The Redblacks have clearly taken the phrase ‘defence wins championships’ to heart ahead of the 2021 season with the team looking like it will be one that wins games with that group on the field. The defence wasn’t too bad for the Redblacks in 2019, but Marcel Desjardins decided it wasn’t good enough and brought in some big names to fill the holes in the offseason.
Between those new names and the familiar faces who are back from the dismal 2019 season, the Redblacks looks to have assembled a defence capable of stealing games if the offence struggles like many are predicting. Through camp so far, the defence has gelled nicely and has dominated the offence on some days. On the days where the offence does move the ball, the defence usually finds a way to bounce back before the end of the drill.
Defensive Coordinator Mike Benevides has had the defence prioritizing communicating with each other during plays allowing them to be aware of what is happening at all times. Benevides of course has plenty of experience on CFL sidelines that makes him an ideal coach for the Redblacks this season. He has been coaching in the CFL since 2000 and is now back after a short time with TSN.
A person can only be as useful as the tool they are using, however, and thankfully for Benevides, the tool, or in this case, the defence, is loaded with playmakers that can break a game wide open at the snap of a finger.
Starting on the defensive line, Avery Ellis is back with the Redblacks for a fourth season. The Temple alum was tied for the team lead in sacks in 2019 with seven and was fifth in defensive tackles with 54. Additionally, the Redblacks brought back a familiar face in Cleyon Laing to be the anchor of the defensve line. In 2019, Laing sacked the QB seven times in 15 games with the Toronto Argonauts. He was a part of the 2016 Redblacks team that won the Grey Cup after defeating the Calgary Stampeders.
Further back on the defence now, the linebacking core is led by the Redblacks’ player of the year in 2019, Avery Williams. Williams was one of the lone bright spots in an otherwise disappointing 2019 season, leading the team in tackles with 69 and adding a sack. He has become one of the leaders on the defensive side of the football and has been very vocal so far in camp.
“We have a new coaching staff and new individuals in the meeting room, so everybody is getting used to each other,” said Williams in an interview on TSN 1200 on Tuesday. “Usually that process goes pretty slow, but with the calibre of players we have and the number of leaders we have on defence, it went faster than I thought it would. I’m really excited about that and I’m pumped up to be back.”
“The way I set the tone and the way I present myself is someone that even if I make a mistake, I’m still going to get involved. Violence is the key. I want my guys to be violent up front, in the middle, and on the back end. If you have a defence that is consistently violent for four quarters, it’s going to be tough to play against.”
Looking at betting odds and the opinions of pundits from around the league, the Redblacks have not been very high on anyone’s boards in terms of how successful they will be in 2021. To Williams and the Redblacks, this is just noise.
“Nobody cares what people say at all,” said Williams. “They don’t know who we have, we don’t know who others have. You never want to be the rabbit, you always want to be the wolf. We don’t want anybody chasing us thinking that we have something no one knows about, we always want to be that wolf chasing after something. Nobody wants to be sheep, they want to be lions. No one cares what the media says, you just have to go out there and fight and do what you can do and try to win.”
Williams isn’t the only player in the linebacking core that could be a game-changer for the Redblacks, however. Micah Awe (who founded PurpleShift and is featured on our website in the Players’ Initiatives section), Jerod Fernandez, and new addition Adam Auclair have all played well during camp.
Other linebackers including Brad Cowan, Dan Basambombo, and Christophe Mulumba-Tshimanga (who is currently on the suspended list) are also looking like they could step up and play important roles for the team should they need to. Cowan, who the Redblacks drafted in 2020 has been seeing most of his playing time on special teams.
To the secondary, the Redblacks look like one of the most experienced teams in the CFL as things stand right now. Competing for starting jobs, the Redblacks realistically have Sherrod Baltimore, Randall Evans, Justin Howell, Abdul Kanneh, Antoine Pruneau, Marcus Roberson, and Don Unamba looking to start. Obviously, they can’t all start when they head to Edmonton in early August, but they have a wealth of depth to rely on in the defensive backfield.
As Redblacks fans already know, Pruneau was born without an off switch and competes with full effort and then some at all times. That hasn’t changed in training camp as he continues to be one of the leaders on the defence. His football knowledge is something to behold and he is a critical cog in the defence’s machine.
Baltimore is back in a starting role and has been a game-changer in training camp making big play after big play. So far, he looks to have returned to his 2017 form when he was the Redblacks’ Rookie of the Year nominee. The dreadlocks defence is strong this season with Baltimore playing on the same side of the field as Kanneh who returns to Ottawa for a second stint with the Redblacks. A veteran who fell out of the spotlight after leaving Ottawa in 2017, Kanneh has looked solid so far. Although likely not the superstar he once was, his presence has been strong.
One of the biggest additions of the offseason however is Unamba, whose signing flew under the radar a little bit. The former Southern Arkansas Mulerider spent the 2019 season with Edmonton where he picked up six sacks and an interception in 12 games. Unamba has fan favourite potential and is the kind of player who will electrify the 15,000 or more fans that will be allowed to attend games at TD Place this summer and fall.
I’ve only mentioned the biggest names here. There are plenty more players on the defence that are going to play big roles. Some will see time on defence and some will only play special teams, but there should be a sense of confidence for Redblacks fans about their football team defensively this season.