Stamps making the grade

IAN BUSBY -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 11:20 AM ET

Sitting at 4-5 at the mid-point of the 2005 season, the Calgary Stampeders certainly haven't exceeded expectations.

Yet this team is one of the up-and-comers in the CFL and could be a contender down the stretch.

With nine games remaining and the hardest parts of the schedule already behind them, the Stamps have a strong chance of making the playoffs in the West Division. The revamped team has already played all of its games against undefeated B.C. and East Division leader Toronto, which accounted for four of the five defeats.

We break down the team position-by-position and give a grade to each, then finish it off with the key performer of each unit. We follow that up with a season highlight:

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COACHES: B+

When Tom Higgins took over the team, he brought an organized atmosphere to practice and plenty of credibility off the field. The veteran group of coaches he assembled has delivered as promised as well.

Offensive co-ordinator Steve Buratto has led one of the most consistent units in the league and kept defences off guard by changing formations and personnel on a play-to-play basis.

Defensive co-ordinator Denny Creehan's unit has struggled at times but have been hit hard by injuries the secondary.

Special teams co-ordinator Craig Dickenson has done a tremendous job with cover teams, despite giving up two TDs to Bashir Levingston this week.

Some questionable decisions in the heat of the moment by Higgins keeps the grade from being higher.

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QUARTERBACKS: A-

Henry Burris has started to deliver on his promise and is making people forget about how much he was paid as a free agent this off-season. The former Roughriders pivot had probably the best stretch of his career through games against Winnipeg, B.C. and Montreal. If he keeps this up, he should be a shoo-in for the Stamps' most outstanding player nominee.

The one knock on Burris is the poor decisions he makes at points when there's no play to make.

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RUNNING BACKS: B

The biggest question is why Joffrey Reynolds doesn't get the ball more? The second-year CFLer has an impressive 6.5-yard average and has emerged as a star in the mode of Mike Pringle.

Backup Ronney Jenkins was left home for the 10-day Eastern road trip in favour of Tony Stallings but neither has been impressive in limited chances. Fullback Scott Deibert is mostly in for blocking situations.

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RECEIVERS: B-

Before last night's CFL games, free-agent pickup Jeremaine Copeland and 2004 rookie of the year Nik Lewis ranked one-two in league yardage. The two almost have identical numbers and are on pace for 1,500-yard seasons. Lewis and Copeland may be the best one-two punch in the league but after them, the team's depth drops off dramatically, letting opponents focus on the duo. Rookie Brett Ralph is a pleasant surprise but is mostly open because opponents don't pay much attention to him. Dropped passes and fumbles have hurt.

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OFF. LINE: B+

For the first time in more than a decade, Jamie Crysdale isn't the one snapping the football. Rookie Godfrey Ellis has filled in admirably with only four years of experience. The group has done a decent job protecting quarterback Henry Burris, ranking third in fewest sacks allowed. The line has propelled running back Joffrey Reynolds to one of the league leaders in rushing.

Both left guard Jay McNeil and right tackle Jeff Pilon have had tremendous seasons.

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DEFENSIVE LINE: B+

Until getting injured in Montreal, Demetrious Maxie was likely the team's nominee as top defensive player. Maxie leaves a large hole on the right side, which leaves rookie Terrence Patrick to fill. Sheldon Napastuk and Rahim Abdullah are having solid seasons and are getting consistent pressure. Teams have been able to run against the Stamps with regularity and that didn't happen a year ago.

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LINEBACKERS: C

The fabulous four have struggled at times this season. George White, Scott Coe, Brian Clark and John Grace have just one interception between them and the team has been burned by long rushing plays. It might be harsh to say but the group hasn't lived up to the big-play excitement it displayed last year.

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DEFENSIVE BACKS: C

On paper, this unit could match up against any in the league. But games aren't played on paper. Only one starter, Anthony Malbrough, was starting at the beginning of the campaign due to a long list of injuries that has befallen the secondary. Newcomers Coby Rhinehart and Shane Walton have emerged as serviceable players, while rookie Trey Young has added a physical presence at safety. Once Joey Boese, Ben Kelly and Jermaine Chatman return from injuries, the secondary will be much better.

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KICKING: A-

Even after missing a 54-yard game-winner in Toronto, Sandro DeAngelis is having a tremendous season. He's an early favourite for rookie of the year after being perfect in his first 17 field goal attempts including pre-season. His first-half highlight was kicking a game-winner in Montreal. Punter Burke Dales has done an OK job but the team still wants him to work on directional booting and keeping balls away from speedy returners.

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RETURNING/COVERAGE: C

With no designated special teams returner, the team is no threat to break one deep. The team's longest punt return is 36 yards, while the longest kickoff return is 32 yards. Calgary is the only team in the league without a return TD. Until Bashir Levingston lit up the Stamps for two scores this week, the Stamps had arguably the best cover teams in the league thanks to new formations from co-ordinator Craig Dickenson. The one bright spot is Randy Chevrier and his absolutely perfect long-snapping and downfield coverage.

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OVERALL: B

With their record below .500, it's difficult to give a glowing review. The team still needs to find a way to put together a winning streak. Calgary hasn't won back-to-back this season, despite putting in decent performance. If everything starts to come together, the playoffs aren't out of reach.

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BIGGEST SURPRISE:

Canadian placekicker Sandro DeAngelis wasn't drafted into the CFL but the Stamps plucked him as a free agent. He has shown the mental capacity to deal with any situation and is the most consistent kicker in the CFL.

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BIG DISAPPOINTMENT:

It might be time to look for a dedicated return specialist. Receivers Ken-Yon Rambo and MarTay Jenkins have done OK on punts and kickoffs but are no threat to break one wide open.

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BEST PERFORMANCE:

Quarterback Henry Burris was nearly perfect in Montreal in Game 8, going 17-of-22 passing for 327 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed 13 times for 96 yards. Burris engineered a game-winning drive and added 30-yard scamper to set up a another TD.


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