June 5, 2012
Offensive line holds key to Argos' season
By FRANK ZICARELLI, QMI Agency
TORONTO - The comparisons with chess have been around for as long as football has been played, an exercise in moving pieces and moving targets that requires quick thinking and precision.
Nowhere on the gridiron is that more pronounced than along the line of scrimmage, an area so foreign to even the most enlightened football fan that subtle moves are all but overlooked.
The axiom in football goes something along the lines that an offensive lineman is only highlighted when a big play gets called back for an infraction, real or imagined.
In reality, though, any offence, no matter how it’s conceived and schemed, is only as good as its offensive line, the basic foundation of any attack.
Beyond the obvious skill set of foot work, blocking, reading and reacting, cohesion must be fostered and achieved for any line to operate at any level of efficiency.
In Toronto, offensive line play looms as large as any on the Argos, a team with so much invested in quarterback Ricky Ray that a strong case can be made that the team’s five down linemen hold the key to this year’s success.
“I’m not as concerned about the offensive line as everyone else is,’’ rookie head coach Scott Milanovich said following Monday’s gathering.
In Milanovich’s new world, nothing will be taken for granted and no excuses will be provided.
His position is commendable, but at the same time the concerns hovering over the offensive line are justified given the changing face of the Argos.
In Rob Murphy (retirement) and Dominic Picard (free agent signing in Saskatchewan), the Argos lost two of the nastiest O-linemen in three-down football at arguably two of the most strategical positions on the field, left tackle and centre, respectively. They were two veteran work horses who always played to the whistle — and beyond — when necessary.
Unless a starting quarterback throws left-handed, left tackle provides the much-needed blind-side protection, while the centre spot is such a craft that requires both mental and physical toughness.
This year’s Argos O-line will not be produced overnight. It’s a time-consuming process that requires a bond that goes beyond the playing surface.
“You have to get a feel for each other,’’ Marc Parenteau said. “We all have to be on the same page when a late shift in defence gets made.
“It’s going to take longer, but from Day 1 to Day 2 we’ve made progress.”
Parenteau is hardly a household name, unless one has access to game film and can break down line play.
But in Parenteau, the Argos feel they have an asset who is versatile, experienced and efficient.
For now, Parenteau and Jeff Keeping will battle it out at the centre spot, but each can slide over if events warrant.
Parenteau came to the Argos via free agency, his time out west just about expired.
In Saskatchewan, Parenteau won a Grey Cup and did whatever was required at any position along the line of scrimmage.
Born in Sherbrooke, Que., Parenteau pined for a move to the East and when the Argos came calling, he jumped at the opportunity.
“It was a no-brainer,’’ said Parenteau, who turns 32 this December. “My wife and I wanted to move back east. This opportunity came and it was a good fit.”
Just how it fits and just where Parenteau lines up are questions that only training camp and exhibition play can answer.
At Boston College, Parenteau had to learn all five positions, an exposure that forced him to understand every area, whether it was at tackle, guard or at centre.
“I was able to understand the concepts of where the play was going,’’ he said. “I wasn’t just locked in on one position. You understand what everyone is doing.”
By his admission, Parenteau has never been the strongest lineman. Nor has he been the quickest.
But when you are smart, aggressive, efficient and pride yourself on being a tactician, a lot can be accomplished.
In line play, leverage is very important, another area Parenteau believes has led to his longevity.
“He’s a strong presence in the middle,’’ Milanovich said of Parenteau. “His technique is strong.
“We’ll just have to wait to see how well he picks up the system and how well he plays for us.”
JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS
A man in the middle, Jason Pottinger finds himself in the middle of a fight that promises to go to the very end.
And even then, a clear-cut winner may not emerge.
Chris Jones has brought a much-needed swagger, the kind not seen in Argoland since the days of Don Matthews — only Jones isn’t going to resort to any condescending or disingenuous behaviour.
In Jones, the Argos have a defensive co-ordinator who will push the envelope, attack and will never allow himself to be short-sighted.
Everywhere on defence, there’s competition because no job is safe, no matter the reputation or resume.
Pottinger overcame the odds last year by returning from a season-opening knee surgery many thought would sideline him for the year. Not only did Pottinger recover, but he also was back as the team’s starting middle linebacker.
This off-season, Pottinger went under the knife, completed his necessary rehab and is back to the point where his left knee is no longer an issue.
The one issue that can’t be answered is whether Pottinger, a McMaster product, will line up as Jones’ starting middle linebacker.
“To be determined,’’ the personable Pottinger said when asked about his role in the Jones defence. “We’re in training camp and there are battles going on. I’m going to battle my ass off to fit in where I can.”
If anyone will, it’s certainly Pottinger, a tough-as-nails competitor who brings both an athletic and cerebral skill set to the football table. Unless there’s some huge shift in philosophy, the Argos are expected to go top-heavy with Americans on defence.
But in the ratio business that is the CFL, it’s virtually impossible for a defence to field an all-American lineup, something that hasn’t been seen since the days of U.S. expansion.
Pottinger would seem like a natural to start, but he’s taking nothing for granted knowing that everything has to be earned.
“For all I know I’ll be playing the middle or I won’t be playing the middle,’’ he said. “It’s a coach’s decision.”
Ejiro Kuale has been taking reps at middle linebacker, an explosive player capable of covering plenty of ground.
Whether it’s Pottinger or Kuale, there’s no shortage of bodies for Jones to consider as the day to day evaluation continues.
“It’s very aggressive,’’ Pottinger said of the Argos defence. “We’re not going to sit back. It’s going to be an exciting defence to watch.”
GETTING HIS KICKS IN
For a guy who makes kicking such a routine, Noel Prefontaine does little to change his off-season or daily habits at camp.
Such is life as a kicker, where all the hard work behind the scenes go unnoticed, where training camp represents a time to prepare for the coming season.
About the only area Prefontaine needs to iron out is his timing with new holder Jarious Jackson, whom many project as Ricky Ray’s backup.
Jackson held for Paul McCallum in B.C., but Prefontaine is left-footed and there are differences.
For much of his run in Double Blue, Prefontaine’s holder was long-time linebacker Kevin Eiben, who left the Argos for Hamilton in free agency this off-season. “Jarious is a good enough athlete,’’ Prefontaine said of the veteran. “From what he’s shown the first few days, he’ll be able to master it.”
From his vantage point on the sidelines, Prefontaine has liked what he’s seen of the Argos and what rookie head coach Scott Milanovich has preached. Back in the days of the XFL, Prefontaine and Milanovich were teammates.
“I have a history with Scott and I’ve been very pleased with some of the things he’s had to say to us as a team. I’m excited for the season to start.”
Monday represented only the second day of the team’s main training camp, the tone set on opening day when a high tempo was established.
“It’s a different feel,’’ Prefontaine said of the camp atmosphere. “When the tempo is fast in practice, the games will always be fast.
“It’s good for the young guys who aren’t used to the game, it’s good for the vets when the tempo is fast.”
WATT A GUY
Spencer Watt flashes a 100-watt smile when Ricky Ray’s name gets mentioned.
It’s not as if Watt has been around the football block long, but it didn’t take much time for this North Vancouver, B.C., native to realize just how invaluable Ray’s presence will be this season.
“I remember growing up and watching him,’’ said Watt, a third-year Argo who turns 24 this year. “Ricky’s going to be a huge difference for us. He’s always on the money, knows how to place the ball and his passes are so easy to catch.”
In Watt, the Argos have a legitimate deep threat capable of stretching defences. Consistency has been an issue for Watt, but he’s too young and has too much upside for the Argos to suddenly give up on him, which they’re not.
“I’m always learning,’’ said Watt, who has tried to add weight but his metabolism won’t allow him to bulk up. “And I feel I have a lot to learn.”
What can’t be taught or learned is speed, an area Watt has in abundance. “Speed kills,’’ he smiled.