A year ago, Marcel Desjardins was a one-man show.
Hired as GM of the expansion Ottawa RedBlacks on Jan. 30, 2013, Desjardins faced the immense task of building a fledgling franchise’s football operations department from scratch.
Roughly a year later, Desjardins not only has scouting and coaching staffs in place but also more than 40 players under contract a month before the start of CFL free agency.
“What’s nice for me is instead of having to kind of think about 100 things, I can focus on maybe 10 of them and delegate the other 90,” Desjardins said. “Scouting-wise we’re doing what we do with film and free agents and setting up tryout camps and there’s also the (CFL combine) and getting mini-camp ready.
“All those things must take place before the season can even occur and we still have some 30-some guys yet to sign. Trust me, it (the start of ‘14 CFL season) will be here before we know it.”
The RedBlacks will begin play this season just over six years after the CFL awarded Ottawa a conditional expansion franchise. In 2006, the league indefinitely suspended the former Ottawa Renegades club that was born six years following the demise of the iconic Rough Riders in ‘96.
Desjardins laid Ottawa’s foundation with two major moves in December. He hired head coach Rick Campbell on Dec. 6, then less than a week later selected 24 players from existing rosters in the CFL expansion draft.
Desjardins’ biggest acquisition was veteran quarterback Kevin Glenn from the Calgary Stampeders. But taking Hamilton Tiger-Cats centre Marwan Hage and receiver Rory Kohlert of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, both Canadians, were interesting moves.
Hage, a Beirut native who grew up in Montreal, spent his entire 10-year career in Hamilton and was disappointed when left unprotected. That prompted suggestions Hage might retire rather than go to Ottawa.
“I spoke with him and his comments to me were kind of he was in a state of shock/disappointment that he wasn’t protected but understood it was a business,” Desjardins said. “He gave no indication he wouldn’t be playing.
“I’m not sure why he wouldn’t want to keep playing. He’s still young, he’s still a good football player, there’s still some pretty good income for him to get and he’d obviously be a very important part of what we’re trying to build not only on the field with that group in terms of the offensive line but also what we’re trying to do in the community as well.”
Kohlert, 26, of Regina, had 45 catches for 493 yards and three TDs with Winnipeg but is slated to become a free agent Feb. 15. Desjardins said before the draft he didn’t anticipate taking any free agents but made an exception with Kohlert.
“We’ve communicated with his agent and that’s still ongoing,” Desjardins said. “It became a function of there wasn’t anybody active we felt was worth selecting so we took a player that was a free agent and we’d see how it worked out.”
Given the expansion draft, more than 120 CFL players were slated to become free agents next month. Teams have been busy re-signing their own since then so Desjardins expects a more limited talent pool once free agency begins.
Still, Desjardins plans on being aggressive in his pursuit of available free agents he feels will improve Ottawa’s roster.
“Teams will continue to try to keep their own and you can’t blame them,” Desjardins said. “Once the free agency deadline hits we’ll have to be aggressive and put our best foot forward from the get-go so people understand we’re serious about having them here.
“The biggest thing for us is . . . make sure we can sign a couple of guys who are going to be difference-makers for us.”
But there’s much more for Desjardins and his scouting staff to prepare for than the start of CFL free agency. There’s evaluating and signing lesser-known American free agents while also scouting talent at the various American college all-star games.
There’s also planning for the CFL combine (in Toronto in March), free-agent camps as well as the RedBlacks’ first-ever mini camp before the opening of training camp in June.
And last week there was visiting TD Place Stadium, the RedBlacks’ new home.
“We got to see how that’s progressing,” Desjardins said. “It’s important our environment be as good as it can be for us, because the people that designed it in the very beginning weren’t going to be the ones working there day to day. So it’s important for us to go there and tweak things.”
Also on Desjardins’ plate is preparing for the 2014 CFL. Ottawa will not only have the No. 1 selection but make the first pick in each of the seven rounds. That means having to get up to speed quickly on the available prospects.
This week, the CFL Scouting Bureau unveiled its latest rankings and again McGill offensive tackle Laurent Duvernay-Tardif was No. 1 among the top-15 draft prospects. He and Manitoba defensive lineman Evan McGill, ranked No. 6, will play in the East-West Shrine game Saturday at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“We have a good group of Canadians we were able to take through the expansion draft so now if we can build depth, that’s important,” Desjardins said. “If someday we’re able to go with all Canadians across the board, that would be huge.”