June 18th, 2024

Defending-champion Alouettes eager to prove last season wasn’t a one-hit wonder


By Daniel Rainbird, The Canadian Press on June 4, 2024.

Montreal Alouettes quarterback Cody Fajardo (7) and teammates run drills during CFL football training camp in Saint-Jerome, Que., Sunday, May 12, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

MONTREAL – The Montreal Alouettes will need to find a new source of inspiration this season.

Pegged to finish near the bottom of the CFL standings last year, the Alouettes galvanized around their underdog status en route to an unexpected Grey Cup victory.

As defending champions, they won’t have that same rallying point or element of surprise in 2024.

“It’s like you go from the hunters to the hunted,” quarterback Cody Fajardo said. “Last year it was easy to draw motivation from the people who said we were going to be ninth.

“Now there’s people that believe in us “¦ and we got to find the secret sauce that works for us this year.”

Fajardo joined the Alouettes last season as a Saskatchewan Roughriders cast-off, but proved his doubters wrong by leading Montreal to the title with a game-winning touchdown drive in a 28-24 win over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

When Fajardo opens the CFL season with a rematch Thursday in Winnipeg, he’ll do so as the reigning Grey Cup MVP.

The 32-year-old pivot is motivated by further cementing his legacy – and showing that last season wasn’t a flash in the pan.

“My goal going into this year is to prove that last year wasn’t just a one-off or a one-hit wonder,” he said. “Hall of Fame guys, what do they do special? It’s year after year, they showed up, they showed out, they were contenders.”

Fajardo will be surrounded by familiar faces. Instead of having the Grey Cup roster gutted in the off-season, the Alouettes are mostly running it back.

General manager Danny Maciocia extended Fajardo and receiver Tyson Philpot and re-signed top linebackers Darnell Sankey and Tyrice Beverette, two key cogs in Montreal’s ironclad defence. Even 38-year-old offensive lineman Kristian Matte, a 15-year CFL veteran who could have capped his career with a championship ring, is back.

So is veteran defensive lineman Shawn Lemon, for now, after retiring and being suspended indefinitely during the off-season for betting on games in 2021, including one he played in. Lemon made a surprise return at training camp after appealing the ban and is eligible to resume playing until an arbitrator renders a decision.

The band may be back together, but Sankey said the Alouettes can’t rest on last season’s success.

“You have to start over,” he said. “The teams that come in off a high often fall hard. It’s great we won our Grey Cup last year, but it’s a new year, so that’s irrelevant now.”

Asked about the challenge of repeating as champions, Alouettes head coach Jason Maas said it’s important his team doesn’t think of it that way.

“You have to move on. It’s a new team,” he said. “It’s a 2024 version of the Montreal Alouettes.”

This season’s edition features an opening at wide receiver and a new look at running back.

Alouettes receiving-yard leader Austin Mack signed with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons after one season in the CFL. Reggie White Jr. – who had 722 receiving yards in 15 games in 2022 – is a contender for that spot. He’s back after missing all of last season due to knee surgery, but didn’t play during the pre-season.

Fourth-year American Walter Fletcher will get a shot at being the No. 1 halfback after William Stanback signed with the B.C. Lions. The 27-year-old rushed for 266 yards on 58 carries in seven games last year.

“Once Fletch heard the news that William wouldn’t be back, he did a very good job of preparing himself to be our No. 1 back,” Maas said. “We already know Fletch, what he can do as far as ability, the toughness and effort he shows every single day.”

After several tumultuous years under precarious ownership, the Alouettes, with Quebec businessman Pierre Karl Peladeau now at the helm, are suddenly a model of stability in the wide-open East Division.

The Toronto Argonauts – who went 16-2 last season before a lopsided 38-17 loss to Montreal in the East final – will be missing star quarterback Chad Kelly for at least nine games. The reigning most outstanding player is suspended for violating the league’s gender-based violence policy.

The Hamilton Tiger-Cats are relying on veteran QB Bo Levi Mitchell and have a new head coach after a disappointing 8-10 record in 2023. Meanwhile, the Ottawa Redblacks have missed the playoffs for four straight seasons.

Despite that, Alouettes safety Marc-Antoine Dequoy – the East’s outstanding Canadian last year – says they can’t afford to underestimate their opponents.

“It’s a small league and all the teams have the potential to win,” he said. “The approach we had last year is going to be the same this year.”

2023 record: 11-7, second East Division. Beat the Winnipeg Blue Bombers 28-14 to win the Grey Cup.

Did you know? Montreal will attempt to win consecutive Grey Cups for the first time since QB Anthony Calvillo led the Alouettes to titles in 2009 and 2010.

Key additions: LB Geoffrey Cantin-Arku, WR Charleston Rambo.

Key losses: RB William Stanback (B.C. Lions), WR Austin Mack (Atlanta Falcons, NFL), DL Lwal Uguak (Tampa Bay Buccaneers, NFL).

Players to watch: QB Cody Fajardo, RB Walter Fletcher, WR Reggie White, Rambo, S Marc-Antoine Dequoy.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 4, 2024.

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