REGINA — The Saskatchewan Roughriders can expect to hear a lot more from quarterback Darian Durant this season.
Durant begins his third full year with the CFL club, coming off a 2011 campaign that saw him lead the league in passing with 5,542 yards. But the five-foot-11, 214-pound Durant said Jeremy O’Day, the Riders’ gregarious starting centre, served as the unit’s official spokesman and emotional leader.
But with O’Day retiring in the off-season, Durant said he’s going to be much more of a vocal leader for the Riders in 2011.
“Jeremy was basically the leader of the offence,” Durant said. “With him gone and (veteran tackle) Gene Makowsky being a quiet guy, I kind of take it upon myself to lead guys and be more vocal.
“That’s more my demeanour, of being a leader. I feel I was born to be a leader and why not carry it out?”
Durant has certainly led by example on the field, helping lead the ’Riders to consecutive Grey Cup appearances, both heart-breaking losses to the Montreal Alouettes by a combined four points.
“When you look at how we lost . . . that makes it even more devastating,” Durant said. “I think everyone on this team who has been a part of the past two Grey Cups, they have that fire inside of them that they want to unleash on someone else.”
However, the task of guiding the ’Riders to a third straight Grey Cup appearance and first since ’07 will go to a rookie head coach. Greg Marshall, a longtime CFL defensive co-ordinator, took over the mantle Jan. 5 after Ken Miller stepped down to concentrate full-time on his duties as vice-president of football operations.
It’s appropriate Marshall begin his CFL head-coaching tenure in Regina. He began his coaching career with the ’Riders as the club’s defensive line coach in ’94 before being promoted to defensive co-ordinator two years later.
Marshall also served as a defensive co-ordinator in the CFL with the Edmonton Eskimos, Ottawa Renegades, Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Marshall brought back a familiar face to run his defence. Richie Hall returns to Regina as defensive co-ordinator after serving two seasons as Edmonton head coach.
But Marshall faces two challenges heading into Saskatchewan’s regular-season opener July 3 versus Edmonton: the ’Riders’ kicking game and defensive front.
With incumbent kicker Luca Congi continuing to recover from a knee injury, veteran Eddie Johnson and rookie Chris Milo combined to hit on one-of-six field goal attempts, that coming from 16 yards out.
The good news is Marshall says both kickers are progressing well.
Last season, Saskatchewan finished second-worst in points allowed (27.1 per game) and sixth in sacks with 38. Putting consistent pressure on rival quarterbacks remains a priority for Marshall.
Then again, another stellar performance from Durant would certainly help. Durant threw 25 TD passes last season and ran for 618 yards and seven touchdowns.
But Durant also threw a league-high 22 interceptions and said turnovers often put the ’Riders’ defence in bad situations last season.
“Some interceptions are going to happen,” he said.
“It’s the ones I throw blind or try to do too much instead of living to fight another day I need to cut back on.
“I definitely will.”
The Riders will also have to deal with the loss of stellar Canadian receivers Andy Fantuz and Robbie Bagg.
The six-foot-four, 221-pound Fantuz, a native of Chatham, Ont., led the CFL in receiving last season with 87 catches for 1,380 yards and six TDs before signing in the off-season with the NFL’s Chicago Bears.
The six-foot, 190-pound Bagg, from Kingston, Ont., isn’t expected to play at all after re-injuring his knee while preparing for training camp. Bagg missed the Riders’ final three regular-season games and playoffs after suffering a torn ACL in a game versus Calgary.
The Riders still have standout Weston Dressler (81 catches, 1,189 yards, six TDs) and veteran Canadians Chris Getzlaf (55 catches, 946 yards, five TDs) and Jason Clermont (27 catches, 300 yards). But Durant said it will take him time to develop a chemistry with such youngsters as Regina native Jordan Sisco and rookie imports Ernie Wheelwright and Terrence Nunn.
“It’s coming along,” Durant said. “Sometimes, it takes years to develop a certain chemistry with the receivers.
“The main thing is those guys are in the right spot, they do what they’re supposed to and I think the chemistry will come down the line. It’s not something that will happen in a week or even a couple of months.”
Dressler signed a multi-year contract extension on Wednesday. He was set to become a free agent in February 2012.