05/09/2012 05:55 EDT | Updated 07/09/2012 05:12 EDT

Alouettes hope Calvillo's return, rebuilt defence will help earn another Grey Cup

MONTREAL - The Montreal Alouettes have undergone a rebuild in the off-season but only on one side of the ball _ the defence.

Being bounced in the East Division semifinal by Hamilton last fall after winning Grey Cups the previous two seasons prompted general manager Jim Popp to drop some veterans and bring new blood into the defence going into the 2012 campaign.

''We've gone through our 16 seasons (since the club returned to Montreal) making (the team) over a handful of times and what we've been fortunate to do is still win and participate in playoff games,'' Popp said Wednesday during a conference call.

Gone are defensive linemen Anwar Stewart and Eric Wilson and linebacker Ramon Guzman, among others. And free-agent defensive back Mark Estelle has yet to sign.

The moves came after the club finished second in the East behind the Winnipeg Blue Bombers with a 10-8 record, which would be considered a decent season by most teams, but not the Alouettes.

And the defensive troubles last season were at least partly due to injuries that saw four of the five starters in the backfield as well as middle linebacker Shea Emry all miss a significant part of the season.

The offence marched along as ever, with veteran quarterback Anthony Calvillo becoming pro football's career passing leader and Jamel Richardson and Brandon Whitaker leading the league in receiving and rushing yards, respectively.

Fullback Kerry Carter was released and receiver Kerry Watkins retired, but Calvillo, who turns 40 in August, has announced he'll be back. Most of the offence remains intact.

''Football operations has been quite exciting this off-season, and challenging with some tough decisions we've had to make, to say the least,'' said Popp. ''We've had some coaching departures.

''We've had player changes. Some guys who have been with our club a few years have been let go due to some scheme changes.''

Coach Marc Trestman has a new offensive co-ordinator in Marcus Brady, replacing Scott Milanovich who is now the head coach in Toronto, and a new defensive co-ordinator in former Winnipeg head coach Jeff Reinebold.

Trestman said he has no plans to cut back Calvillo's playing time to rest his aging body or give backup Adrian McPherson extra snaps.

''We're going to play Anthony as long as he wants to play and it'll be up to him if we make any changes,'' said Trestman, back for a fifth season. ''We'll monitor his arm as we work through training camp.

''He'll have minimal if any playing time in the pre-season and then we'll see how things go. As far as Anthony goes, he's got to get ready to play a season and this is the only season that matters. We'll work together with him to make sure we're doing the right things. We don't expect to operate any differently than we have in the past.''

There are several new defensive players but Trestman said returnees John Bowman, Moton Hopkins, J.P. Bekasiak and Daunte Akra have the starting jobs on the line going into camp. Guzman's work will mostly be handled by Emry's return and Bear Woods, who joined late last season.

Jerald Brown, Dwight Anderson, Billy Parker and safety Etienne Boulay return in the secondary.

Popp was most optimistic about a new crop of mostly American players he signed.

''We have this negotiation list in the league and some years you might get one or two off that list, and other years you might hit the jackpot and get 10 or 15,'' he said. ''We seem to have hit the jackpot this season. It seems to come at the right time with all the movement.''

They include defensive linemen Ventrell Jenkins and Tremaine Johnson, linebacker Kenny Ingram, running back Noel Devine and receiver Felton Huggins.

The team also signed some strong veterans, including defensive lineman Aaron Hunt from British Columbia and linebacker Mark Restelli from Edmonton. They also got six-foot-three defensive back Kyries Hebert, a former CFL player who spent several years in the NFL.

''He was a CFL player before he went to the NFL so he knows what it's about,'' Popp said of Hebert. ''Kyries contacted us and what attracted us was his versatility.

''He's played halfback, safety, middle linebacker and he's an outstanding special teams player. The first thing I liked is that he wants to be an Alouette.''

Carter's departure may leave an opening for Patrick Lavoie, the Laval University fullback who was Montreal's top draft pick, although it is unlikely that a rookie will step into a starting job.

''He has the potential to come in and help (mainly) on special teams, in my opinion,'' said Popp. ''Our offensive system is extremely complex. We'll see how quick of a learner he is.''

Popp feels rather than being a former power in decline, the Alouettes were as much of a contender as ever last season despite their injuries on defence. But he felt it was time to make changes anyway.

Keeping the club inside the salary cap was likely at least part of the motivation for cutting veterans, although Popp didn't mention that.

''Any year we don't win the championship I'm not very happy,'' he said. ''We had a team even last year that had a chance to win it, but a lot had to happen.

''Hamilton just beat us that day. That's how I look at it.''