TORONTO - If Argonauts quarterbacks Cleo Lemon and Dalton Bell were neck-and-neck entering a pre-season game on Saturday in their battle to be the starter, it wouldn’t be easy to determine who had the edge when the day was done.
Both were composed in a 31-12 victory against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats at the Rogers Centre. Both moved the ball down the field. Both produced points. Neither threw an interception, but both got the ball out quicker than last season.
Lemon was the more mobile of the two, while Bell demonstrated more of a willingness to try to stretch the Ticats defence.
But one got the feeling, after listening to Argos head coach and general manager Jim Barker following the game, that Lemon will have to falter badly in the pre-season finale on Thursday in Winnipeg to not be the No. 1 guy for the regular-season opener on July 1 in Calgary.
“I was real proud of Cleo,” Barker said. “He took a lot of abuse last year and he has taken a lot of abuse in the off-season. I was proud of how he played. You could not ask for much more. I was tickled for him and hopefully this is the start of some great things for him.”
Put it this way — Lemon won’t be capable of doing great things if he is on the sideline.
It was not that Barker was down on Bell, because he was not. But considering that Lemon started all but one game for the Argos last year, Bell might have to be perfect to wrest the starter’s role away.
“He played with a tremendous amount of confidence,” Barker said of Bell. “He did not seem tentative. Last year, there were balls where he was not quite sure where it was going, and there was none of that this time.”
Barker said both will play against the Blue Bombers this week, and there’s a possibility that Bell will start.
Lemon was under centre for the initial snap against the Ticats and, in front of an announced crowd of 12,851, led a couple of touchdown drives in the second quarter. The first was a shovel pass to Dwayne Wright that was turned into a 26-yard run by the running back, and the next was a one-yard handoff to Chad Kackert, who plunged in for the major. One play on the second drive resulted in an incomplete pass to P.K. Sam, but before he threw the ball, Lemon deftly avoided a Hamilton defender.
Barker said he thought Lemon was having fun, something he did not see in his quarterback in 2010.
“I have more confidence, I can say that,” Lemon said. “Just getting everybody at ease and being the leader I am, I feel good. It was important (to not turn the ball over). The first job is to take care of the football. We talk about that all the time.”
Bell took over in the third quarter and went a step further than where he had been through two weeks of training camp. He was composed and sharp, and like Lemon, winced a few times when receivers dropped catchable balls.
Bell was most impressive when he marched the Argos down the field after a Matt Carter touchdown for Hamilton decreased the Toronto lead to 17-12. A coach wants to see his quarterback respond positively, and Bell got it done.
Kackert ran for 10 yards, and on the next play, Bell connected with James Robinson for a 45-yard completion. The exclamation point was a 16-yard touchdown pass to Jerome Hewitt. Bell didn’t have much of a target, as Hewitt was just a half-step ahead of the Ticats defender, but the quarterback hit the nail on the head.
“He was running for about four yards with his hands out and he made a great catch,” Bell said. “I was able to put it where it needed to be. It was an awesome play.
“I thought I did well. We went out there and moved the ball.”
So did Lemon, which was a problem for the former NFLer last season. “He came back in a different kind of shape,” Barker said. “He understands the game now.”After two weeks of training camp, Argonauts quarterbacks Cleo Lemon and Dalton Bell were neck-and-neck in the race to be the No. 1 guy for the Boatmen.
After one pre-season game, that did not change a whole lot.
Lemon started the exhibition opener against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats at the Rogers Centre, and by the time he was done late in the second quarter, had completed 11 of 15 passes for 130 yards and one touchdown in the Argos’ eventual 31-12 victory.
Lemon led the drives that resulted in two Argos touchdowns. He made a shovel pass to Dwayne Wright, who then went 26 yards for a major, and Chad Kackert later plunged in from one yard. That play was set up by a 47-yard run by Andre Durie, the Argos’ best weapon on offence on Saturday afternoon, to the Hamilton 13-yard line.
Wright and Kackert are competing for the backup job behind starting running back Cory Boyd.
On the whole, Lemon was composed and rolled out of the pocket with authority.
Bell took over to begin the third quarter and finished with nine completions on 15 attempts for 189 yards with a 16-yard strike to Jerome Hewitt for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
Where Lemon was relatively conservative, Bell demonstrated a willingness to stretch the Ticats defence, making a 35-yard pass to James Robinson and a 31-yarder to Spencer Watt.
B.J. Hall relieved Bell and handed off to Kackert for a 16-yard touchdown romp. That came after Ray Cheatham intercepted a Boltus pass.
Grant Shaw kicked a 22-yard field goal in the third quarter, which was answered when Eric Wilbur connected from 36 yards for the Ticats. In the fourth quarter, Matt Carter had an eight-yard touchdown catch from Jason Boltus.
There won’t be much preparation time for the Argos before their second and final pre-season game. The Argos will be in Winnipeg on Thursday night to play the Blue Bombers, the last tuneup before the regular-season opener on July 1 in Calgary against the Stampeders.
The Argos led 14-3 at halftime on Saturday.
Former Argo Justin Medlock booted a 42-yard field goal early in the first quarter for a 3-0 Hamilton lead, and on the Argos’ next possession, Noel Prefontaine missed a 41-yard field goal attempt.
Both teams sat out veteran leaders. Boyd, Chad Owens, Rob Murphy and Kevin Huntley did not dress for Toronto, while Kevin Glenn, Arland Bruce and Markeith Knowlton were among those who watched from the Hamilton sideline.