Neither time or the COVID-19 pandemic have diminished Khari Jones’s optimism for the Montreal Alouettes.
The Alouettes exceeded all expectations in 2019 by finishing second in the East Division with a 10-8 record in Jones’s first year as head coach. That earned Montreal its first winning season since 2012 and ended the franchise’s five-year playoff drought.
And although Montreal’s promising season ended with a 37-29 home loss to Edmonton in the East Division semifinal, the future certainly looked bright for the club. However, almost two years have passed, as the CFL didn’t play in 2020 due to the global pandemic but is scheduled to resume action Aug. 5 with a 14-game campaign.
“I think we’re going to be a very quality football team,” Jones said during a videoconference this week. “I don’t worry about what other teams think, I just don’t and I don’t think about them all that much … I just worry about this team.
“That helped me in 2019 when everything was going on around. You just deal with it and that’s the same way I’m going to deal with this season. If we put the people that I think we can put out on the field, I think we’re going to be able to compete with anybody and I think we’re going to win a lot of games.”
Jones, 50, became a CFL head coach under less than ideal circumstances. He assumed the job less than a week before the start of the 2019 campaign when Mike Sherman was fired.
Antonio Pipkin opened that year as Montreal’s starter before suffering a leg injury in a season-opening loss to Edmonton. Veteran Vernon Adams Jr. took over under centre and never looked back, posting a 10-5 record while passing for 3,942 yards, 24 TDs with 13 interceptions and rushing for 12 touchdowns, tying him for the league lead.
Jones, a former CFL quarterback and the league’s outstanding player in 2001, doesn’t see Adams taking a step back in 2021.
“Vernon is as dialed in as anyone I’ve ever been around, he’s ready to go,” Jones said. “I have no worries that he’s going to be the quarterback we need him to be.
“I think we’ve just scratched the surface of how good he can be in this league.”
Should any of Montreal’s quarterbacks have any issues in 2021, they can lean on their head coach.
“There’s no situation they’ve been in that I can’t at least relate to,” Jones said. “When you have some success you think, ‘Hey, I can play this game, I know what’s going on, I feel good about things,’ and you stop learning, you stop growing.
“Teams look at film, they see your tendencies, they figure out what gives you problems and they do more of that. The biggest thing is they have to remember you’re always learning in this position every year.”
Montreal’s offence received a big boost this off-season with the return of American running back William Stanback. The six-foot, 233-pound Stanback ran for 1,048 yards in 2019 before spending time in 2020 with the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders.
“I think we’ll be OK building on what we had in 2019,” said Stanback. “There’s a lot of guys coming back so we already know what we’re capable of doing.
“I’m so excited just coming back here and having the opportunity to be a leader … I don’t even have the words to explain how I feel. I’m just ready to get on the field.”
Stanback won’ have to wait much longer as CFL training camps open Saturday.
Jones, who also calls Montreal’s offensive plays, said Stanback’s presence will give him a lot of flexibility during games.
“It’s nice because teams can’t think we’re going to do one thing or the other,” he said. “It allows me a lot of leeway as a play-caller to be able to call running plays when people might think I would throw passes and vice versa.
“When you have confidence that you can gain those tough yards and can gain big yards at times, it opens a world of possibilities. We tasted that a little bit in 2019 and I think we’ll grow from there.”
But like other CFL teams, the Alouettes have some holes to fill with off-season retirements and roster moves. Canadian offensive linemen Jason Lauzon-Seguin, Trey Rutherford and Zach Wilkinson all hung up their cleats. Montreal opted against offering veteran defensive lineman John Bowman a contract and Canadian linebacker Henoc Muamba signed with Toronto as a free agent.
American receiver Quan Bray remains on the suspended list. Bray was one of three men arrested in February 2020 in Texas after being found in possession of more than 70 kilograms of cannabis, but the Alouettes are hopeful he’ll eventually be allowed into Canada to rejoin the team.
“That’s what training camp is for,” Jones said. “A few years ago no one knew about Quan, no one knew about (sophomore American receiver) Jake Wieneke.
“There are a lot of guys who came into the fold and we’re expecting that new group of guys to come up. I’m really looking forward to it.”
Montreal will have to wait to open the ‘21 season as its first game is Aug. 14 in Edmonton.
“We’re trying to look at it as an advantage,” Jones said. “The more time our guys can spend together and be on the field together I think the better team we’ll be.
“Getting that first-week bye will give them a little bit of a rest after training camp … but we’ll have an opportunity to get back at it and see Edmonton a little bit before that first game and hopefully it goes well for us.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 7, 2021.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press