A lot of players on the Montreal Alouettes defence spent training camp just getting to know one another.
Major changes were expected after the Alouettes’ run of two straight Grey Cups ended last season with a second-place finish in the Canadian Football League East Division and a loss to Hamilton in the division semifinal.
But no one guessed it would sweep away half the players who started that overtime loss to the Tiger-Cats, including entrenched veterans like Anwar Stewart, Eric Wilson, Diamond Ferri and Etienne Boulay.
It will be a new look defence that takes the field for the Alouettes’ regular season opener Sunday in Calgary, under a new defensive co-ordinator in former Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach Jeff Reinebold.
“When you ask who’s new on the team to raise their hand, a lot of hands go up,” said head coach Marc Trestman, back for a fifth season. “Every day we have to reaffirm our culture, how we do things.
“Plus we have new coaches as well. The challenges are minute by minute, but we’ve got really good people. We’re excited about bringing them together as a team.”
The offence that led the CFL with 515 points scored remains mostly untouched, with the CFL all-time passing leader Anthony Calvillo, who will turn 40 on Aug. 23, back for a 15th season. They also have a new offensive co-ordinator in former quarterback Marcus Brady. The former OC, Scott Milanovich, is now head coach of the rival Toronto Argonauts.
It was the defence and special teams that paid the price for an inconsistent 2011 campaign.
Defensive backs Mark Estelle and Paul Waldu are also gone, along with safety Jeff Hecht, linebacker Ramon Guzman and others.
The Alouettes will also start the season without their top defensive end John Bowman, although he is expected back soon from a training camp injury.
The moves had general manager Jim Popp in shopping mode this winter, picking up veterans like safety Kyries Hebert, linbacker Rod Davis and defensive linemen Aaron Hunt and Luc Mullinder.
Last season’s defensive woes came largely from injuries, but players like middle linebacker Shea Emry and defensive backs Jerald Brown and Billy Parker are back healthy. Other returning players include tackle J.P. Bekasiak, linebacker Chip Cox and defensive backs Dwight Anderson and Seth Williams.
Pre-season games don’t count, but the new group impressed with nine sacks in two games.
“We are going to be a different defence, doing some different things,” said Cox.
Calvillo, whose career has stretched 19 years including his early seasons with Las Vegas and Hamilton, has vowed to keep playing as long as he feels fit.
And as long as the Alouettes have Calvillo, they should been an offensive force.
Only wide receiver Kerry Watkins, who retired, and fullback Kerry Carter, who was cut, are gone from last season.
Calvillo had an unforgettable year, not only completing 404 passes for 5,251 yards and 32 touchdowns, but also surpassing Damon Allen’s records for career passing yards, completions and touchdowns.
Returning are slotback Jamel Richardson, who led the CFL in receiving, and running back Brandon Whitaker, who led in rushing. Receivers S.J. Green, Brian Bratton and Brandon London are also back.
A veteran, all-Canadian offensive line is intact with tackles Josh Bourke and Jeff Perrett, guards Scott Flory and Andrew Woodruff and centre Luc Brodeur-Jourdain.
Carter was a surprise cut, and his spot will likely be taken — eventually if not right away — by the team’s top draft pick Patrick Lavoie.
A shaky spot last season was kick returning, where Perry Floyd was cut during the season and none of a host of others, including Ferri, picked up the slack.
Newcomers Noel Devine and Trent Guy have both had bright moments in camp and one of them should get the job.
“We have to get better field position,” said Trestman. “It’s a league where there’s not a team now that doesn’t have a guy who has you on the edge of your seat when he’s returning a kick.
“It’s crazy in terms of how good they are. We talk about the special teams game, but that’s where the plays are. We spend a lot of time working on it and walking through it. We have to improve.”
They also hope to give up fewer long returns to their opponents.
It will be a tougher East Division than last year, with veteran quarterbacks Ricky Ray now in Toronto and Henry Burris now in Hamilton. The Blue Bombers, with Buck Pierce behind centre, finished tied with Montreal at 10-8 last season but got first place by winning the season series between them.
It will be more difficult to dominate the East as the Alouettes have done for most of the 16 seasons since the team was resurrected in Montreal in 1996 after a 10-year hiatus.
But they should be in the mix again.
“Hopefully, we can be as good on offence as we’ve been, and be better in the fourth quarter than we were,” said Trestman. “And defensively, create more field position, get off the field on second down. And, collectively, take care of the football.
“Last year we were plus-3 in turnovers. The years before we were plus-27 and plus-35. That’s a humongous difference. Being plus isn’t enough in this league. You’ve got to be better and we have been better.”