CFL Pass

Vanstone: Roughriders are looking much better at quarterback

Isaac Harker is the rare miner who would rather operate without a pick.

Harker, who erupted for 39 touchdown passes in 12 games with the Colorado School of Mines Orediggers last year, has cracked the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ opening-day roster after an impressive, interception-free CFL pre-season.

“This has been the dream since I was really little, so it means everything to have the opportunity to play football and affect people in positive ways and play a game that I love so much with people I really enjoy being around,” Harker said after Sunday’s practice at Mosaic Stadium. “So I’m lucky.”

And the Roughriders are fortunate, in that much-needed clarity exists with regard to the all-important quarterbacking position.

“If I’d said at the start of training camp, ‘What do we want to have accomplished at the end of training camp?’, comfort level at quarterback would probably have been the highest one,” general manager Jeremy O’Day said Saturday after announcing the final cuts.

“You’re hoping as you go through training camp that the guys establish themselves, and it’s not always the case. Sometimes you go (into training camp) and it muddles it even more than you thought. But in this case, it just became clear as camp went on with the order that it was going and the direction that it was going.”

There does appear to be some direction after a 2018 season in which the Roughriders threw a league-worst 11 touchdown passes.

Zach Collaros, the incumbent starter, may actually have a chance to enjoy sustained success now that the Roughriders’ decision-makers have upgraded the weaponry and, presumably, tweaked the philosophy on offence.

William Powell, for example, gives Saskatchewan the elite tailback it lacked last season.

With defences having to honour the run, that should create more opportunities for Collaros to connect with receivers Naaman Roosevelt, K.D. Cannon, Shaq Evans, Kyran Moore, Cory Watson and, eventually, Manny Arceneaux.

Collaros excelled in his sole pre-season appearance, completing 10 of 15 passes for 163 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception, during Thursday’s 35-29 loss to the visiting Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

Six days earlier, in a 37-1 loss to the host Calgary Stampeders, Cody Fajardo had won the No. 2 quarterbacking spot by going 10-for-12. An established short-yardage specialist, Fajardo also rushed for a one-yard TD on Thursday.

Harker was THE revelation of the pre-season finale. He directed two touchdown drives while completing five of nine passes for 74 yards, with one touchdown.

Each of those quarterbacks made an emphatic statement during the pre-season, enabling the Roughriders to establish a precise pecking order — Collaros, Fajardo, Harker — without anyone backing into a roster spot or receiving one by default.

“I thought there was clear separation — one, two and three,” head coach Craig Dickenson said one day after the releases of veteran quarterback David Watford and rookie signal-caller Ty Gangi were announced.

“It was difficult letting David go, but I felt like the top three guys clearly established themselves.”

Compare that to the 2018 pre-season, in which Saskatchewan’s five quarterbacks — Collaros, Watford, Brandon Bridge, B.J. Daniels and Marquise Williams — went a collective 37-for-85 for 486 yards, with one touchdown and five interceptions.

Last year’s pre-season completion percentage: 43.5.

This year: 61.3.

In 2018, it could not be stated that one Roughriders pivot performed exceptionally in either exhibition game. The best showing was by Watford, who went 9-for-17 for 172 yards, with one TD and one pick, in the pre-season finale.

Also in that game, Collaros went 6-for-16 for 41 yards before being sidelined by a jarring hit. Bridge was 2-for-5 for 21 yards.

Despite the small sample size, the Roughriders’ second pre-season game of 2018 foretold the miseries that the offence would encounter.

Collaros left that June 8, 2018 game after absorbing a hit to the head — a contributor to the concussion-like symptoms he experienced during Week 2 of the regular season. He ended missing five full games, including a playoff contest, due to concussions.

Nonetheless, he was re-signed — amid much skepticism — after O’Day aggressively, albeit unsuccessfully, tried to Bo Levi Mitchell away from Calgary.

Collaros looks much more comfortable with the offence as a second-year Roughrider, the notable exception being a controlled training-camp scrimmage in which he went 1-for-10 before an enthusiastic audience in Saskatoon.

“The only day that I thought Zach was not consistent was the day we had Fan Day,” O’Day noted.

“I had pumped him up right before the game about how well he was doing in camp, and then he goes out on Fan Day, of all days, and has a rough day. He came back the next day and he was great again. He has been impressive.”

(What is it about Fan Day? At that event in 2017, former NCAA and NFL star Vince Young blew a hamstring. End of comeback. End of tangent. Onwards …)

Considering the demonstrated fragility of Collaros, it is imperative that the Roughriders employ a competent No. 2 quarterback.

Bridge met that criteria in 2017, when he effectively backed up Kevin Glenn, but regressed last year. The Roughriders’ ultra-conservative play-calling didn’t help Bridge’s cause in 2018.

In any event, the Roughriders opted against re-signing Bridge — who was released by the Toronto Argonauts on the weekend — and added Fajardo via free agency.

“Cody, with the opportunities that he has had, has been what we had hoped for when we signed him,” O’Day said. “We had a small sample of him playing in the games (in three previous CFL seasons).

“We knew that he could do, of course, the short yardage and that he’s a good runner, but just because he has had success (as a short-yardage quarterback), people think that’s what he is. I think he’s a better quarterback than what we’ve been able to see.

“Whether it’s in college or in the CFL or in the pre-season or in training camp, he’s had success and done well. He’s smart and he’s a good guy and he fits in our locker room.

“And then you’ve got Harker, who’s just emotional. He’s just a fireplug and excited and brings energy.

“It’s a good group overall. They have played well and we’re counting on them to be good. We believe in those guys and that’s what we’re going with.”

The pre-season performances of all three passers provide a semblance of comfort leading up to Thursday’s regular-season opener against the host Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

“Versus them not playing well, I guess we can feel as comfortable as we want today, but it just changes so fast,” O’Day said, speaking from experience.

“They could have played bad in the pre-season and started the regular season good, right? They could play good in the pre-season and not play well in the regular season. Hopefully the past performance, in this case, is going to carry over into the regular season.

“We feel good about our three guys and we’re happy that Zach got in there and had a decent game and got hit a couple of times and knocked off the cobwebs. I think he’s excited for the season.

“Cody did well enough in the first game and also in training camp that we felt like he had locked up that position. Then the battle really was for the Number 3 spot.”

That spot was nailed down by Harker, whose performance on Thursday sparked speculation about whether the Roughriders have mined a gem.