TORONTO - Head coach Scott Milanovich anticipated the Toronto Argonauts defending their Grey Cup title with a few new faces on defence, but even he couldn't have predicted such a major off-season overhaul.
The Argos will kick off their 2013 season against the arch-rival Hamilton Tiger-Cats with just four starters from the defensive unit that helped Toronto capture the 100th Grey Cup eight months ago.
"We didn't expect as much (turnover) as we had," Milanovich said in advance of Friday's game at Rogers Centre. "But in this game you've got to expect turnover and injuries and that's what happened.
"Fortunately Jim (Argos GM Jim Barker) and his staff had us prepared for it."
Barker was certainly busy tweaking Toronto's defence with the off-season departures of defensive linemen Kevin Huntley (released), Ron Flemons (released), Armondo Armstead (New England Patriots, NFL), Ricky Foley (free agent, Saskatchewan) and Adriano Belli (retired), linebacker Ejiro Kuale (free agent, Montreal) and defensive backs Evan McCollough (free agent, Hamilton) and Jordan Younger (retired).
That leaves linebackers Brandon Issac, Robert McCune and Marcus Ball along with cornerbacks Jahlil Carter and Pat Watkins as the lone holdovers from last year. However, Watkins only started practising this week after missing training camp dealing with personal matters in Florida and will have to reclaim his starting position.
Barker's biggest off-season acquisition — literally and figuratively — was landing defensive tackle Khalif Mitchell from the B.C. Lions. The six-foot-five, 315-pound Mitchell has proven himself — he's a former all-star and Grey Cup champion — but was suspended twice last year by the CFL for incidents on and off the field.
Barker also added defensive lineman Jermaine Reid (trade, Edmonton) and linebacker James Yurichuk (free agent, B.C.) while welcoming defensive lineman Cleyon Laing and linebacker Herve Tonye-Tonye. Both were 2012 draft picks who returned to school last fall.
Laing made Toronto's active roster while Tonye-Tonye begins the season on the practice roster.
But it's the linebacking crew that will make the defence go and provide the unit's leadership .
McCune posted a team-high 86 tackles last season, 13 more than Ball. Watkins was third with 67 tackles while finishing tied with Younger with a team-high five interceptions.
Issac was fifth in 43 tackles but added four sacks, tops among the Argos' linebackers, and will serve as a defensive captain.
"He (Isaac) has always been vocal but he's more vocal this year from a leadership standpoint," Milanovich said. "He has to bring his energy every day because he's a sparkplug for us.
"They (linebackers) have been great leaders and all three of them are different players but seem to get the job done. I think we'll be strong up the middle and those guys are going to have to be the glue that holds us together."
Barker said while Toronto's new-look defence will definitely be younger and athletic in 2013, that will come at a price.
"They love playing," he said. "They're gym rats, they're in the film room all the time.
"I think we'll be a little faster, we'll be younger but we'll make mistakes."
Having a quick, athletic defence certainly plays into the hands of Argos defensive co-ordinator Chris Jones, who likes rotating players in and out of sometimes very creative schemes. Last season, Jones often had Foley — who had 12 sacks in '09 with B.C. — drop back into coverage to fully utilize the six-foot-three, 256-pound defensive end's athleticism.
"With the Canadian talent we have it changes how we do things so I think you'll see those guys playing at different times and that's one thing Chris does a great job of," Barker said. "He rotates guys and keeps them fresh and I think you'll see different guys involved in different rotations.''
Offensively, Toronto will feature many familiar faces, most notably quarterback Ricky Ray, receivers Chad Owens and Andre Durie, running back Chad Kackert and offensive linemen Jeff Keeping and Chris Van Zyl.
The five-foot-eight, 180-pound Owens was the CFL's outstanding player last year after leading the league in all-purpose yards (3,863) and receiving (94 catches, 1,328 yards, six TDs). Durie, a native of Mississauga, Ont., was the club's No. 2 receiver with 70 catches for 842 yards and five TDs.
On Tuesday, Owens signed a contract extension that will keep him in Toronto through the 2015 campaign.
Kackert also returns, re-signing as a free agent after being named the Grey Cup MVP.
However, it's Ray who makes the Argos offence tick. After a slow start to the 2012 campaign — his first with Toronto — Ray ended with a bang, passing for 869 yards and five TDs in the club's two playoff games and the Grey Cup.
The 33-year-old signed an extension with Toronto this off-season through 2015. Although Ray will have a new offensive co-ordinator in former Montreal assistant Marcus Brady, Ray said having a year under his belt should allow the Argos to start 2013 much stronger than they did last year.
"Last year I was learning from scratch and just trying to figure out what I was doing out there," he said. "I had no experience with the offence, I didn't really know what to expect or how I was going to do.
"This year, I'm going to be able to carry over things we worked on last year and any tweaks we want to make, I won't have to worry about where guys are lining up or what I'm supposed to do."
The 2012 season was definitely one to remember for Milanovich, who capped his rookie head coaching campaign by being named the CFL's coach of the year. But Milanovich has quickly put last year's exploits in his rearview mirror.
"It's a new year," he said. "I look at it as another year and another opportunity to win a Grey Cup.
"I'm very anxious to turn the page.''