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Blair: New CFL season, new faces in new places

After the carnage of 2012, the talk in Hamilton is of change. But so, too, will the defending Grey Cup champion Toronto Argonauts look different Friday, when they begin defence of their title against the Tiger-Cats at Rogers Centre – accent on the word defence.

Football remains the one sport where preseason games are purposeful, especially in a league where player transience is an issue. Two games doesn't seem enough for a CFL team to get ready for the regular season, but such is the hand dealt to Argos defensive co-ordinator Chris Jones and Ticats counterpart Orlondo Steinauer.

"Our first priority will be just making sure we line up properly schematically," Jones said this week, looking especially at a defensive secondary that has been almost completely turned over. "You have to anticipate that there will be issues … and hope you can overcome those issues with effort."

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The off-season has brought about the requisite roster changes in the CFL, but this time there is also a sense of newness that is tantalizing.

The Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Montreal Alouettes kick off the season Thursday night at brand-new Investors Group Field, the Tiger-Cats will be in a new stadium next season, the Saskatchewan Roughriders should be in new digs in 2017, and a new team in Ottawa means another newish facility.

Are there issues? Of course, there are issues. The Argonauts need a future home, after lacking the political savvy and foresight to throw their lot in with York University; or be a player in the building of BMO Field; and were nowhere to be sign when 2015 Pan American Games largesse was doled out.

Beyond that, where are the new, star quarterbacks for what everybody agrees is a QB-driven league? And Chris Williams's contract dispute has not only robbed the league of its most electrifying player and the Tiger-Cats of a game-breaker, it has also raised questions again about the long-term nature of the league's player pool.

Some have suggested a league that populates its rosters with more and more refugees from arena football and early cuts from NFL teams, it might be time to consider a formal development agreement with the NFL.

Forget how it would look to the chattering classes – those who don't give the CFL credit never will; it's already Triple-A to them. Those who view it as a solid, alternative brand will not notice the difference. Outside of this city, the CFL is a league extremely comfortable in its own skin.

Steinauer thinks his revamped defence will feel that way.

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Steinauer joined Hamilton from Jones's Grey Cup-winning staff and has put linebackers Jamall Johnson and Markeith Knowlton in new positions while blowing up an overmatched secondary. The only returnee is expected to be Dee Webb. Veteran safety James Patrick has joined the team from the Riders, and former Argo Evan McCullough will start at defensive back.

How will he measure progress at the halfway point of the season?

"If we've been in all our games," Steinauer said. "Defence to me is about making sure the game's never out of reach so that your offence can put up points by executing their game plan."

As part of the changes to the Argonauts secondary, defensive captain and safety Jordan Younger retired. His place in the middle of the secondary will now be manned by non-import Matt Black, a 28-year-old Toronto native and five-year CFL veteran. He is well-aware part of his responsibilities Friday will be counting to 12 and making sure everybody is in their place.

"We had kind of the same situation going into last season, with some change in the secondary," Black said. "For me, I guess I have to mind my Ps and Qs this season. I know the buck stops with me.

"I remember last season, when I ran into a bunch of the B.C. Lions players just as they were coming in to the Rogers Centre, and some of them were wearing their Grey Cup rings," Black said. "In this league, you always have a lot of rivalries: team rivalries, 1-on-1 rivalries. But when you're the champions, you expect to get everybody's 'A' game."

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Or their "eh?" game, at least.


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