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Argos look to rebound with Chamblin as new head coach

TORONTO — Shawn Lemon remembers the lecture well. And the one after that. And after that.

Then the Toronto Argonauts defensive co-ordinator, Corey Chamblin made it clear on the first day of training camp in 2017 he wanted his players to scoop up any loose ball — incomplete pass, fumble or otherwise — that hit the turf in practice.

The idea was for it to become second nature when the games mattered most.

"He understands the importance of the small details," Lemon said. "They go a long way."

It would pay massive dividends six months later in the Grey Cup when Cassius Vaughn was in the right place at the right time to return a fumble a CFL-record 109 yards for a touchdown in the team’s stunning 27-24 victory over the heavily-favoured Calgary Stampeders.

In fact, Lemon was part of the entourage of teammates that escorted Vaughn into the snow-covered end zone at Ottawa’s TD Place that frigid late-November night.

"Just the little things we put in from Day 1," Lemon, a veteran Toronto defensive lineman, said this week after a long practice session at York University. "Who would have known that would be the play that helped win us the Grey Cup?"

Two years later, Chamblin is hammering home similar points at his first camp as head coach of the Argonauts.

Defenders still pick up every loose ball during team drills, flying towards their offensive counterparts with a familiar pack mentality.

"Aggressive," Chamblin, a native of Birmingham, Ala., said of the identity he wants to see from his team. "They have to have an aggressive mindset and make sure we attack any obstacle that’s in front of us. We want to attack our goals and meet our goals.

"The biggest thing is every day they have to be better than the day before."

Since that Grey Cup victory, the exact opposite has been true of the Argonauts, who fired head coach Marc Trestman after a disastrous 4-14 campaign in 2018. Toronto lost nine of its last 10 games and finished 0-9 on the road.

Chamblin had moved on to become an assistant at the University of Arkansas after the Grey Cup win, and had no idea he’d be back in double blue so soon — or at all.

"Football is something else. It’s a crazy game," he said. "When I left I didn’t have eyes to return … I didn’t think it would turn the way it did, but it turned.

"Professionally it turned in my favour to be a head coach again."

Chamblin was Saskatchewan’s head coach for 3 1/2 seasons, leading the Roughriders to a Grey Cup victory in 2013.

But he was handed his walking papers after an 0-9 start to the 2015 campaign, finishing with an combined regular-season and playoff record of 34-34.

The soon-to-be-42-year-old will also reassume his defensive co-ordinator role with the Argonauts, a unit that allowed a league-worst 560 points in 2018. The previous season under his guidance, Toronto had six East Division all-stars and tied for the CFL lead with 50 sacks.

"We’ve watched film to see some of the things that may have went wrong," said Chamblin, the league’s coach of the year in 2013 with Saskatchewan. "You have to move forward and create anew."

With that in mind, quarterback James Franklin will be given every opportunity to grab hold of the starting job after letting it slip through his fingers last season when veteran pivot Rick Ray went down with what would turn into a career-ending neck injury.

Franklin was eventually benched in favour of McLeod Bethel-Thompson, who remains No. 2 on the depth chart, but is looking for a fresh start under a new coach, a new offensive co-ordinator in Jacques Chapdelaine, and another weapon in free-agent wide receiver Derel Walker.

Chamblin and Franklin spoke on the phone four times during the off-season and are on the same page with camp now in full swing.

"His personality’s aggressive … mine’s smiling," Franklin said. "That’s been helping me because he’s building my confidence and also challenging me to be stronger mentally."

Chamblin, who has also held assistant coaching roles with Winnipeg, Calgary and Hamilton, said he’s grown since his time in Saskatchewan. He emphasized that although he maintains his core values, it’s always important to move forward.

"You see things in a different light," Chamblin said. "You see where you can get better. We did a good job in the past.

"But like anything else, you’ve got to look at it, review it and grow from it."

Lemon can’t wait to see where that path leads with his old/new boss back patrolling the sidelines.

"The energy he brings to the team, the mindset he instills is great," Lemon said. "I’m excited for where we’re going to go."