Ejiro Kuale doesn’t see himself nervously watching a clock this season.
The Toronto Argonauts linebacker did plenty of that in 2011 because the club’s offence struggled to score enough points to either protect a lead or rally from behind. That put a lot of pressure on the defence to keep opponents off the scoreboard and the special teams to register big returns and continually win the field position battle.
All too often, though, it was a losing battle as Toronto (6-12) finished last in the East Division and out of the CFL playoffs for the third time in four years.
Predictably, Toronto’s off-season focus has been shoring up its lethargic attack.
Jim Barker resigned as head coach to concentrate full-time on being Toronto’s GM, and hired Scott Milanovich as his replacement. Milanovich spent five seasons with the Montreal Alouettes, the last three as the offensive co-ordinator of a unit that powered the Als to two Grey Cup titles under veteran quarterback Anthony Calvillo, pro football’s career passing leader.
Less than two weeks after hiring Milanovich, Barker secured a veteran quarterback of his own, acquiring Ricky Ray from the Edmonton Eskimos in a steal for journeyman passer Steven Jyles, kicker Grant Shaw and a 2012 first-round draft pick.
He also further solidified the quarterback corps by adding former B.C. Lion Jarious Jackson as a free agent to back up Ray.
Barker added some familiarity around Ray with quarterback coach Jason Maas – Ray’s former backup in Edmonton – and one-time Eskimos receiver Jason Barnes. With the return of slotback Andre Durie and stalwart tailback Cory Boyd, there’s suddenly reason for optimism about a Toronto offence that last season finished last in passing (233 yards per game) and second-last in scoring (21.3 points per game).
“When you know you have playmakers on offence who are going to make the play, all we have to worry about is defence,” Kuale said. “We don’t have to worry about being tired or having to watch the clock.
“There won’t be any watching the clock waiting for the game to be over.”
Not that the Argos defence had much time to watch the seconds tick by. The unit spent the majority of games on the field because of the offensive woes.
That gave opposing offences plenty of opportunities against an overworked Toronto defence that finished last overall in yards allowed (421.7 per game), rushing yards (136.4), passing yards (298.2) and points (27.7).
There will be at least two new faces on defence with the off-season departures of defensive back Lin-J Shell and Byron Parker. But a productive, efficient offence would not only take the pressure off the newcomers, but also ensure all defensive players were better rested and fresher when they came on to the field.
“The moves that were made were done so with winning the Grey Cup in mind,” Kuale said. “I’m hard on talent, I don’t give people a lot of credit because I’m tough when it comes to that because I feel in order to get that credit you have to put in the work off the field and not just on it.
“But the guys who’ve come in, their work ethic is good on and off the field. They’re team players and character guys and I’m just excited about this year.”
And that includes playing for a new head coach who endured just one losing season during his time in Montreal.
“I’m thankful I have a competitive coach who is going to challenge the team,” Kuale said. “He has set high expectations and if they’re not met there’s going to be changes.
“I like the intensity that we’re going to have in camp and I’m just excited. I’ve never been this excited about a training camp since I was in New Orleans.”
That was 2006 when the 6-foot-2, 229-pound Kuale, a native of Daytona Beach, Fla., signed with the Saints out of LSU after being bypassed in the NFL draft. Kuale spent two seasons with New Orleans and the 2008 campaign in Kansas City before joining the CFL’s Calgary Stampeders in May of 2009.
However, Kuale’s stay in Alberta was short-lived. He was released a month later and eventually signed with Toronto in February of 2010.
Kuale, 28, saw duty on special teams and at fullback in 2010 before moving to linebacker, his natural position, last season. He finished fifth on the team in tackles with 53 but made headlines when he was ejected from a game against Winnipeg and fined an undisclosed amount by the league for a late hit on quarterback Buck Pierce.
Kuale is in the final year of his CFL deal and would welcome the chance to return to the NFL in 2013. Kuale said he was too young and immature in 2006 to fully appreciate that opportunity.
“I really wasn’t mentally prepared for the amount of money and publicity I was getting,” he said. “I left LSU and went to New Orleans and there just wasn’t enough focus going on.
“My time in Toronto has been redemption for me, a learning lesson.”