The 2021 Toronto Argonauts finally took the field. It was just the first day of training camp, but for the players, coaches, executives, and fan base, who have been riding an emotional rollercoaster for the past 20 months and eight days, it was a beautiful thing.
It was a gorgeous sunny day at Alumni Stadium on the campus of the University of Guelph where the Argos will be stationed for the duration of camp.
Prior to the beginning of this morning’s practice, the team announced they were adding receivers Brandon Sheperd, Keyarris Garrett, Martavis Bryant, and Kendall Wright, linebackers Nelkas Kwemo and Nick Shortill, and defensive backs James Sample and Robert Woodson to the suspended list. At this time of year, the suspended list is most commonly used for players who have not reported to camp, but this year there’s also the possibility that players on this list may not have fully completed their quarantine. Suspended players do not count against the active roster or reserve roster list.
After practice, head coach Ryan Dinwiddie addressed the fact that not all players were ready to fully participate due to missed or cancelled flights, though he was a bit vague on specifics. He did make it clear that these players, who haven’t been released by the team, will be welcomed if and when they join the team or complete their quarantine. There has been speculation in recent days that Nelkas Kewmo would be retiring to pursue other opportunities, and Nick Shortill would be completing his degree at McMaster, and therefore unavailable for the season.
The Argonauts also announced that running back Bishop Sankey has decided to retire. Sankey, a former second round NFL draft pick and starter for the Tennessee Titans, was the first of many high-profile signings made by Toronto general manager Michael Clemons after he was brought in near the end of the 2019 season.
There were dozens of new faces on the field, but once practice got going, it looked like every other preseason practice in the CFL, minus the COVID-19 protocols. Players generally looked in great shape which had been something of a concern given the uncertainty of the season. There were some great highlights, there were a few miscommunications, and there was a bit of rust to shake off. Perhaps the best news of all was that there didn’t seem to be any major injuries, something players and coaches certainly had on their minds following the rash of Achilles injuries that plagued the league earlier this week.
There aren’t generally any meaningful takeaways from the first day of training camp, but today was an important test for Ryan Dinwiddie, Nick Arbuckle, and Michael Clemons. They all passed. Throughout this season, all eyes will be on these three men, as Toronto’s ultimate success or failure will be credited to one or more of them.
For Ryan Dinwiddie, he has to prove he’s up to the task as a rookie head coach. In CFL circles, he was seen as the next promising hire during his time in Calgary, but he completely bypassed the coordinator roll on his way up the ladder, having served only as a quality control coach and quarterbacks coach to this point in his career.
He acknowledged to the media after practice there were some first day jitters and he didn’t sleep well last night. He just wanted everything to run smoothly. In the end, he was happy with how practice went, and he should be. It was organized, well-structured, there was an amazing energy, and there was no doubt as to who was in charge out there.
He also avoided several rookie head coach death traps, including his handling of the current quarterback situation. Nick Arbuckle is clearly the team’s starting quarterback. Arbuckle was Coach Dinwiddie’s guy in Calgary and they obviously have a great relationship. He also fought to get him to Toronto after Ottawa released him following the cancelled 2020 season. And while he talks about an open competition at every position, Dinwiddie’s actions make it clear that while McLeod Bethel-Thompson is a valuable member of the team he can count on if needed, he’s not the starting quarterback. From the division of reps to the fact that Nick Arbuckle was sent out to speak to the media along with league veterans like Henoc Muamba, Charleston Hughes, and Eric Rogers, there was no doubt as to the depth chart order at that position.
Nick Arbuckle is doing his part too. He looked every bit the team leader he’s supposed to be. He was encouraging players on the field, coaching them up where he could, and had the poise and presence unique to stars at the position. He looks different. More fit. Maybe more explosive. He said he weighed in at 207lbs this week, down from the more lumbering 225lbs he was at one point in his young career. He also says he’s in the best shape of his life after working harder than ever both in the gym and on the mental side of his game.
When asked about his new role as mentor to two young quarterbacks in Nick Tiano and Kenji Bahar, his eyes lit up as he detailed how he’d like to be for them what Bo Levi Mitchell and Coach Dinwiddie were for him in Calgary. He spoke of Mitchell as one would an older brother they look up to. They kept in close contact throughout the pandemic, playing videos games, studying film, and looking for new ways to compete. Because of social distancing, he hasn’t gotten to know the other Toronto quarterbacks that well yet, but it’s this sort of relationship he undoubtedly hopes to have with them one day.
This is where Michael “Pinball” Clemons comes in. His greatest achievement in this most recent stint with the Toronto Argonauts is he appears to have assembled a team that is not only ready to challenge for a championship this season, but are set up for the future as well. For a team that only has a handful of returning players, their chemistry is astonishingly good. They worked hard. Together. And when practice was finished, they playfully joked with one another. Charleston Hughes even turned into a reporter, asking Eric Rogers a question at his press conference. They looked like a team that has been playing together for years.
Pinball has brought in an exciting combination of hungry veterans, eager to share their craft with the next wave, and exciting young players looking to absorb anything they can.
Just as Arbuckle is eager to help Tiano and Behar, veteran linebacker Henoc Muamba can’t wait to guide rookie Canadians Jack Cassar and Trevor Hoyte, as he once did with a young man named Cameron Judge in Saskatchewan. Charleston Hughes made it clear he won’t be clocking his snaps this season and seems more than willing to be part of a rotation if it means winning football games. Eric Rogers is embracing his role as an experienced veteran and can’t wait to compete with these young players while he shows them the ropes.
The veterans on this roster came to Toronto to win a championship and to pass along the knowledge they’ve accumulated over the years. That’s great for the team, great for Coach Dinwiddie, great for Nick Arbuckle, great for the fans, great for long term health of the organization, and yet another feather in the cap of Michael Clemons, who has perhaps done more for Toronto Argonauts football than anyone in its 147-year history.
But it is, however, just the first day of training camp. Let’s see what happens tomorrow.