SPORTS

Rookie head coach Chamblin says Durant will be his starter this season

05/10/2012 05:46 EDT | Updated 07/10/2012 05:12 EDT
There will be no quarterback controversy in Corey Chamblin's first training camp as a CFL head coach.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders signed young guns Colt Brennan, J.T. O'Sullivan, Levi Brown and Drew Willy this off-season but they'll be vying for backup duty as Chamblin says veteran Darian Durant remains the starter.

"In my mind I know who the No. 1 quarterback will be and that's Darian Durant," Chamblin said during a conference call Thursday. "Like any other position there are moves so we can be competitive all across the board, but Darian is our leader.

"We believe in him and we know he will take us where we need to go and where we want to go.''

Durant, 29, has been Saskatchewan's starter the last three seasons and led the club to consecutive Grey Cup appearances in 2009-10. The seven-year veteran was a dual threat in 2010, passing for a league-best 5,542 yards while rushing for 618 yards and seven TDs.

But Durant's production slipped in a miserable 2011 season that saw the Riders fire rookie coach Greg Marshall after a 1-7 start en route to a league-worse 5-12 record to miss the CFL playoffs for the first time since 2001. Durant finished with 3,653 passing yards and 381 yards rushing with two TDs before missing the final two games with a broken bone in his foot.

Durant's struggles mirrored those of Saskatchewan's offence, which finished last overall in scoring (19.2 points per game) and second-last in total yards (327.3 per game).

"Obviously we were struggling on offence last year but there were a lot of reasons for that," general manager Brendan Taman said. "But our starting quarterback has been to the Grey Cup in two of the last three years and I don't foresee that to be luck.

"I think Darian put a lot on himself last year and it was unfair to him in some ways. He's only going to be as good as the people around him . . . Darian is going to be fine and behind him, we'll see where they go. I'd be a lot more worried right now if I was saying, 'Who is our starter?' but we're not in that boat.''

Saskatchewan showed its commitment to Durant, signing him to a three-year extension this off-season.

Chamblin and Taman were both involved in what was a whirlwind off-season for Saskatchewan. When Ken Miller retired as head coach and vice-president of football operations at season's end, Taman added the football operations post then hired Chamblin, who was a finalist behind Marshall for the Riders' coaching job last year.

Ironically, Chamblin also succeeded Marshall in Hamilton last year, replacing him as defensive co-ordinator when Marshall left for Saskatchewan.

The good news for Durant is Saskatchewan shored up its offensive line, signing centre Dominic Picard and tackle Brendon LaBatte as free agents before re-signing Chris Best and drafting Ben Heenan of the Saskatchewan Huskies first overall. However veteran Gene Makowsky retired after an illustrious 17-year career.

There'll be a change behind Durant, too, as the club didn't re-sign veteran tailback Wes Cates. Sophomore Brandon West, who averaged 5.2 yards per carry last season, is expected to see more action.

The Riders will also be minus veteran slotbacks Andy Fantuz (free agent to Hamilton) and Jason Clermont (retired). Former NFL receiver Sinorice Moss signed with Saskatchewan this off-season and Chamblin has big plans for the former Miami Hurricane, who was a 2006 second-round pick of the New York Giants.

"He's a guy with speed, a lot of speed," Chamblin said. "We look to him to be a big-time playmaker because that's what he was in college and he's done some of those things in the NFL.

"I think once he learns this game and allows his speed to take over, he'll be a plus for us probably in the return game and also on offence.''

The Riders are also hopeful about a healthy return by slotback Rob Bagg. The former Queen's star has required season-ending surgery on the same right knee the past two years and missed the entire 2011 campaign.

Chamblin was encouraged to see the 27-year-old native of Kingston, Ont., running well during the club's recent mini-camp.

"He was full speed, he was energetic, he caught the ball well," Chamblin said. "He's definitely renewed and wants to regain his form.''

Questions exist on defence, especially at linebacker where all three of last year's starters are gone. Jerrell Freeman (CFL-high 105 tackles, team-high six sacks) signed with the NFL's Indianapolis Colts while veteran Sean Lucas retired and the club accommodated Barrin Simpson's request to be released at season's end.

Former Rider Maurice Lloyd did rejoin the club in December after not playing in 2011.

Saskatchewan looked to boost its pass rush by acquiring defensive end Odell Willis from Winnipeg. Willis had 13 sacks last season to finish tied for the league lead but his production dropped significantly the second half of the year.

Willis was also arrested last month and charged with impaired driving in Georgia. He is scheduled to make his first court appearance May 22.

That raises questions about Willis's ability to re-enter Canada but Taman said the club is monitoring the situation.

"That's in the hands of the immigration people and his lawyer," Taman said. "We're on track with knowing all that information and a couple of weeks away from finding out exactly what's going to happen.''

With or without Willis, Chamblin doesn't plan to change his desire to employ a pressure defence, saying a relentless pass rush is a big part of that. Saskatchewan only posted 29 sacks last year, just two ahead of Calgary (league-low 27) and well behind Winnipeg (CFL-high 55 sacks).

"The most important position in the CFL is the quarterback . . . we have to affect him and the way we affect him is with pass rush," Chamblin said. "Defensive pass rush is huge in making sure they don't have time to be comfortable and make the decisions they want to.''

So must a defence sack the quarterback to be effective?

"That's the argument we've had in the defensive room," Chamblin said with a chuckle. "I like pressure but I like sacks even more because then I know he (quarterback) has the ball and is on his back.

"Sacks can be misleading but if you have 50 sacks you probably have that many more pressures. We want to make sure we disrupt him through pressures and sacks.''

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