Argos making finishing touches

Argos defensive end Ricky Foley. (DAVE ABEL/QMI Agency file photo)

Argos defensive end Ricky Foley. (DAVE ABEL/QMI Agency file photo)

FRANK ZICARELLI, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:44 PM ET

TORONTO - The Argos practised with shoulder pads on Tuesday, a sign that football season is right around the corner.

Unlike the pre-season, gridiron’s real bullets will be flying this Canada Day weekend when the CFL kicks off a year that promises to be one of the most unpredictable, which is saying quite a bit for a league where nothing is predictable.

Predictably, optimism is as high as it can get with the countdown to the season opener now in full earnest.

In Argoland, the changing times have been met with the expected new faces, a changing of the guard and an air of anticipation that’s as palpable as any in the recent history of this storied franchise that will play host to this year’s historic 100th Grey Cup.

Ricky Foley, who never minces his words, and if he ever did one can readily glean that some higher up has put the muzzle to this warrior defensive end who plays with a motor, is as pumped as ever.

At the same time, Foley has no clue how the talent he sees everywhere on the field will translate into a real game.

And for the Argos, the first of many tests will arrive on Saturday when the Edmonton Eskimos will serve as hosts.

“When you’re younger,” began Foley, “you go into every season thinking and hoping that you can win a Grey Cup. This being my seventh year, I realize talent, you know what’s missing and what’s not.

“From what I’ve seen, everything is there for us, but it’ll be interesting to see how we play with it.”

Interesting is an understatement when one considers the changes GM Jim Barker has engineered, changes that were expected given last year’s unexpected six-win season.

It began at the top with Barker relinquishing his duties as head coach and turning to rookie Scott Milanovich, Barker’s hand-picked successor who keeps everything close to the vest, unwilling and unyielding to provide anything, which is his right at a time when failure will surely lead to even more change.

Barker, unlike any other CFL official, is under the gun, his future in Toronto pretty much tied to how well the Argos begin the season.

To his credit, Barker and his staff have left no stone unturned, mixing and matching, taking flyers on virtually every available player, the latest being Calgary castoff Ken-Yon Rambo, who once again was visible at practice for the second day in a row.

The starting lineup on both sides of the ball are all but done, Milanovich in fact acknowledging as much without, naturally, going into any detail.

What remains to be seen is how the Argos massage their ratio, the CFL’s delicate balancing act that must be executed or risk being exposed in an area if an injury unfolds.

“We’re close, but we’re waiting on some injuries,’’ Milanovich said.

One of the most high-profiled players to fall under this group is Jason Pottinger, a tough-as-nails linebacker whose football IQ is second to none.

Pottinger, who rehabbed his way back from off-season knee surgery, has been nursing a calf injury, a setback that has left his status for Edmonton very much up in the air.

As a Canadian more than capable of starting, Pottinger looms as one of those key ratio busters, a potential piece that will allow the Argos to free up an import.

One guy who certainly merits touches is second-year Argo running back Chad Kackert, who had a break-out game last year in Edmonton at a time when his job was basically on the line.

With so many packages Milanovich is poised to throw at opponents, one must undoubtedly involve having Kackert and starting tailback Cory Boyd lining up together.

“I like Kackert,” said Milanovich. “He’s got some burst, he’s got a lot of energy.

“He’s got the ability to get inside and outside and he’s been doing a nice job.”

Kackert has been playing on special teams, another sign that the games will soon turn real.

NOT EVERYONE CAN PLAY

Every time Cedric Gagne-Marcoux has been able to strap on his shoulder pads as an Argo, this classy offensive guard has started every game.

But with the start of the regular season just days away, the sixth-year vet is on the outside, one of many holdovers from last year’s group who has failed to catch the eye of the team’s changing structure.

Gagne-Marcoux is too good a foot soldier to express his displeasure, but his body language told the story when he politely turned down an interview request following Tuesday’s practice.

And who can blame the native of Baie-Comeau, Que., who has started 32 games in his two-year run as an Argo.

It’s obvious the Argos are going with Marc Parenteau at left guard, Gagne-Marcoux’s normal spot, as Toronto gets set to unveil is all-Canadian line.

A year ago this time, the O-line (from left to right) featured Rob Murphy, Gagne-Marcoux, Dominic Picard, Taylor Robertson and Chris Van Zeyl, the lone member who will begin this season as a starter.

WATKINS ONE TO WATCH

At no point during the last few years has Pat Watkins felt so much at peace, so much in control when so much were out of his control as a knee injury threatened to cut short his football career.

As the Argos begin to usher in their regular season, there are plenty of new faces, unfamiliar names who have been culled from the deepest of football’s bushes.

And there’s Watkins, at one point a stalwart in the Dallas Cowboys defensive backfield, one of those natives of Florida who are so gifted that they can play virtually any sport and line up basically anywhere on the gridiron.

“I’m excited,’’ the soft-spoken and well-spoken Watkins said on Tuesday. “I feel like I’m in a pretty good place in my life, football wise.

“I sat out a year and this will be my first chance to prove it.”

Anyone who bothers to attend an Argos practice can’t help but notice Watkins, at close to 6-foot-5 he’s by far the tallest player in the secondary.

If his imposing size doesn’t grab your attention, a brace that protects his left knee will readily identify Watkins.

It was almost by accident that Watkins and the Argos would find each other, a match that has the potential to be long and eventful.

As he spent an entire year away from football, time Watkins said was best spent on getting his left knee stronger and healthier and enrolling back into school, the itch to play was provided by former Calgary Stampeders defensive back and friend Quincy Butler, who first met Watkins when the two auditioned for the Cowboys in 2006.

“He mentioned I should try the Canadian league,’’ recalled Watkins. “In a way, he kind of planted the seed in my head.

“I talked to my agent and just asked when I could try out. And sure enough when I asked him one week, the Argos were having a tryout that same weekend.”

Like many Americans who spent most of their football days in four-down football, Watkins had to adjust to the waggle, that made-in-Canada wrinkle that allows receivers to go in motion towards the line of scrimmage, in some cases go beyond it without being flagged.

“I heard quite a bit about it,’’ added Watkins. “But I had never seen it and it requires adjustments.

“That was a little different, but as far as the game goes it’s athletes versus athletes, there are more receivers on the field, which forces you to put more athletes on the field. It’s a pretty fun league.”

In high school, there weren’t many athletes quite like Watkins, who attended Lincoln High School in Tallahassee.

As a basketball player, Watkins routinely posted double-doubles, playing all three front-court positions.

On the track, he’d run the 4x100 and 4x400 relays, the 100 metre, 200 metre and high jump.

“I did a little bit of everything,’’ he said.

Which is pretty much what he’ll be asked to do in Chris Jones’ defence, a system that demands athleticism and versatility.

OFFENCE MUST START FAST

Whatever type of defence awaits the Argos offence, beginning with Edmonton this Saturday, it may pale in comparison to what the unit goes up against on a daily basis.

The moment receiver Jason Barnes, a one-time Eskimo, was cleared to practise, he began to notice the tempo Toronto’s much-hyped defence has established.

On Tuesday, a day players wore shoulder pads, Barnes paid even closer attention to his offensive unit and how it compared to the defence.

“Our offence started slow,’’ Barnes acknowledged. “The defence was flying around and making plays and we just need to step up.

“From what I’ve seen, the problem is that offensively we start slow, but we always seem to pick it up toward the end. We need to start faster. Our defence is definitely flying around and making plays and we need to match them.”

Part of the problem involves the many new faces and the new offensive system players have had to learn, beginning with quarterback Ricky Ray.

But progress has been evident, the first real test arriving on Saturday.

“We can always get better,’’ added Barnes. “But we’re definitely progressing. It’s a new offence and everyone’s learning.

“It looks like we’re meshing well and we’re playing fast. We can only go up, which is exciting.”

Barnes has looked better each practice, showing no ill effects of a banged-up ankle that kept him out of drills for two weeks.


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