much has changed in last 12 months for RedBlacks

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A year ago, Marcel Desjardins was a one-man show.

Hired as GM of the expansion Ottawa Redblacks on Jan. 30, 2013, Desjardins faced the immense task of building a fledgling franchise's football operations department from scratch.

Roughly a year later, Desjardins not only has scouting and coaching staffs in place but also more than 40 players under contract a month before the start of CFL free agency.

"What's nice for me is instead of having to kind of think about 100 things, I can focus on maybe 10 of them and delegate the other 90," Desjardins said. "Scouting-wise we're doing what we do with film and free agents and setting up tryout camps and there's also the (CFL combine) and getting mini-camp ready.

"All those things must take place before the season can even occur and we still have some 30-some guys yet to sign. Trust me, it (the start of '14 CFL season) will be here before we know it."

The Redblacks will begin play this season just over six years after the CFL awarded Ottawa a conditional expansion franchise. In 2006, the league indefinitely suspended the former Ottawa Renegades club that was born six years following the demise of the iconic Rough Riders in '96.

Desjardins laid Ottawa's foundation with two major moves in December. He hired head coach Rick Campbell on Dec. 6, then less than a week later selected 24 players from existing rosters in the CFL expansion draft.

Desjardins' biggest acquisition was veteran quarterback Kevin Glenn from the Calgary Stampeders. But taking Hamilton Tiger-Cats centre Marwan Hage and receiver Rory Kohlert of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, both Canadians, were interesting moves.

Hage, a Beirut native who grew up in Montreal, spent his entire 10-year career in Hamilton and was disappointed when left unprotected. That prompted suggestions Hage might retire rather than go to Ottawa.

"I spoke with him and his comments to me were kind of he was in a state of shock/disappointment that he wasn't protected but understood it was a business," Desjardins said. "He gave no indication he wouldn't be playing.

"I'm not sure why he wouldn't want to keep playing. He's still young, he's still a good football player, there's still some pretty good income for him to get and he'd obviously be a very important part of what we're trying to build not only on the field with that group in terms of the offensive line but also what we're trying to do in the community as well."

Kohlert, 26, of Regina, had 45 catches for 493 yards and three TDs with Winnipeg but is slated to become a free agent Feb. 15. Desjardins said before the draft he didn't anticipate taking any free agents but made an exception with Kohlert.

"We've communicated with his agent and that's still ongoing," Desjardins said. "It became a function of there wasn't anybody active we felt was worth selecting so we took a player that was a free agent and we'd see how it worked out."

Given the expansion draft, more than 120 CFL players were slated to become free agents next month. Teams have been busy re-signing their own since then so Desjardins expects a more limited talent pool once free agency begins.

Still, Desjardins plans on being aggressive in his pursuit of available free agents he feels will improve Ottawa's roster.

"Teams will continue to try to keep their own and you can't blame them," Desjardins said. "Once the free agency deadline hits we'll have to be aggressive and put our best foot forward from the get-go so people understand we're serious about having them here.

"The biggest thing for us is . . . make sure we can sign a couple of guys who are going to be difference-makers for us."

But there's much more for Desjardins and his scouting staff to prepare for than the start of CFL free agency. There's evaluating and signing lesser-known American free agents while also scouting talent at the various American college all-star games.

There's also planning for the CFL combine (in Toronto in March), free-agent camps as well as the Redblacks' first-ever mini camp before the opening of training camp in June.

And last week there was visiting TD Place Stadium, the Redblacks' new home.

"We got to see how that's progressing," Desjardins said. "It's important our environment be as good as it can be for us, because the people that designed it in the very beginning weren't going to be the ones working there day to day. So it's important for us to go there and tweak things."

Also on Desjardins' plate is preparing for the 2014 CFL. Ottawa will not only have the No. 1 selection but make the first pick in each of the seven rounds. That means having to get up to speed quickly on the available prospects.

This week, the CFL Scouting Bureau unveiled its latest rankings and again McGill offensive tackle Laurent Duvernay-Tardif was No. 1 among the top-15 draft prospects. He and Manitoba defensive lineman Evan McGill, ranked No. 6, will play in the East-West Shrine game Saturday at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla.

"We have a good group of Canadians we were able to take through the expansion draft so now if we can build depth, that's important," Desjardins said. "If someday we're able to go with all Canadians across the board, that would be huge."

I wonder what he really means by this. Just a throw away comment or is there a plan in place to become a "Canadian" team?

He was referring to the Offensive line.

They seem to be well on their way then. Of 8 linemen signed, only one is an import.

They are certainly collecting enough bodies with varied experience and levels at this point in their careers. $ for sure on the line is very possible right now. that 5th LT spot is a tough one to find. Not that there are not Canadian players who could play LT but there just seems to be so many more imports who are better at this point and LT is not the spot on the Oline where you experiment.
Even Calagary brought federkill out of retirement and placed him at RT and not LT. J'M Deane who did play a good amount of time at RT over the last few seasons stayed at the more comfertable RT spot he started at at MICH St or over at LG. Homegrown Calagary Colt Spencer Wilson got solid time at both LT and LG in 2012 but in 2013 saw major time on the Oline but not at LT.
Stanley Bryant is just better at this point. Wilson is still very young and has already saw a ton of strting time on the Oline,he could eventually be a Canadian LT

And two excellent blocking fullbacks to go with them. They will likely draft Lavertu, Tardif or Foucault and at least one other and they have a real good chance at landing Parenteau during free agency. So they should have around 11 at camp. Which is amazing for an expansion franchise. They might be able to start four. Its too bad Tardif is likely to spend some time in the NFL. He could have started at tackle right away for Ottawa. He even said. He liked the Ottawa situation for him.

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Piecing together the parts for a CFL expansion franchise is anything but a 9 to 5 job.

Being able to think without much sleep one of those left-unsaid qualifications built into the job description for football operations people.

RedBlacks assistant GM Brock Sunderland doesn’t mind. He’s been in the NFL, as a scout with the New York Jets, and he’s worked with the Montreal Alouettes, but like the rest of the fired-up RedBlacks football ops employees who are working out of a temporary office on Industrial Ave, he’s excited to be part of this liftoff.

“Having a team from the start up — it’s rare you’re ever going to get the opportunity in professional football to have your hands on something from ground zero,? said the 34-year-old Sunderland, whose own college football career as a receiver/punt returner at the University of Montana was derailed by six knee surgeries.

The plan is for the RedBlacks to go into training camp in four months or so with 87 players. So far, about half of that sits on a RedBlacks depth chart in Sunderland’s office. Each day, they scan through the CFL’s daily status report, which updates signings, players cut, added or deleted from their neg lists.

“It’s daunting a bit, but exciting is a better word,? said Sunderland. “A lot of times you go to a team and the roster’s pretty well set. We’re hand picking these guys. Every player we have, we can look down and say we legitimately say this player can get us to where we want to get to, which is winning championships.?

Sunderland, along with GM Marcel Desjardins, scout Jeremy Snyder, Canadian scout Miles Gorrell, interns Patrick Bourgon and Joey Swarbrick, video co-ordinator Colin Farquharson and football administration co-ordinator Chantal Covington are trying to give coach Rick Campbell a solid team to work with out of the chute. Watching game film and watching more game film is a daily routine. The football ops folks have checked out four recent college football bowl games in the U.S. — the Medal of Honor Bowl in Charleston, the NFLPA Bowl in Los Angeles, the East West Shrine Game in St. Petersburg and the Dream Bowl in Virginia Beach. Four players were added to the team’s 35-man neg list as a result.

“We’re beating the bushes,? said Sunderland. “Ninety-nine percent of the guys we see at the all-star games are going to wait and see if they’re going to go to the NFL. You try to be strategic in who you put on your neg list.

“The way I try to phrase is you want the best of the rest. The guys you know are sure-fire NFL players, you’re probably going to avoid them unless something goes wrong during their career. You want the guys that have the talent and ability to play in the NFL, but they may just be missing something, whether it be height, ideal weight, school size, whatever it may be. But you want to get the best talent you think you can get as quickly as possible.

“The reality is they’re all going to want to play in the NFL. Some of these guys will get drafted, others will sign as free agents. They may get cut during NFL camps, they may want to wait and linger for tryouts, they may say ‘Ok, I’ll come up to the CFL,’ so you add them mid-season, or they may wait until next season. So it can be a year or longer process.

“We may not see a guy for 2-3 years. A good example is (quarterback) Troy Smith. The Alouettes had him on their neg list for years. Some guys, you’re just patient for. Other guys you see, they know where they fit and you sign them the next day.?

It can be a scramble, a race to the phone in some cases — with scouts from other CFL teams watching the same games. It’s first-come, first-served when it comes to players who are not already on another team’s neg list.

“There’s a player I saw at the NFLPA game,? said Sunderland. “I was immediately thinking not only might he come up here, but I think he immediately has all-star potential. I was at practice and immediately sent the transaction to the league office. It can be that quick where you see him and you have that ‘a-ha’ moment. Is he a guy that will go to an NFL camp? Probably. Will he stick? Maybe not. But I think he would be dynamite up here.?

San Jose State quarterback David Fales is one player on the RedBlacks’ neg list who may never play a game here. He could be chosen as early as the second round in this year’s NFL Draft. Or maybe not. Maybe last season’s five games of more than 400 yards passing, one game with six TD strikes, won’t mean anything in the NFL. Either way, the RedBlacks will wait and see. It’s worth the neg-list spot.

Sunderland said last month’s CFL expansion draft gave the RedBlacks some great building blocks. They will likely look to add a couple of big pieces to those building blocks in free agency, which begins Feb. 15.

“There are a couple of players we think would make an immediate impact and if they come to market, we’ll be aggressive,? said Sunderland.

The team, which has heard from guys hoping to play here from as far away as Australia, will hold five more tryout camps across the United States in March and April, then one in Ottawa.

Long hours and many cups of coffee aside, the folks constructing the RedBlacks are excited to be the architects of a team that will hit the field soon enough.

“The week leading into the expansion draft was a sprint,? said Sunderland. “We really grinded. But you try to pace yourself, it’s a marathon. The season doesn’t start until June. The nice thing is Miles, Marcel, Jeremy and myself — we’ve done this before, we’ve all been in pro football for at least eight years. You’re excited, but you’re calculated. You not only try to sign players, you try to sign the right players.

“We have a plan. We’re going to plan to work and work to plan. Everybody in the industry is highly competitive and is in it to win. We don’t have a benchmark as far as second round of playoffs or hosting a playoff game or a specific number of wins, but we’re doing what we can to have a winning team from Day 1. We think we’re doing it the right way. We’re not taking any shortcuts.?

It’s that good old lunchbucket attitude, the front office’s vision of no pain, no gain.

“We get in here at 6 in the morning, or if you’re Marcel at 5, and before you know it, it’s 6 at night,? said Sunderland. “Time just flies by with the film and all the other stuff. It’s fun every day. A big part of coming up here was the people I was going to work with. We hang out outside of work. That makes it fun.?

The biggest fun is yet to come.