CFL Pass

O'Leary: Als' QB contest could go down to the wire

When he’s taken the snap on first-team reps over the last two weeks, Antonio Pipkin has been impressed by what he’s seen.

“Looking at our team, some of our veteran guys, we’ve got all-stars on the defensive side of the ball,” the 23-year-old quarterback said.

It’s been a long four playoff-free years for the Montreal Alouettes. Pipkin was there for last year’s five-win campaign and he wants it to be the team’s last one. As he’s looked into the heart of the Als defence, he sees what could be an impactful group.

He sees ballhawks in the backfield, in Taylor Loffler and two former Calgary Stampeders. Ciante Evans is new, having followed 2018 free-agent signee Tommie Campbell to Montreal. He sees second-year Alouette Henoc Muamba anchoring the linebackers, now joined by Bo Lokombo.

» Preview: Argos, Als set for rare 11 a.m. start» Franklin turning the page after ‘miserable’ 2018
» Depth Charts: MTL | TOR

Then there are the players he’s trying to get the ball to. He started to build chemistry with B.J. Cunningham, T.J. Graham and Eugene Lewis last season. The signing of 2018 Grey Cup MVP DeVier Posey, he said, has changed the feel of the offence already.

“It brings a certain level of expectation. (There’s) a certain standard that he’s brought into practice,” Pipkin said.

“From the time we step out there until the time we get off, it’s a different energy. It’s like you’re looking around and seeing guys and trying to figure out where’s DeVier? You see him and he’s catching extra balls or his warmup is extensive, so it’s like, ‘OK I’ve got to step it up or make sure I’m always locked in.

“It’s a veteran guy that’s been to the Grey Cup and experienced it. You have to latch onto that a little bit.”

As the Als march through this training camp and into their first pre-season game (Thursday at 11 a.m. at Varsity field at the University of Toronto against the Argos), they want to latch onto the right things. It’s been a rough four years and everyone involved with the team knows it. The games don’t count for the Als until June 14, when they open their season in Edmonton, but they want to get as many things right as possible to start the season on the right foot.

“It feels different but we’re building on what we had last year,” Als coach Mike Sherman said of his quarterback stable. After getting the majority of the reps — Sherman would argue it’s a slim majority — Pipkin will get the start on Thursday against the Argos.

“There’s a little more knowledge that they came into camp with that they didn’t have last year, necessarily, so it is different from that standpoint.”

Last year’s Als rolled through all of their quarterback options, due to a combination of injuries mounting, the Johnny Manziel trade and evaluating players in their final games after being eliminated from playoff contention. Thursday’s game should help Sherman and his staff zero in on their guy.

After Pipkin gets some work in, expect to see Jeff Matthews, Matt Shiltz, Vernon Adams Jr. and potentially the team’s two Canadian QBs, Hugo Richard and Chris Merchant.

“I wish I had it sorted out already,” Sherman joked.

“It’s a tough decision because there are really four good quarterbacks and I feel good about each one of them.

“I’m sure whoever we end up picking, the other three will say, ‘I thought I was the best one,’ and they can make an argument for it.”

Posey comes to the Als hoping to be a part of another rebound season. In his first year in the CFL in 2016, the Argos won a league-worst five games. They turned it around and won the Grey Cup a year later.

“The CFL is so up and down,” he said. “When I first got to the Argos we were pretty bad too, so we dealt with a lot of the same kind of conversations. It’s about getting hot at the right time, building chemistry, building camaraderie.”

In Pipkin, he sees a talented young QB. Should he get a commitment from the coaching staff as the starter, Posey sees someone that could take off.

“Any time a young guy gets to be in an offence for two straight years you see maturity and you see the reads coming easily and him just being comfortable. I’m excited for him,” Posey said.

“I’m excited for the year he’s going to have and just for him as a leader.”

Go to any training camp in the league right now and you’ll find a player that will tell you why his team has a shot, but Posey sees an East Division that’s wide open and up for grabs.

“It’s wide open like it is every year,” he said.

“The way I look at the East in the CFL is the same way I look at the East in the NBA. It’s whoever can play well that year.”

The team took the train in from Montreal on Wednesday morning. They arrived at Union Station and walked through Jurassic Park, where Raptors fans will file in by the thousands to cheer on the East team that played better than everyone else this year. In the CFL more than any other sports league, anything can happen. Posey knows it firsthand and it’s a message he’ll share with his new teammates throughout this year.

“In terms of what we got going at the back end of last year, we’re trying to keep that same energy and roll it into this year and set a standard now,” Pipkin said.

“We’re not hoping to win, we’re expecting to win. We’re not hoping to make the big play, we’re going to expect to make them.”