Call the Ottawa Redblacks offseason whatever you would like, whether it’s a transformation, a rebuild, or even a minor miracle, there’s no question that this football team is different gravy compared to their dismal 2019 and 2021 seasons.
Cleyon Laing, a man who has been a part of both highs and lows with the CFL’s newest franchise, both winning the Grey Cup in 2016, and being a part of the 3-11 2021 season, comes into 2022 looking to, as the Redblacks have put it through their social media channels, “flip the script.” Laing found himself getting excited during the offseason seeing all the names heading to the nation’s capital, and that excitement hasn’t slowed down with everyone on the field at training camp.
“The first day coming in, you kinda have that mentality of a kid getting a new toy,” said Laing. “We get out here and we have some new toys to play with, and our team is full of great, young, and talented guys. We’ve come together already as a team in a few days, and we have high ambitions for this year.”
The 2021 season was difficult for everyone, but for the Redblacks in particular, it tested their love of the game. For Laing, he saw his number drop from where they were in 2019 with the Toronto Argonauts, registering only three sacks in his 13 games, down from seven in 15 games in 2019. Still, Laing still believes he is the player he was in Toronto, and says expectations are as high as they have ever been.
“2021 was a different year for everyone in the league,” Laing said. “It was a year that build an appreciation for some players, but after last season with my performance, I definitely came into this season with some ambition set, and I won’t disappoint myself.”
“The expectation of our room has completely changed from last year. Anyone with any kind of football sense knows that last season was unacceptable on every level, so we’re pushing that as far out of our minds as we can, and we are willing to work for a better result this season.”
With Laing anchoring the middle of the defensive line in 2021, the Redblacks finished tied for sixth with the Edmonton Elks in the league for sacks with 30. With 19 fewer sacks than first-place Montreal, the Redblacks couldn’t pressure the quarterback consistently enough, but Laing believes that this defensive line is different.
“We have some young guys that are coming into the room that are really talented and can do a lot of things,” Laing said. “We have some good leaders in the room, as well. It’s up to us to take over. We have a good coach in Mike Phair, and I think if we put all the pieces together, we will have a beautiful picture.”
With a potential season-ending injury to Kwaku Boateng (one of the Redblacks’ biggest offseason signings), the team will need some young players to step up and fill the gaps. With youngsters such as Praise Martin-Oguike (who finished tied for the team lead in sacks in 2021 with four), Deshawn Stevens (the Redblacks’ first-round pick in 2021), and Kene Onyeka in the mix, Laing is confident they will have what it takes to make the opposing quarterback’s life difficult on any given night.
“Not even to say that they need coaching in that sense, I think as young as some of them are, they are mature,” Laing said. “They have played some ball, whether it’s up here or down south. I think we are a group of pretty mature men, and we expect great things out of each other. I think at this point, we’re almost riding off each other knowing that we can’t disappoint our teammates.”
Laing, the consummate leader, is never quick to point to the name on the back of his jersey. On practice days, you will regularly hear him talking, be it encouragement to a veteran player who made a big play, or coaching a young player who missed an assignment. Why he does it is simple, he wants to win.
“It’s been a long journey for me, and I know what the standard is to get to that championship,” Laing said. “That standard is set from day one. It’s up to us, the older guys, and the younger guys as they come along, to uphold that standard.”
Having already won two Grey Cups, one with the Redblacks in 2016, and one with the Argonauts in 2017, Laing isn’t satisfied just yet. He wants to add another piece of diamond-studded hardware to his fingers, and with a new-look Redblacks roster, he’s doing everything he can to ensure that comes in 2022.
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