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Alouettes expecting big things from its new and improved secondary

EDMONTON — Veteran defensive-back Tommie Campbell surveyed the field at an Alouettes practice this week and declared: “This is the best group of defensive backs I’ve ever played with.”

The defensive backfield was one of the areas general manager Kavis Reed wanted to strengthen during the off-season and now there is no shortage of talent. Reed added Canadian Taylor Loffler, a three-time CFL all-star. He also signed Ciante Evans and Patrick Levels, both of whom previously played with Loffler in Calgary. Throw in Marcus Cromartie, a veteran of half-dozen NFL camps, and American rookie Ryan Carter and you have the makings of a very good secondary.

The Alouettes will get an idea of how good these guys can be Friday when they open their regular season against the Edmonton Eskimos (9 p.m. TSN, RDS, TSN-690 Radio).

For the first time since 2012, Mike Reilly will not be the starting quarterback for the Eskimos. He moved  to B.C. as a free agent in the off-season, but the Eskimos have found a capable replacement in Trevor Harris, who  spent the past three seasons in Ottawa. He passed for more than 5,000 yards last season and led the Redblacks to the Eastern Conference title before losing to Calgary in the Grey Cup game.

“I know Trevor and I know (receiver Greg) Ellingson and I know what they can do, but we have some good players here,” Campbell said. “It’s not just the secondary, it’s also the guys up front. We have to do it as a team. The guys up front help us by putting pressure on the QB and we have to give them soma extra time by covering the receivers. We all have to work together.”

Veteran John Bowman will be at one defensive end spot and the other will be manned by newcomer Antonio Simmons from Georgia Tech by way of the Atlanta Legends of the ill-fated Alliance of American Football.

Simmons is adjusting to lining up one yard off the ball and guarding against sweeps on the wider field, but he ran a 4.48-second 40-yard dash in the NHL combine last year and has the quickness needed to play the Canadian game.

The Als won’t have to deal with Duke Williams, who caught 88 passes for more than 1,500 yards last season. He has gone to the Buffalo Bills and that marks the third consecutive year the Eskimo have lost a 1,500-yard receiver to the NFL.

Both teams are hoping to recover from poor seasons. The Alouettes, who have lost 10 consecutive games to the Eskimos, were 5-13 last season and missed the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season. Since then, owner Bob Wetenhall has surrendered the franchise to the league and head coach Mike Sherman was dismissed last week and replaced by Khari Jones, who is also the offensive coordinator and the quarterbacks and receivers coach. He’s hoping to find someone to work with the receivers while the team enjoys a bye next week.

The Eskimos slumped in the second half last season and finished last in the Western Conference with a 9-9 record. The result was a massive housecleaning in the off-season and 27 of the 46 players on the Edmonton roster are new to the team.