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After active off-season, Montreal Alouettes look to break playoff drought

Montreal Alouettes head coach Kavis Reed watches the play during CFL action against the Calgary Stampeders on Sept. 29, 2017.

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

His first year as general manager of the Montreal Alouettes was a disaster, but Kavis Reed certainly made enough off-season moves to try to fix the trouble.

He hired former Green Bay Packers boss Mike Sherman to head a revamped coaching staff, improved the squad’s Canadian content and picked up Chris Williams to add speed to the receiving corps on a team that finished last at 3-15 and lost the last 11 games of the 2017 campaign.

But the same old problem that has gnawed at the club since all-time passing leader Anthony Calvillo retired after the 2013 season remains – finding a steady and effective starting quarterback.

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Returning veteran Drew Willy is likely to get the ball for the season opener on Saturday in British Columbia, with second-year man Matt Shiltz waiting to take over. So far, neither is a proven winner, although Shiltz had only one start last season in the final regular-season game.

That didn’t dampen preseason optimism, however.

“Whichever of those guys they put out there, I feel we’ll be just fine,” receiver B.J. Cunningham said. “We’ve got to make their jobs easier by catching every ball that’s thrown.”

Two years ago, former general manager Jim Popp brought in veteran Kevin Glenn, but he didn’t finish the season. Last year, it was Saskatchewan Roughriders stalwart Darian Durant, who was eventually let go.

It didn’t help that the squad was plagued with injuries on the offensive line and didn’t have a deep threat to balance the attack. The team fired coach Jacques Chapdelaine and defensive co-ordinator Noel Thorpe in midseason, with Reed stepping in as coach and not winning a game.

Now, they’ll try again with a greatly revamped roster.

Besides Williams, guard Ryan Bomben and fullback Patrick Lavoie were brought back on offence.

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“You get that sense that we’ve got something special brewing here,” Williams said. “It’s been an organization that in my time in the CFL has been successful.

“With coach [Marc] Trestman they won some titles here. A rich tradition. Always a really strong defence. I’m thankful to be part of it. Hopefully we can turn last year around. I know there’s a lot of new faces, mixed in with the veterans who have seen some of the ups and downs. You can sense the hunger.”

The main changes were on defence, where former Calgary Stampeders Tommie Campbell and Joe Burnett as well as Mitchell White joined the backfield while linebackers Henoc Muamba and Dominique Ellis and linemen Alan-Michael Cash and Jamaal Westerman also were added.

Reed’s pick as defensive co-ordinator – Kahlil Carter – resigned before camp, but they had his “adviser” Rich Stubler on hand to take over. Khari Jones is the new offensive co-ordinator while former Concordia University head coach Mickey Donovan takes over special teams.

Some popular players are gone, including slotback Nik Lewis and linebacker Kyries Hebert, but they kept long-serving Alouettes John Bowman and Chip Cox.

And there were some Alouettes who had good 2017 seasons including Cunningham, who had a career-high 1,128 passing yards. Slotback Ernest Jackson is back and they have a solid running back in Tyrell Sutton who may flourish on a team led by offence-oriented Sherman.

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Whether it’s enough to get back in the playoffs for the first time since 2014 is the main question.

Breakdown of the Montreal Alouettes

Head coach

Mike Sherman, first year.

Last year

Finished last in East at 3-15, missed playoffs for a third straight year.

New additions

Chris Williams adds speed to the receiving group and Ryan Bomben brings needed experience to the offensive line. The big changes were on defence where two Canadians, linebacker Henoc Muamba and lineman Jamaal Westerman, should help the ratio without sacrificing quality. Bringing back tackle Alan-Michael Cash and linebacker Dominique Ellis should help, while veterans Tommie Campbell, Joe Burnett and Mitchell White join a backfield that lost Jonathon Mincy to the NFL.

Departed

Nik Lewis and Kyries Hebert were among the team’s most popular players with fans but fell victim to GM Kavis Reed’s desire to get younger. Offensive lineman Jovan Olafioye was abruptly released before camp, likely on a salary issue, and signed with British Columbia. Defensive lineman Gabriel Knapton was traded and, of course, quarterback Darian Durant was let go.

Players to watch

Whether QB Drew Willy can handle the starting job, or lose it to upstart Matt Shiltz, is the key question. If he can stay healthy, Tyrell Sutton may have a big year behind a better offensive line and with a coach who likes the running game. John Bowman, 35, will look to extend his team record of 121 career sacks.

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