Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

It's Durant or bust in Saskatchewan

Riders need QB to regain his 2010 form -- because there's nobody else

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The CFL is conducting a series of team preview conference calls over the next two weeks. Today, the Roughriders. Tuesday, the B.C. Lions.

Doubts about Darian Durant's future with the Saskatchewan Roughriders subsided when the club handed him a contract extension last month. The opinions on the quarterback have not.

There are two schools of thought regarding Durant, with most of those situated nowhere near a fence. People love his game or they hate his game; grey areas simply don't exist.

One take on Durant paints him as a dynamic, multi-tool threat under centre; a player who can scramble out of a bad situation and fire a bullet to an open receiver downfield. The second camp puts the 29-year-old as an inconsistent quarterback whose physical talents mask some of his basic fundamental weaknesses at the position.

Durant has had his successes (Grey Cup appearances in 2009 and 2010) but last season, his third as a full-time starter, stock in 5-foot-11, 214-pound pivot started to drop.

He put up career lows in attempts, completions, passing yards, touchdowns, and rushing yards. The Riders finished in the basement with a 5-13 record and scored a CFL-low 346 points. In one three-game stretch, Saskatchewan scored a measly nine points total.

But all the above, the opinions and recent history, means little to Riders management.

He's their guy. In Darian they trust.

"Our starting quarterback has been to the Grey Cup two of the last three years; I don't (perceive) that being luck," Riders GM Brendan Taman told a conference call audience Thursday. "He's proven he can do it. We just have to help him be as good as he can be."

Taman thought Durant put too much of last season's failures on himself, so with that thought in mind, the team went out and bought better pieces for Durant to work with, starting with the offensive line. Led by the free agent signings of Brendon LaBatte (Winnipeg) and Dominic Picard (Toronto), the Riders believe they've addressed the No. 1 area in getting Durant back to where he was prior to 2011.

Football 101: Solidify the foundation and the rest will take care of itself.

"I'm confident Darian has confidence that he can sit in the pocket a little bit longer and make the throws he needs to make," first-year head coach Corey Chamblin said.

"Darian is our leader, we believe in him and we know that he'll take us where we need to go and where we want to go."

In an odd sequence to open the Q & A Thursday, Chamblin identified Durant as his starting quarterback. It was an unnecessary declaration considering the fresh extension, previous statements made by the coach and, more specifically, what's behind the six-year CFL veteran on the depth chart.

Saskatchewan re-stocked the shelves in the quarterback department this winter, releasing last year's group (Ryan Dinwiddie and Cole Bergquist) in favour of four new arms.

Start with Colt Brennan, a University of Hawaii star who spent time with the Washington Redskins in 2008 before getting hurt in 2009. Brennan, 28, was involved in a serious car crash in 2010 but Chamblin says he's healthy and ready to return to the game.

Troy University standout Levi Brown, 25, was a late-round draft pick of the Buffalo Bills (2010), while Drew Willy, 25, has been on the NFL radar for the last two seasons. In a surprise move, the club is also bringing in veteran J.T. O'Sullivan for a look. The 32-year-old journeyman has been around the block and back, counting time with 11 NFL teams during his career.

That QB list, the one with zero CFL experience on it, screams 'Durant or Bust.'

"Quite frankly, if we had to decide who our backup was today, we probably couldn't," Taman said of the Riders current quarterback collection. "That doesn't mean they're not good enough. We need more time to work with them and get a feel for exactly what they bring."

adam.wazny@freepress.mb.ca

GREEN INITIATIVE

The fall from back-to-back Grey Cup appearances was a hard one for Saskatchewan, who slipped all the way into the CFL basement last season. Three points of interest heading into this summer include:

1. New sideline boss Corey Chamblin comes from a defence background (he put in time as a coach with Hamilton, Calgary and Winnipeg) and teams up with Richie Hall in Regina. The philosophies are similar, Chamblin said, with one slight difference: He wants the unit to be more aggressive, especially when it comes to creating turnovers. Saskatchewan was last in takeaways (31) in 2011.

2. The future for Odell Willis remains murky. There's a worry the former Bomber sack master's legal troubles (he was charged with driving under the influence April 9 in Atlanta) could force him to miss camp. Riders GM Brendan Taman didn't want to comment before all the information comes out, though. "That's in the hands of the immigration people and his lawyer. We're a couple weeks away from finding out exactly what's going to happen," he said. Willis' court date is set for May 22.

3. Change is all over the roster, with new faces coming at linebacker and running back. The Riders expect to add two receivers -- one old and one new -- to the offence, as well. After two knee surgeries the last two seasons, Rob Bagg is back and his return rounds out the non-import pass catching corps. The new face of note is former New York Giants receiver Sinorice Moss, whose blazing speed will help the kick return game.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 11, 2012 C6

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