CFL

Hogan: Argonauts offensive line much improved from last year

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Mike Hogan
11/15/2013 9:38:10 AM
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Despite being the biggest players on the field, they live in relative anonymity. When other players hear their names called during a game it's because they've done something right, but members of this group only hear their name when they do something wrong.

They are offensive linemen.

The Toronto Argonauts are preparing to face the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the Eastern Final this Sunday. As they do, there's less worry about this group than there was as they entered the 2012 playoffs, a season that culminated with a Grey Cup Championship.

To be kind, the Argos o-line wasn't great last year. There was a great deal of worry about how well the group was playing as the post-season run began. That level of concern has been greatly reduced heading into this year's playoffs.

"Similar guys at this point, with the exception of Tyler (Holmes)," said head coach Scott Milanovich. "I just think they've played together in the system a little bit longer. I don't think it's a whole lot different other than we're a year and a half into it now."

Holmes is the newcomer, essentially replacing Marc Parenteau as a starter. The Argos first-round pick in the 2011 draft joined the club in September after being released by the Minnesota Vikings. He made his CFL debut against the Ticats in October and hasn't looked back, playing admirably at left guard while starting the final three games of the regular season.

He has a lot of respect for the guys across the line in black and gold.

"They're a talented bunch up front" said Holmes, whose father Richard played for three CFL teams, including the Argos. "We just need to execute our game plan and handle what we can handle."

Holmes says there's one area that really improved in the time he's been up here.

"Getting in there and seeing the different looks, everything really slows down for you," the Ottawa native told TSN.ca "When you first get in there your head is spinning a little bit, so it's been really nice to just get in there and settle in."

Joe Eppele has moved from left guard to right guard. He played the best football of his career in the playoffs a year ago and hasn't looked back.

"I think I played some of my best football then, but I think I've improved a lot this season." said the second-overall pick in the 2010 CFL draft. "I think the biggest part has been my field recognition. I've noticed that for me, mentally, the game has slowed down quite a lot. I can read the defences a lot better than I used to be able to."

For the layman, the move from one side of the center to the other may not seem like that big of a deal, but everything changes, especially the footwork. He's handling it well though.

"It just creates a little bit of lag in the decision making" explained the 6'8" BC native. "You have to flip everything around in your head before you make the decisions, and just the small changes in your footwork. When you've been working on one side of the ball for so long you're just so used to having your feet in a certain stance, and when you make that switch it slows down your game a little bit at first."

As the left tackle, Tony Washington protects Ricky Ray's blind side. It's been an unusual season for the second-year Argo, as he's been in and out of the lineup due to injury. He even found himself playing some defensive tackle at times. He feels he's playing his best football at the perfect time of the year.

"I dealt with a lot of injuries at the beginning of the season," said the New Orleans native. "I was trying to come back from that and keep my conditioning up."

Washington feels as a group the line has been playing more aggressively this season. He's also been impressed with Holmes, who starts to his immediate right.

"For him to have come in as a rookie, he's picked it up really well" said the 6'7", 320 pound veteran. "He looks good, he's been playing really well."

Like both Washington and Eppele, right tackle Chris Van Zeyl has found himself moved around. He was the right tackle last season, moved to right guard for the most part this year, but has been moved back to tackle lately. He doesn't care which position he plays.

"I'll play wherever the coaches play me," said the McMaster grad. "I don't have a preference. I like playing tackle, I like playing guard. Guard allows me to be more physical, tackle allows me to be more athletic."

He's ready to go against a tough Hamilton front seven. What concerns him the most about that group?

"I think more the system than the actual players themselves," said the native of Font Hill, Ontario. "I think the players are all pretty well-rounded, but I think the system gives teams a lot more trouble than the players themselves do."

The leader of the group is center Jeff Keeping. Over the course of his nine seasons in the CFL, eight of which have been spent in Toronto, he's played defensive line, fullback, tight end and all along the offensive line. He's been a very low profile member of the team,but this year was recognized for his tremendous play by being voted the East nominee for the CFL's Outstanding Offensive Lineman.

He admits he sees an improvement in his game.

"I think I played better" Keeping told TSN.ca before immediately giving accolades to his fellow linemen. "With any award like that you know it's the result of the unit. I can't speak for each of the guys, but I think I played more consistent and I know I played at a higher level more consistently. I feel the same way about everybody across the line, so I think that as a whole really made us successful as a line."

If the group keeps Ricky Ray on his feet and opens holes for running backs Jerious Norwood and Curtis Steele, it will go a long way toward sending the Argos to Regina for an opportunity to defend their Grey Cup title.

Argonauts celebrate (Photo: Canadian Press)

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(Photo: Canadian Press)
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