REGINA – Kris Sweet faces a formidable challenge in his first season as the Saskatchewan Roughriders offensive line coach and run game co-ordinator.
Sweet, who spent the last five years as the Calgary Stampeders’ offensive line coach, has the difficult task of revamping a unit that contributed to the Riders’ posting a league-worst 5-13 record last year and missing the CFL playoffs. But thanks to general manager Brendan Taman, at least Sweet has the raw material to successfully rebuild the Riders’ front wall.
This off-season, Taman dipped into CFL free agency to sign tackle Brendon LaBatte from the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and centre Dom Picard from the Toronto Argonauts. Taman drafted both players while as the Bombers’ GM — Picard in the third round in 2006 and LaBatte in the first round in 2008. Taman also re-signed guard Chris Best before selecting offensive lineman Ben Heenan of the Saskatchewan Huskies first overall in this year’s Canadian college draft and also acquired Xavier Fulton from Edmonton for a conditional 2013 sixth-round pick.
That should help ease the loss of veteran guard Gene Makowsky, who retired this off-season after a solid 17-year career, while centre Marc Parenteau and tackle Alex Gauthier were both released.
Despite all the change, Sweet is downplaying the rebuilding aspect.
“Every year is different,” he said from the CFL club’s training camp at the University of Regina.
This low-key approach mirrors the one being taken by rookie head coach Corey Chamblin, who prefers to say the Riders are “making changes” rather than succumbing to the more sensationalistic term ‘overhaul.”
Regardless of the semantics, Best and Goodspeed are expected to retain their starting positions with LaBatte and Picard a virtual lock to join them.
“One, they’re physical,” Sweet said LaBatte and Picard. “The other thing is their experience.”
LaBatte spent five seasons with Winnipeg and was a CFL all-star in 2011. Picard is a six-year veteran who started all 18 games in each of the last three seasons with Toronto.
Heenan, who capped his college career with an appearance in the East-West Shrine Bowl in Tampa, Fla., is considered a bright prospect, while Fulton, who spent the 2011 season with the Virginia Destroyers of the UFL, has been on NFL practice squads with the Washington Redskins, San Francisco 49ers and Indianapolis Colts.
“He’s very athletic, he can move,” Sweet said of Fulton. “And he has good hands.”
An American who played collegiately at the University of Illinois, Fulton is still adapting to the nuances of Canadian football, including the unlimited motion.
“I’m, like, ‘Hey, that’s illegal motion,’” Fulton said with a smile, overstating his puzzlement but making his point.
Fulton is “thrilled and relieved” to have made a positive impact early in training camp, and also “grateful and humbled,” by his coach’s compliments.
Describing the talent on the offensive line as “amazing,” Fulton added: “Everybody’s great. All the guys are helping each other out. Already you can feel a camaraderie developing off the field, too.”
As for his status as a projected starter, Fulton said: “It’s a great feeling to have that much responsibility placed on your shoulders right away.”
No one is carrying a heavier burden than Picard and LaBatte. Expectations are high for the offensive line in general, but especially so for the high-profile off-season additions.
“No one has higher expectations than we do of ourselves,” LaBatte said. “We have extremely high expectations about the kind of offensive line we want to be.”
Picard explained that Sweet, an energetic and physically demonstrative coach, set the tone early with his own enthusiasm and uncompromising demands on his players.
“Work ethic,” said Picard. “That’s what he’s been stressing and that’s what he wants to see. Every play. Every snap. He wants an offensive line that works hard.”
New faces at three of the five positions will be a challenge for players and coaches alike, at first.
“Anytime you’re working with new guys,” LaBatte said, “there’s going to be a period when it takes time for things to gel.”
Neither LaBatte nor Picard, however, expect it to be a long wait.
“Two weeks,” said Picard.
Added LaBatte: “We expect to hit the ground running.”