an effort to make the team better as a whole.


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