CFL Camp always brings surprises

IAN BUSBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 12:13 PM ET

The defending Grey Cup champions are making no bones about the theme this season.

When training camp opens today, many of the players will be wearing T-shirts under their uniforms that say 'Are we up to the challenge?' on the front.

On the back, there is a Stampeders horse on top of a target. Subtle.

While other teams traded like crazy, cut some veterans and dipped into the free-agent market, the Stamps quietly went about their business.

There are seven CFL teams with question marks heading into camp and all of them are gunning for the Stamps.

So despite precious little in the way of controversy, here are 10 burning questions for the team as training camp officially gets underway:

- Will Hank continue to improve?

Henry Burris broke out with his best pro season in 2008, throwing for 39 touchdowns and being name the West Division's nominee for most outstanding player.

In his second full season with offensive co-ordinator George Cortez, Burris cut out the mistakes that plagued him in the past. Each year since joining the Stamps, he has improved his numbers.

"I don't see why there won't be more improvement this year," said Stamps head coach John Hufnagel. "I expect him to have another fantastic year. He's at the top of his game."

Smart money is on him winning the CFL's most outstanding player award that he deserved last year.

- Will Joffrey Reynolds get a reduced workload?

The Stampeders gave their starting running back a league-high 227 carries last season, and he delivered his first rushing title.

But the Houston product will turn 30 by this year's Grey Cup, and that is the age most full-time backs start breaking down. The Stamps could turn to third-year Canadian Jon Cornish for more carries.

- Can someone step up to become an elite pass-rusher opposite Mike Labinjo?

The most significant loss the Stamps suffered this off-season was defensive end Charleston Hughes bolting for Philadelphia of the NFL.

Hughes tied Labinjo and defensive tackle Miguel Robede for the team lead with five sacks last season.

Last year at this time, Hughes was a no-name, so there is a chance for someone to step into his role.

- Will the veterans have the drive to repeat and take their games to another level?

It's often been said the only thing harder than climbing the mountain is staying there.

The biggest motivation is winning a Grey Cup and that has been accomplished, so players will have to manufacture drive in a different way.

- Can anyone unseat one of the starting receivers?

Not one of the returning pass-catchers missed action due to injury, and there hasn't been a steadier group than Ken-Yon Rambo, Nik Lewis, Jeremaine Copeland and Brett Ralph in recent years.

Barring an injury, a newcomer will have to be extremely impressive just to get a backup spot, but the starters likely won't hand over a job.

- What impact will Dave Dickenson have in his new role?

The former star quarterback joined the coaching staff this off-season, which was the only change in the group that helped Hufnagel win coach of the year.

Dickenson has the title of offensive assistant, and he will work with the running backs as a position coach.

- Which new import will be quickest to make a name for himself?

There are a few players who come with credentials, but that happens in every CFL training camp.

Tom Johnson spent two camps with the Indianapolis Colts and there is an open spot at defensive tackle.

Dee McCann spent two season on NFL practice rosters, but can he adapt to the unique CFL halfback position?

Several other names will be more known in a few weeks.

- Is there an explosive returner in this group?

There should be a spot for a speed specialist.

Running back Cedric Thompson seems to fit that bill, or former Roughrider Vince Marshall could display some skill. Both are smaller players, which seems to be a trend in the CFL lately.

- Who will be the most high-profile veteran to get released?

A year ago, veteran defensive starters Trey Young and Terrence Patrick were shown the door, but since Hufnagel took over this team, he seems focused on letting players go during the off-season instead of doing it at camp.

- What true rookie has a chance to make the biggest impact?

Who knows? There isn't anyone on the radar of the first-year pros, but someone could surprise. That's what makes camp so fun.

IAN.BUSBY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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