Roughriders making changes along the offensive line

Saskatchewan Roughriders offensive lineman Jerald Hawkins (65) runs a drill during practice at Mosaic Stadium on Tuesday, June 20. PHOTO BY KAYLE NEIS /Regina Leader-Post

by Taylor Shire

Regina Leader Post

The Riders are making a move at left and hoping it’s right.

After a few weeks away from the Saskatchewan Roughriders dealing with a personal matter, offensive lineman Jerald Hawkins is back with the team and looks to be taking over the starting left tackle spot this week, a position he was penciled in to start at prior to his absence. 

“Honestly, I can’t wait,” Hawkins told media after practice this week at Mosaic Stadium. “I’m looking forward to those chills, those jitterbugs, just that back of the hair on your neck raised up.” 

While Hawkins was away from the team, 26-year-old CFL rookie Brandon Council started at left tackle. And while Council didn’t necessarily play his way out of a starting role, the plan all along was for Hawkins to start once he returned. 

The same can be said at right tackle, as it appears 33-year-old veteran American Colin Kelly will start in place of 30-year-old Eric Lofton, who made his fifth career start in the CFL on Friday against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. 

“It’s good to have some veterans back,” said Riders’ head coach Dickenson. “Certainly, experience is the greatest teacher, especially up front. 

“For those guys (Council and Lofton), a lot of it is still new to them so we want some experience out there, but the young guys did well.” 

While the 29-year-old Hawkins will be making his CFL debut on Saturday as the Riders visit the Calgary Stampeders (5 p.m., TSN), he has several years of experience playing pro football south of the border. The 6-foot-6, 305-pound Louisiana product suited up for 19 career NFL games, 18 of which were with the Pittsburgh Steelers, from 2016 to 2020.

However, he is still absorbing as much as possible during his first few months of Canadian football. 

“I’m trying to learn anything I can,” said Hawkins. “It doesn’t matter what you do or how old you are (or) what years you played — I’m still learning.”

Saskatchewan Roughriders offensive linemen Colin Kelly (66) during practice at Mosaic Stadium on Tuesday, June 20.

On the other side of the offensive line, Kelly is expected to start after serving a two-game suspension for using a banned substance last year as a member of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. 

“I’ve been up here a few years so it’s just exciting,” said Kelly, who has played 90 career CFL games with Ottawa, Edmonton and most-recently Hamilton. 

“It was a bummer to miss that first home game and be on the same side of the watermelon heads.”

And while he missed the first two games of the 2023 season, Kelly has played more football in the last six months than many others, as he is coming off a 10-game season in the XFL with the Seattle Sea Dragons, where he was named to the All-XFL team. 

Once the XFL season was over, Kelly had a tryout with the NFL’s New Orleans Saints, before electing to sign in Saskatchewan. And while most XFL players are signed through the calendar year, Kelly had an opt-out clause in his XFL contract, allowing him to sign elsewhere once the season was over. 

“I’m my own agent so I just worked that deal out,” said the 6-foot-5, 298-pound Washington product. 

And while the entire offensive line group didn’t necessarily under-perform during the first two weeks — giving up two sacks to Edmonton and three to Winnipeg — the Riders are happy to get two veterans back into the lineup, knowing they have depth behind them.  

However, it wasn’t necessarily an easy choice to sit Council and Lofton, according to the coach. 

“I thought they played well,” said Dickenson. “They’re not going to make it an easy decision, which is what we want. 

“Anytime you have tough decisions it means you have a good team.”

Thursday practice notes

The Riders held a closed practice on Thursday, as the team got some good news on the injury front ahead of Saturday’s game in Calgary.

According to the injury report, defensive lineman Anthony Lanier II (foot) and defensive back Rolan Milligan Jr. (back) were both full participants on Thursday after missing the first two days this week and appear to be on track to play this week, along with defensive lineman Lake Korte-Moore (hamstring) who also missed Day 1.

Linebacker Derrick Moncrief (shoulder) and defensive back Nic Marshall (shoulder) both logged full practices for a third straight day and are trending towards playing Saturday.

However safety Jayden Dalke (back), running back Frankie Hickson (shoulder), defensive lineman DeMarcus Christmas (knee), fullback Albert Awachie (hamstring), receiver Juwan Brescacin (shoulder), defensive back Rodney Clemons (ankle) and defensive lineman Nicholas Dheilly (head) have all been ruled out for Saturday’s game after missing a third straight day of practice.

Additionally, centre Peter Godber (illness) did not practice on Thursday and is questionable for the game.

All-in-all, the injuries have made for a somewhat challenging week of preparations.

“You’ve got to have a couple different game plans,” said Dickenson. “You’ve got to have one for this guy and one if those guys can’t play.

“We feel like we’re going to be alright.”