Players on both sides of the football look to either establish or re-establish themselves as impact players in the CFL when the Calgary Stampeders host the Montreal Alouettes on Saturday.
Calgary’s Bo Levi Mitchell and Montreal’s Troy Smith will be the starting quarterbacks in a CFL season opener for the first time in their careers. Both want to reinforce their No. 1 status.
Former NFL star Chad Johnson will begin the revival of his football career as an Alouettes receiver. Prominent Stampeder receiver Nik Lewis is back after missing over half of last season with a broken leg. The 32-year-old slotback feels he has something to prove.
The sentiment can also apply to Tom Higgins, who returns as a CFL head coach with Montreal after six years working as the league’s director of officiating.
His last coaching stint was with the Stampeders from 2005 to 2007 and Calgary’s record in his final season was 7-10-1. It’s serendipitous his first game back will be at McMahon Stadium.
“When you think about [it], why not?” Higgins said Friday. “I knew how to get here. The bus driver went the wrong way and I said ‘no, no, you make a right here.’”
There are also players still feeling out their new teams, such as Josh Bell, a former Lion who will make his Stampeder debut at starting safety Saturday.
“I want to see how we adjust really when we have success and when we don’t have success,” Bell said. “How do we adjust? That’s the biggest thing in football.”
The Stampeders topped the CFL with a 14-4 record last season, but were upset 35-13 at home in the West Division final by the eventual Grey Cup champion Saskatchewan Roughriders.
The Montreal Alouettes went 8-10 and lost 19-16 in the East semi-final to Hamilton. Star quarterback Anthony Calvillo missed the final 10 games of the season with a concussion and subsequently retired in the off-season.
Smith, a former Heisman Trophy winner with Ohio State, got a crash course in CFL football going 2-1 to conclude the season.
“What you do know about Troy is he brings a level of leadership, he has a very strong arm and hopefully he has a cast around him that he doesn’t have to carry the football team,” Higgins said.
“If we do our job properly, hopefully we can spread that football around enough that he doesn’t always feel he has to be on top of his game for us to win.”
Mitchell won his three starts and came off the bench to win another in 2014. Stampeders coach and general manager John Hufnagel handed the 24-year-old the ball for the opener, but indicated he could have just as easily given it to Drew Tate.
“It was a photo finish between he and Drew,” Hufnagel said. “I said earlier in the week when I made the decision both quarterbacks will play football for us this year. It just so happens Bo is getting the first start.”
“He has earned the opportunity to play. He’s won every game he’s played as a Calgary Stampeder, so that’s not a bad track record.”
Both Mitchell and Smith recognize opportunities to be a CFL starter are limited and they must perform to earn more.
“Every game, every play, every snap, every rep is concreting or cementing who you are,” Smith said.
Added Mitchell: “Now that I’ve been given the job, I’m going to make sure I keep it, run with it and have a lot of fun.”
Lewis broke his fibula Aug. 17 and did not play again in 2013. It was the first time in a decade as a Stampeder he was unable to produce over 1,000 receiving yards.
Lewis was annoyed Friday that he’d been made a designated international for Saturday, which could limit the slotback’s playing time because he can’t replace a Canadian on the field.
“I don’t make these decisions. I just play football,” Lewis said. “In this business, it’s what have you done lately. Last year, I wasn’t able to play, so I’ve got to continue to go out and get better and prove that I can play.
“I’ve never had an injury like I had last year, so I am so motivated to get back on the field and just show it is possible. Maybe Week 1, we’ll unleash the beast.”
Stampeder offensive lineman Dan Federkeil will sit out Saturday’s game. He took a hit to the neck in practice this week and has had a concussion before. Hufnagel wants to be cautious with the Medicine Hat, Alta., native.
So with internationals Stanley Bryant and Edwin Harrison both suiting up on the offensive line, Hufnagel said “it disrupted our ratio a little bit.”
“I had to make one of our receivers the DI,” Hufnagel explained. “Nik will be the DI, but we’re still going to have three on the field and they all are going to have their roles. It’s not like Nik won’t be playing the game.”
Lewis is considered one of the CFL’s colourful, and at times controversial, players.
Montreal’s Johnson could join him in that category. The six-time Pro Bowler and one-time Dancing With the Stars contestant’s Twitter posts often include “sensitive material” warnings.
He changed surname to Ochocinco in 2008 only to return to Chad Johnson in 2012. He spent 10 seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals, but hasn’t played a game since 2011.
The 36-year-old wide receiver wasn’t among the handful of Alouettes available to the media at McMahon on Friday. Smith indicated Johnson is still adjusting to the Canadian game.
“Chad’s okay. Man, he’s done great,” the quarterback said. “He’s accepting the different nuances of the game and tried to perfect them the best he could, but his backbone and his foundation will be guys like S.J. Green, guys like Duron Carter and guys like Brandon Whitaker who can give him the ins and outs … on things he can do during the game if he’s not feeling too up to par with what’s going on.
“We have an incredible group of veteran guys who do nothing but help tremendously and I’ve relied on them also.”