It’s been a seamless transition for Ryan Hunter.
The 28-year-old North Bay, Ont., native has become one of the CFL’s top offensive linemen since joining the Toronto Argonauts late last season after being released by the L.A. Chargers. The 6-foot-2, 315-pound Hunter stepped in at guard and helped the team win a Grey Cup championship.
On Wednesday, Hunter was selected a CFL all-star after helping Toronto (16-2) tie the league record for most regular-season wins. The Argos will look to return to the Grey Cup on Saturday when they play host to the Montreal Alouettes in the East Division final for a second straight year.
“When I got here, the team had done most of the work as far as figuring out its identity, who it was and what it wanted to be,” Hunter said. “Obviously you want to come to a team that’s hot and makes a playoff run versus one that’s not going to make the playoffs.
“I was just fortunate to find a role last year then continue to hopefully progress on that this season.”
Toronto selected Hunter in the first round, ninth overall, of the 2018 CFL draft but he ultimately signed with Kansas City as an undrafted free agent. He played three games in 2019 and was on KC active roster for their 31-20 Super Bowl win over San Francisco.
Hunter then joined the Chargers in October, 2020, remaining there until, August 2022. While some NFL players might look down upon heading north, Hunter relished the chance to continue playing closer to home (North Bay is roughly 350 kilometres north of Toronto).
“I was excited,” he said. “Being just three hours from home, my family can pop down whenever they want and this year they’ve been to all of our games in Ontario and Quebec.
“Seeing them every week has been both motivating and really nice to have them back in my life.”
The prospect of moving around to play football is nothing new. Hunter left North Bay to attend high school in Buffalo, before securing a scholarship to Bowling Green (2013-2017). He earned academic all-MAC honours four times and the MAC distinguished scholar-athlete award in each of his final three seasons.
Hunter has found chasing a second successive Grey Cup to be much more challenging than winning the first.
“Once you win, everyone is coming for you,” Hunter said. “We know we’ve taken every single team’s best punch so far this year.
“When you’re doing really well, you want to stay at the top and you don’t anyone taking your spot. So we’re going to do everything we can to remain at the top.”
The 2023 regular season has been one to remember, with Toronto establishing a single-season club record for wins. The Argos also boasted unblemished marks at home (9-0, with one win coming in Halifax) and within the East Division (10-0).
Chad Kelly, in his first full season as Toronto’s starter, won 15-of-16 starts, the 93.8 win percentage being a CFL record for a quarterback with 14 or more starts. Kelly is the East Division’s outstanding player nominee and Wednesday was also named to the league’s all-star squad.
Toronto finished second overall in offensive points (29.3 per game), offensive TDs (56) and net yards (377.8). The Argos were tops in average yards per play (7.34) while allowing a league-low 19 sacks.
“Ryan has done a great job for us,” Toronto head coach Ryan Dinwiddie said. “He’s a ratio changer but he’s arguably our best lineman.
“We can get him on the edge and we can pull him. But the luxury we have is he can play centre and has stepped out and played tackle a few times. He has a versatility I don’t think many people in this league have.”
Hunter started all of Toronto’s 18 regular-season games at left guard. Tackle Dejon Allen was also named a CFL all-star and is the East Division’s nominee for the league’s top lineman award.
“I’m just so excited for Dejon because he’s had a fantastic year and I think deserves the award,” Hunter said. “But I’d rather win games and championships than awards and if we’re doing our job, then everyone else will get the awards.
“As an individual and competitor, you want to be the best of the best and that top lineman award is something I’ll be going for and striving for every single year. Hopefully Dejon wins it this year and I can next year and keep it in Toronto.”
Toronto swept the three-game series this season with Montreal, rushing for more than 100 yards each time. Running back A.J. Ouellette was the club’s leading rusher (1,009 yards, 5.7-yard average) but Andrew Harris (knee) – the top-running Canadian in league history with 10,380 yards – resumed practising this week.
Regardless of who’s in the backfield, Hunter said establishing the run will be important for Toronto on Saturday.
“That sets up everything,” he said. “When we run the ball well, they [defence] have to load up the box and we have many receivers who can make any play at any given moment.
“We move the big bodies around and let RD [Dinwiddie] call the plays. If we’re moving them well, then I think offensively we’ll be moving the ball well.”