Grey Cup champion Argonauts thankful to start CFL season with opening-week bye

Chad Kelly will have to wait a week to make his debut as the Toronto Argonauts starting quarterback.

The defending Grey Cup champions start the 2023 campaign with an opening-week bye. Kelly and Co. kick off their regular season June 18 hosting the archrival Hamilton Tiger-Cats at BMO Field.

It’s the second straight year and third time since 2019 (CFL didn’t play in 2020 due to the global pandemic) the Argos have had to wait a week to open a regular season. But this later start is just fine with Toronto head coach Ryan Dinwiddie.

“Right now, (the bye) is good,” he said. “We’re beat up and we need the work so we’re going to use the bye week to get better.

“Most times, you don’t want that bye Week 1 but I think we need it.”

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However, Dinwiddie said Toronto doesn’t have the luxury of starting the 2023 season slowly.

“The best part is you don’t want to be playing your best football early on, you want to be playing it at the end,” he said. “But you’ve also got to be playing darn good football at the start.

“We want to start fast.”

And when the Argos hit the field versus Hamilton, they’ll undoubtedly be Kelly’s team. The 29-year-old American — whose uncle is former Buffalo Bills star quarterback Jim Kelly — served as veteran McLeod Bethel-Thompson’s understudy last season.

Following Toronto’s stunning 24-23 Grey Cup victory over Winnipeg, Bethel-Thompson left to join the USFL’s New Orleans Breakers for family reasons following five seasons (and two championships) with the Argos. Kelly started the club’s regular-season finale versus Montreal but stepped in to make a significant contribution to its Grey Cup victory.

The six-foot-two, 216-pound Kelly replaced Bethel-Thompson (dislocated right thumb) in the fourth quarter and completed four-of-six passes for 43 yards. But it was his crucial 20-yard run on second-and-15 that set up A.J. Ouellette’s five-yard touchdown run that put Toronto ahead 24-23 at 11:36.

Canadian defensive lineman Robbie Smith cemented the stirring win by blocking Marc Liegghio’s 47-yard field goal attempt with 54 seconds remaining.

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Dinwiddie, who also serves as Toronto’s offensive co-ordinator, said he’ll be tailoring his offence more to suit Kelly’s strengths, including his mobility. But keeping Kelly healthy will be key for the Argos, who have very little CFL experience behind him.

Dinwiddie feels Kelly benefited from having spent 2022 with Bethel-Thompson.

“I think he saw the amount of studying that goes into it, the way Mac commanded the huddle and knew exactly what was going on,” Dinwiddie said. “Mac knew all of the details of the offence.

“I think Chad understands those are the things he learned from McLeod … I think he’ll be more comfortable and he had a great example learning from Mac.”

Kelly becomes a starter for the first time since his final season at Ole Miss (2016).

“Obviously, I’ve got to prove it on the field and go out every day and just work extremely hard and get the guys to believe,” Kelly said. “And then get the guys who aren’t on the offensive side of the ball to play hard and believe in me too — that I have their back and they have mine.

“Every day is going to be a grind and we’re just going to keep on working hard and do what we do.”

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The Argos will mount their Grey Cup title defence with Canadian running back Andrew Harris. The Winnipeg native returns in 2023 for the final year of his illustrious CFL career.

The five-foot-10, 216-pound Harris pondered retirement following Toronto’s Grey Cup win but will split rushing duties with Ouellette. Harris, 36, will chase a fourth consecutive CFL title (2019 and ’21 with Winnipeg) and fifth overall.

Harris is the top-rushing Canadian in CFL history with 10,151 yards on 1,903 carries (5.3-yard average) with 51 TDs. He also has 599 all-time catches for 5,403 yards and 32 touchdowns in 184 career regular-season games.

Harris is just 134 yards behind Charles Roberts (10,285 yards) for fifth in all-time CFL rushing and needs 759 yards to surpass fourth-ranked Johnny Bright (10,909 yards).

Also back is veteran linebacker Henoc Muamba, who captured both top Canadian and MVP honours in the Grey Cup game. He’ll be part of a solid unit that features returnee Wynton McManis as well as newcomers Adarius Pickett (free agent, Montreal) and Jordan Williams (trade, B. C. Lions).

Veteran defensive lineman Ja’Gared Davis (free agent, Hamilton) is gone. But towering tackle Shawn Oakman (six foot nine, 287 pounds) will again anchor Toronto’s defensive front with newcomer Folarin Orimolade (free agent, Calgary).

Toronto’s secondary, though, will have a huge void to fill with the departure of all-star cornerback Jamal Peters (CFL-high six interceptions). Although Peters was recently released by the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, he has yet to re-sign with another team on either side of the border.

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Veteran Canadian offensive lineman Philip Blake (Saskatchewan, free agent) has moved on but Ryan Hunter, a native of North Bay, Ont., should benefit from having a full camp with Toronto. The Argos also added veteran Canadian Darius Ciraco this offseason.

Toronto’s special teams would appear to be in good hands with veteran American kicker Boris Bede and Australian punter John Haggerty. Versatile American Javon Leake, who had a key 44-yard punt return in the Grey Cup, can return all kicks but also see duty at running back.

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