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All eyes on the pivots as Als open up camp

MONTREAL — One of the most anticipated position battles of the spring got underway on a holiday Monday in Montreal, as the Alouettes took the field at Percival Molson Memorial Stadium.

Like you’d expect, all eyes were on the Alouettes’ quarterbacks as the battle for the number one job officially begins.

Antonio Pipkin and Jeff Mathews took the majority of snaps during the team’s first practice, while Vernon Adams Jr. and Matthew Shiltz are also hoping to become the team’s opening day starter.

The Alouettes are aiming to finally fill a void that dates back six years to when Hall of Fame quarterback Anthony Calvillo last suited up.

“Fortunately, the good thing about going through as many quarterbacks as we did is that they all have experience,” said offensive coordinator Khari Jones. “They all had the opportunity to get out on the field and be in real game situations.

“I see it as a positive. It’s time for one of them to take the lead and help the team win.”

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Pipkin, still just 23 years old despite entering his third season, showed flashes of brilliance in his second season in the league. But after seemingly overtaking Johnny Manziel for the top job, he found himself back on the sidelines after a stretch of eight interceptions in four starts.

More consistency is needed if Pipkin is going to become a full-time CFL starting quarterback, especially at such a young age. Still, the upside is obvious, as Pipkin’s arm strength and running ability are attributes that simply can’t be taught.

Didier Orméjuste of RDS reported on Monday that Pipkin has reported to camp 17 pounds lighter after adopting a vegan diet during the off-season.

Mathews, 27, is a CFL journeyman of sorts. He started his career in Hamilton before landing with the Argos in 2017. That year he started a game for the injured Ricky Ray but was pulled at halftime.

Last season, however, Mathews showed poise behind a struggling offensive line, winning a game in relief of injured quarterback Drew Willy and then drawing a start against the Ottawa REDBLACKS, an eventual loss.

“Our quarterbacks showed that they were ready on this first day,” said second-year coach Mike Sherman. “Our defence is new this year, but it is adapting. Our offence is using the same language as last year, so it’s normal that it has a leg up for now. The defence will catch up pretty soon.”

Despite some emerging young stars like running back William Stanback and receiver Eugene Lewis, the Alouettes had the worst-ranked offence in the CFL last season. They’ve added some more talent to the group, signing a true vertical threat in receiver DeVier Posey.

“He’s so talented, I’m excited about what he’s going to do this season with us,” said B.J. Cunningham. “I was impressed by what I saw today.”

While the Alouettes have no shortage of playmakers on offence, the big men up front will have to carry their weight. The offensive line was a big problem in 2018, allowing a league-high 66 sacks.

It’s a young group that’s been rebuilt under General Manager Kavis Reed, featuring a pair of sophomores in Trey Rutherford and Tyler Johnstone. Free agent addition Spencer Wilson adds a veteran presence after winning a Grey Cup with Calgary.

“It all starts with the offensive line,” said Jones. “A group of 5-6 guys who can not only do the job, but also stay together and learn — that’s the biggest part.

“We have a solid group of guys in Spencer Wilson, Tony Washington and Kristian Matte. We have to complete it.”

On Monday, Wilson lined up at centre with Matte and Rutherford taking snaps at guard. International Tony Washington was at left tackle with Johnstone, one of the league’s only Canadian starters at the position, was at right tackle.

Newly signed safety Taylor Loffler also took in his first practice with the team, as did local product and quarterback Hugo Richard. Veteran offensive lineman Luc Brodeur-Jourdain took the field to start his 11th season.