TORONTO - Between them, Jordan Younger and Ricky Ray have almost two decades of CFL experience, but both were left feeling a little shock and awe as the Toronto Argonauts gathered Sunday for their first full pre-season workout.
“Tempo was amazing. That’s AMAZING with capital letters. In all my time in Canada I’ve never seen a tempo like this,” said Younger, now in his ninth season.
Younger, and the rest of Toronto’s veterans, reported for Day 1 under the new regime of head coach Scott Milanovich and assistant head coach/defensive co-ordinator Chris Jones.
“It’s going to be a challenge but if we can buy into this we’re going to have one hell of a defence. Coach Jones didn’t take his foot off the gas for one second. I know I’ve never seen this; I don’t know if you’ve ever seen this,” Younger said.
Milanovich and Jones are attempting to turn a team that finished a dispirited 6-12 in 2011 into a contender for the 100th anniversary celebrations of the Grey Cup, to be held in Toronto in November. There are military drill sergeants who run their troops with less precision than Jones and Milanovich seem intent on running the Argonauts.
Sunday’s practice was crisp, quick, loud and a bit confusing for those involved. Jones could be heard exhorting his defence, screaming instruction and vilification in equal doses.
Offensively, receivers catching balls are greeted with screams: “High and tight! High and tight!” Putting a ball on the ground, even carrying it in a vulnerable spot, is now football felony in Argoland.
“This has been pretty new,” said Ray, now in his 10th year in the CFL, but his first as an Argonaut. “I’ve never been with a coach that preaches this kind of tempo in an system that is this complex.”
There’s supposed to be no contact on Day 1, but somebody forgot to deliver the memo to Ahmad Carroll, a defensive back out of Arkansas, who is trying to make an impression. And, he made that impression on one receiver, driving him out of bounds; then chirped incessantly at Maurice Mann, this two days after Carroll crunched another ball-carrier during rookie camp.
Somehow, the consensus among the sideline birddogs was that Jones probably didn’t entirely mind such over-stepping of the bounds of etiquette.
There was high intensity from the moment the nearly 80 players gathered under a 7 a.m. morning sky, turned to gloaming by besotted, dew-filled clouds scuttling across the sky.
Milanovic, who helped Montreal to two Grey Cups with the same system he is bringing to Toronto, said last week he wanted things to go “crisp,” no balls on the ground, and total concentration.
“It felt good. My first instinct is the coaches are pretty pleased,” he said, after it was all over almost four hours later.
Just 25 minutes in, they were executing a no-huddle offence, defences were shifting, Younger was directing traffic from his new safety spot and — as might be expected — more than a few guys were coming off the field looking perplexed and wondering what page of the playbook that one was on.
“It stresses their brain and shows them they’re going to have to learn and to study. They’re going to have to get on the (playbooks),” Milanovich said. “Going no-huddle sets the tempo for practice. It’s going to be fast and chaotic and guys are going to have to get on board or they’re not going to be able to execute.”
Which is fine with Ray.
“The biggest strength of Scott is his communication skills. He lays everything out in front of you. He doesn’t leave anything to guesswork. We know exactly what to expct when we come out here. Montreal has gotten off to hot starts almost every year and I think a lot of it has to do with the tempo they use in preactice, and the one we’re using now. So hopefully we’ll get in better shape and get ready to go.”
Milanovich is coming into camp with an open mind. This is a team that had too many players who either under-performed or simply didn’t perform last year. So, no job is safe, although quarterback Ricky Ray probably doesn’t have to be horribly concerned. Ditto Cory Boyd. And Noel Prefontaine doesn’t look too worried. But Milanovich expects several new players from rookie camp are in position to take jobs away from veterans and wind up on the roster.
“It would be a mistake to take it easy. The jobs are wide open. (General manager) Jim (Barker) and his staff did a great job of bringing in guys to compete and try to take jobs and that’s the nature of pro football. These veterans ... better be going full speed on every play.”
Rosters have to be reduced to 46 within three weeks but, with so many unfamiliar faces and undefined talents, Milanovich wants to keep as many players as long as possible.
“It’s going to take us some time to evaluate. It’s not fair to the player for us to look at two or three practices in a new system, in a new league for some of them, and say they can’t play. I would anticipate we’ll hold on to people as long as we could. It keeps everybody fresh and gives everybody an opportunity to make the team.”