REGINA — Changes were expected with the Saskatchewan Roughriders after a 2022 season that started with thoughts of playing for a Grey Cup in front of a vocal home crowd before quickly going south.
The Roughriders (6-12) lost their final seven games of the regular season to plummet out of playoff contention, finishing ahead of only the woeful Edmonton Elks in the Western Conference standings and unable to secure a crossover berth in to the traditionally weaker Eastern Conference.
The disappointment in Regina was amplified when the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Toronto Argonauts took to the field at Mosaic Stadium in November to battle for the CFL title. The 2022 Roughriders didn't just fail to duplicate the heroics of the 2013 team, which won a Grey Cup title at home, they didn't come anywhere close to it.
When the dust settled, head coach Craig Dickenson and general manager Jeremy O'Day were given a chance to serve out the final year of their respective contracts. But it will still be a new-look Roughriders team that takes the field in 2023, trying to put last season behind them.
A largely revamped offence will be led by two-time Grey Cup champion Trevor Harris, who signed a two-year contract with the Riders on the first day of free agency.
"We felt like we needed to change in certain areas, so obviously that's what we did," O'Day said. "It makes the off-season long, but hopefully people are going to be excited and going to get behind us like they always have."
Harris, who played the last two season in Montreal, takes over from Cody Fajardo, who led Saskatchewan to two straight appearances in the West Division final but threw for a career-high 13 interceptions last season.
"Like having another coach out there," Dickenson said of Harris during the Riders' rookie camp. "Super mature, understands the game really well, wants to help and lead others, he's great."
Harris will be joined in Saskatchewan with one of his favourite targets in receiver Jake Wieneke, who spent the last three seasons with the Alouettes. He was an all-star in 2021 with 11 touchdowns before seeing his production drop in 2022.
Veteran Derel Walker, who had 874 receiving yards in Edmonton last year, and former Argo wideout Juwan Brescacin add to the revamped offence that will be looking to improve on the 19.8 points per game the Riders put up last year, which was second-last in the league.
The Roughriders also addressed their much-maligned offensive line that gave up a league-leading 77 sacks last year, adding Canadian lineman Philip Blake from the Grey Cup-champion Argonauts and American lineman Peter Godber from the B.C. Lions.
The new unit will have to jell quickly under new offensive co-ordinator Kelly Jeffrey. He replaces Jason Maas, who took over the head coaching vacancy in Montreal.
Early returns are promising, with the Roughriders putting up 30 and 28 points in two pre-season wins. O'Day, however, says the offence won't be truly tested until faced with the ups and downs of an 18-game regular season.
"They're excited," he said. "They just they want to get to the regular season game."
One addition who did not pan out was Canadian running back Kienan LaFrance, who was quickly scooped up by the B.C. Lions after being among the Roughriders' final cuts. O'Day said LaFrance is a good player who was simply the victim of the numbers game.
On defence, veteran lineman A.C. Leonard departed for Edmonton in free agency, but Saskatchewan got an all-star replacement in the returning Micah Johnson. He had 24 defensive tackles and seven sacks with Hamilton last year after spending the 2019 and 2021 seasons in Regina.
The Roughriders kick off their season Sunday in Edmonton. The Elks enter the contest on a 17-game home losing streak, and Saskatchewan doesn't want to start its rebound season being the team to break that streak.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 7, 2023.
The Canadian Press