Two exhibition games is not a long time to assess the talent in training camp. For the Saskatchewan Roughriders, inexperience at quarterback makes the situation even more complicated.
Assistant coach Khari Jones, in his first season as the team’s quarterbacks coach, is tutoring three rookies who are battling for the backup job behind veteran pivot Darian Durant. J.T. O’Sullivan, Levi Brown and Drew Willy have all been to NFL training camps but have yet to play a down in the CFL.
The Riders practised at the University of Regina on Monday as they prepare for their first pre-season game Wednesday night in Vancouver against the defending Grey Cup champion B.C. Lions.
“So far, so good,” Jones said with his customary smile. “We haven’t played a game yet, but we’re working hard, trying to figure it all out. We’re trying to do as much as we can in practice and by simulating game situations.”
The Roughriders reduced the list of quarterbacks to four on Monday by releasing Colt Brennan.
Nine days into camp and nothing has been carved in stone except that Durant will be the starter. Beyond that, it’s anybody’s guess who will serve as his backup.
Much will depend on how quickly the rookies catch on to the Canadian game.
“It’s a huge learning curve for them,” Jones said. “Just being on a different field, a larger field, with 12 players and three downs is a big adjustment, and the reads are all different. That’s a lot of stuff to have to take in and learn to handle.
“If you’re new to the CFL, you almost have to erase some of the things you’ve learned to this point. It isn’t like starting over, but it’s pretty close some days.”
Even for Durant, a six-year veteran and one of the league’s elite quarterbacks, this is a period of adjustment under a staff that has been overhauled by rookie head coach Corey Chamblin.
“He looks very good, he’s doing a fantastic job,” Jones said of Durant. “He’s been taking on everything we’ve asked of him. He’s a real professional. It’s a pleasure to coach him, it’s going to be a good ride.
“In one way or another, all of this is new to all of us. For him, just having a quarterback coach is different.”
A year ago, Durant was working strictly with offensive co-ordinator Doug Berry, who was fired in mid-season along with head coach Greg Marshall.
Jones has three years of experience as an assistant coach with Hamilton. He also spent eight seasons in the CFL as a player with the Tiger-Cats, Lions, Calgary Stampeders and Edmonton Eskimos.
“Since I’ve been a coach, I’ve looked at it in a different way,” Jones said. “But the playing experiences I had, good and bad, you just can’t put a value on that.
“The ups and down of it all, and the pressure of playing this position, unless you’ve been through it, you can’t appreciate it, or fully understand it. I’ve been a third-stringer, a backup, a starter. I’ve been an all-star and an MVP — and I’ve also been released. I’ve been all over the map.”
In addition to evaluating the newcomers and grooming them as CFL signal-callers, Jones is committed to helping Durant reach his full potential.
“I hope he’s happy that I’m here,” Jones said. “I know I always appreciated the coaches I had through the years who played the game and know the quarterback position.
“We’re similar quarterbacks, he and I. I feel I can help him by sharing all of the things I did well and some of the things I did not do well.”
Jones believes he has arrived on the scene at an opportune time for both him and Durant.
“I feel like [Durant is] at the prime stage of his career,” Jones said. “He’s just on the rise and that’s very exciting. He’s in a great frame of mind, and besides the physical talent, he’s a fantastic leader. I can see him playing for us for a long time, if he wants to.”
A decision has yet to be made on how much playing time Durant will see against the Lions.
“We’re still talking about that, and we probably won’t know until the snap of the ball,” Jones said. “All of us, we’ll have to be patient and just see what happens.”
Asked if he was tempted to have Durant sit this one out altogether, Chamblin replied with a succinct: “Nope.”
The newcomers got their first taste of Canadian football on Saturday when the Roughriders held their Green-and-White game in Saskatoon. In addition to the controlled scrimmage, Chamblin has tried to make the last few practices “as game-like as possible.”
“It’s not totally set on what their playing time will be,” Chamblin said. “But they’ll get their time, and we’ll see what we need to see.”
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