10 questions heading into Argos camp

TERRY KOSHAN, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:22 PM ET

TORONTO - No matter how much the Argonauts improved in 2010 in the first year of the Jim Barker era — and they did, winning nine games and one in the playoffs after two years of utter misery — there are plenty of queries, some of which will be answered before the season-opening snap on July 1 in Calgary.

Barker, named the Canadian Football League coach of the year for putting the Argos back on the football map, said at the conclusion of last season that he was not completely satisfied with his team at any position. Since then, he has become the Argos’ general manager in name as well after fulfilling many of those duties last year.

There were not a ton of personnel changes in the off-season, so many of the integral pieces of a year ago will be given an opportunity to grow.

Quarterbacks and rookies will be on the field at Erindale on Wednesday afternoon, with veterans arriving on Saturday and putting on the cleats on Sunday. The Argos will hold a mock game on June 11, with pre-season games on June 18 at home against Hamilton and on June 23 in Winnipeg.

1. How much improved are the Argos at quarterback?

The million-dollar question. We cringe at the idea that Cleo Lemon’s finger or Steven Jyles’ shoulder do not hold up well, as both men had surgery in the off-season. There was no CFL experience at this position when the Argos opened camp last June. Now, Lemon has one year and Jyles, acquired from the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, has several, but nothing outstanding. Dalton Bell also is in the three-horse race to be No. 1 (Bell was the best quarterback in camp last June, but Lemon was named starter). There would be little discussion of this if Barker was comfortable with Lemon, who started all but one game last season. If Lemon was solid, the trade for Jyles would not have been made. The Argos were able to win nine games despite putting up the worst offensive numbers in the league. And if Jyles is that good, why did the Bombers trade him considering the health history of Buck Pierce? The position of quarterback always is the most scrutinized. With the Argos, it won’t be any different. What’s true is that with the experience the quarterbacks now have (limited as it may be), Barker likely won’t be as hesitant to go to a backup when he sees fit.

2. Who catches the football?

The Argos were weak at receiver last year, as even the presence of veteran Jeremaine Copeland was not enough to bridge the gap between a group of inexperienced quarterbacks and relatively young receivers. P.K. Sam was good with the Argos in 2008-09, and he’s back after being re-acquired from the Stampeders. Non-import Spencer Watt will get a long look after he impressed in a late-season audition. No less than five import receivers were signed in the off-season, but CFL experience is lacking. DJ Boldin and non-import Mike Bradwell are among those who will be looking have solid camps. Andre Durie was second on the Argos in receiving in 2010 with 632 yards, seven fewer than Copeland. Chad Owens is more valuable as a returner. Steven Turner has recovered from an Achilles tendon injury, while Brandon Rideau took a nice step forward. Still, there is someone who is going to have to grab the spotlight. Copeland was 23rd among CFL receivers. For the Argos to truly contend, they have to have a player in the top 10.

3. Can Chad Owens and Cory Boyd repeat their monster seasons?

A year ago, it was not clear who would return the football and who would carry it. Owens and Boyd didn’t take long to supply answers. Owens was named the CFL special teams player of the year and became just the fifth player in league history to have more than 1,000 kickoff return yards and 1,000 punt return yards. Every time Owens fielded the ball, there was a chance he would return it for a touchdown, which he did four times. Boyd would have led the league in rushing if not for concussions. Teams had all season to figure out ways to stop Owens and Boyd, and could not do it. If they can remain healthy, there’s every reason to expect both to put up large numbers again.

4. Who replaces the retired Adriano Belli on the defensive line?

While Belli undoubtedly will be missed, it should be remembered that he played in just five games in 2010 because of a foot injury and did not have a quarterback sack (and had Belli returned for 2011, he would not have been an every-down player). Eric Taylor, who stepped in and played admirably in Belli’s absence, signed with the B.C. Lions during the winter. The Argos loved how former NFLer Claude Wroten performed at the free-agent camp in Florida, and non-import Miguel Robede, acquired from the Calgary Stampeders, will try to put concussion problems behind him. Newcomer Chris Bradwell, who earned a contract at the Florida camp, will get a look.

5. Can Rob Murphy do it again?

The tattooed, heavy-metal loving offensive tackle had a complete turnaround in 2010, putting aside a miserable first year in an Argos uniform. Murphy didn’t allow a sack on his side last season, and under the guidance of Barker, checked his temper at the door. Importantly, Murphy learned he could still play nasty and be effective and do it within the rules. Murphy turned 34 in January, so he is not getting any younger, but judging by his Twitter posts, he spent a lot of his down time during the off-season in the gym.

6. Did the Argos make enough moves in the off-season?

At a quick glance, the Argos did not bring in a game-breaker. Safety Wes Lysack is a solid player who will help the ratio numbers. Jyles could be the starting quarterback on July 1, but that does not guarantee super things will unfold before him. It has yet to be determined whether Sam or Robede will be regular contributors or bit parts. Remember that Owens, who was acquired from the Montreal Alouettes on the eve of the season opener, and Boyd were unknowns last July 1.

7. Does special teams co-ordinator Mike O’Shea have more surprises in his back pocket?

We would like to think so. The great part about what O’Shea called every so often was that opposing teams were kept on their toes.

Because they are trick plays (though Barker hates to call them that), there’s no true way to prepare for them.

The Argos probably would not have won nine games in 2010 without the special teams gadgets.

8. What can we expect from the Argos’ draft picks?

At this point, not a lot. Of their seven 2011 picks, the Argos on Tuesday signed four — wide receiver Djems Kouame, defensive lineman Alexander Robinson, wide receiver Jedd Gardiner and defensive tackle Gregory Alexandre. Thanks to the time it takes to learn the nuances of professional football, first-year players usually earn their stripes on special teams or limited backup roles. The Argos’ first-rounder, offensive lineman Tyler Holmes, and wide receiver Julian Feoli Gudino, were drafted as futures. Their final pick, offensive lineman Michael Knill, is unsigned.

9. Will there be more pressure on the team than there was last year?

Certainly. In a sense, Barker could have more challenges in Year 2 than he did last season. No one figured the Argos would win as many games as they lost in 2010. Barker got the most out of his players, in part, because he was able to convince them they were not nearly as bad as their record indicated in 2009, when they won three games. Barker does not have such a brutal year to build from. There was nowhere for the Argos to go but up, yet that’s not the same in coming off nine wins.

10. How many games will the Argos win in 2011?

We smirked when president Bob Nicholson predicted a year ago that the Argos would win nine games. Even owner David Braley was not thinking it would be more than a half-dozen. But nine it was, and that was with an offence that mostly sputtered. We’re not saying the sky is the limit, but if the quarterbacks and receivers are in sync, that total should improve. Anything more than 10 or 11 victories, though, might be expecting too much. And if the offence does not step forward a few yards? The Argos could fall under .500 again.


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