There was always one constant in Montreal, one of the main reasons why the Als competed for as long as they did, one key presence who always made the team worthy of Grey Cup consideration.
In three-down football, teams are only as good as their Canadian talent and depth while no team will win a championship or be in the hunt for a title without a quality quarterback.
In Anthony Calvillo, the Als would always begin any season with a head start, a calming presence, a proven winner whose absence will now be filled by either Troy Smith or Tanner Marsh.
The Als got a glimpse of life without A.C. during last year’s season of upheaval and injury, a crash-and-burn kind of football experience that featured a rookie CFL head coach, but a stout defence that would rank among the best.
The Als would end their season in Guelph, where the host Ticats required overtime and a non-call in the end zone that should have resulted in a pass interference penalty to advance to the East final.
It’s a big if, but if the Als can establish consistency at quarterback, they’ll be once again knocking on the door of a East Division title and a berth in the Grey Cup.
Tom Higgins is back as a head coach, taking over a program in Montreal where the roster has undergone what could be best described as a tweak.
With so many injuries to front-line, established players last season, a lot of relatively unknown players were given an opportunity, namely Smith and Marsh.
In GM Jim Popp, there’s no better executive in finding talent, no one more adept at addressing a roster need in Montreal than the man who virtually assembled all the pieces.
Make no mistake about the Als being relevant and competitive, refusing to hide behind any excuse.
Higgins knows how the league operates given his time as its director of officiating, has a good grasp on the talent in the CFL and exudes this joy at being back on familiar footing, away from the office life that was his football existence.
At a recent mini-camp, Smith took most of the first-team reps with Marsh not far behind, a scenario Higgins envisions when camp rolls around, assuming players have a new contract.
During an availability Tuesday with members of the national media, Higgins was asked the inevitable question about his quarterback depth chart.
“That’s very premature,? Higgins said. “Everything’s written in pencil.?
There’s an experienced arm under contract in Alex Brink, last seen in Winnipeg, a low-maintenance, high-character pro whom the Argos brought to their mini-camp last season.
There’s a potential star in waiting in Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein, whom the Als recently signed.
As of today, it boils down to Troy Smith and Tanner Marsh.
“Troy and Tanner will be competing nose to nose,? Higgins said.
Eventually, Higgins will have to name an incumbent, but that time isn’t now.
As someone who has been around the league for as long as he has, Higgins knows how a team must have two quarterbacks to turn to in an 18-game schedule.
Popp ended last season as the Als’ interim head coach, filling in for the ill-fated Dan Hawkins.
For as long as Popp has guided the Als, there’s always been this question of finding a replacement for Calvillo.
There was a plan in place for Calvillo to replace Tracy Ham, a decision that would pave the way for countless seasons of success.
What offers Popp encouragement is how Marsh and Smith both lead the Als to wins last season, how each endeared themselves to their teammates.
“I feel very good about it,? Popp said of his quarterbacks.
He also feels good about the Als roster, which did its main makeover last off-season.
Like any executive, Popp can’t control injuries and the Als were hit hard last season, especially on offence in virtually all areas on the field — quarterback, tailback, offensive line and at receiver.
Defensively, the Als need to find someone to replace Shea Emry, who signed a free-agent deal with the Argos this off-season.
Emry, a non-import, is a ratio-changer, his absence forcing the Als to look at different options when managing their roster.
Jamel Richardson and Brandon Whittaker are back, but it remains to be seen if these two quality offensive players are back to their stellar ways.
Popp brought back Larry Taylor, a special-teams dynamo who had some great seasons in Calgary, a key addition Popp hopes will jump-start a special teams unit that regressed last season.
Popp also mentioned on Tuesday how he’d like to see Duron Carter get some touches in the return game following his breakthrough season last year.
Assuming the locker room is conducive to winning, the Als will be good, even as the quarterback situation resurfaces.
“I think people will be pleasantly surprised at how good the Montreal Alouettes will be out of the gate,? Higgins said.