October 04, 2016 - 2:54 PM
TORONTO - The Toronto Argonauts will make their playoff push with Drew Willy at quarterback and Canadian rookies Brian Jones and Llevi Noel as starting receivers.
On Tuesday, Toronto head coach Scott Milanovich said Willy will remain under centre after making his first start in Sunday's 38-11 road loss to Montreal. Milanovich added the Argos' stunning decision Monday to release American receivers Vidal Hazelton, Kevin Elliott, Tori Gurley and Phil Bates was made to give Jones and Noel — the club's first- and fourth-round 2016 draft picks, respectively — the chance to play.
"The biggest reason we made this move was because I don't think we're going to lose any production with Jones and Noel," Milanovich said. "It's time to give these guys an opportunity . . . they can play the game.
"Any time we make a move like this, there's more than one reason and that's the case today as well. The biggest reason is because I think we've got younger players who can contribute and do as much on the field as what we've got."
The bold move comes with Toronto (5-9) standing third in the East Division behind Hamilton (6-8) and Ottawa (6-6-1) despite having lost seven-of-eight games. But the Argos have little margin for error because Edmonton (7-7) stands fourth in the West Division.
In the CFL, if the fourth-place team in one division has more points than the third-place finisher in the other, the fourth-place squad assumes the other conference's final playoff seed.
Toronto faces the difficult task of having to win its four remaining regular-season games to cement a playoff berth. However they face the league-leading Calgary Stampeders (12-1-1) twice, including Monday at BMO Field.
"If you win four you're going to get in," Milanovich said. "If you win three, there's probably a good possibility you get in.
"I can honestly tell you I think we're a better team today than we were yesterday. Going forward, I don't expect these guys to do anything but fight like hell and try to win three or four games."
Veteran Ricky Ray, who opened the season as Toronto's starter, remains on the six-game injured list recovering from a fractured rib/deflated lung. But when Ray returns, it will be as Willy's backup.
"As long as Drew is healthy and is playing well, which I anticipate, Ricky, when he's healthy enough, would come in and back him up," Milanovich said.
Back in 2012 — Milanovich's first season in Toronto — the Argos made a shocking decision to cut running back Cory Boyd, the CFL's rushing leader at the time. Chad Kackert stepped in and helped the franchise win the 100th Grey Cup game later that year, earning MVP honours.
In August, Toronto surprisingly released veteran linebacker Keon Raymond just six months after signing him in free agency to anchor defensive co-ordinator Rich Stubler's scheme. The Argos are 1-5 since although Raymond remains unsigned.
The four receivers were released a day after Milanovich questioned the commitment level and preparedness of some of his players. Milanovich said the Argos pondered making the move for weeks before ultimately deciding there'd be no dropoff with the young Canadians in the lineup.
Veteran slotback Andre Durie, 35, is Toronto's most experienced receiver but he now backs up starter Anthony Coombs, 23, in his third CFL season. The departure of the four Americans leaves Llevi and Diontae Spencer, both 25, as the Argos' oldest starting receivers.
"With a young team you don't know and we're still in the process of finding out who we think those guys are," Milanovich said.
Hazelton, Elliott, Gurley and Bates all started for Toronto although only Gurley and Elliott did so against Montreal. Ranging in height between six foot two (Bates) and six foot four (Gurley), they provided Argo quarterbacks with big targets downfield while creating matchup issues for rival defences.
The six-foot-two, 210-pound Noel will replace Elliott at receiver while the six-foot-three, 233-pound Jones takes over from Gurley at slotback. With Noel and Jones starting, Toronto has the luxury of playing two Americans elsewhere.
"What it gives us now is the opportunity to grow with these guys hopefully for a lot of years," Milanovich said.
Hazelton was the 2015 East Division top rookie after leading Toronto in receiving with 70 catches for 803 yards and six TDs. The 28-year-old had 27 receptions for 361 yards and three touchdowns this season.
Gurley, 28, had a CFL-high 10 TD catches last season and recorded 36 catches for 509 yards and five touchdowns in 2016.
Elliott, 27, registered 23 catches for 294 yards and two TDs this year after recording 50 receptions for 642 yards and eight TDs in 2015.
Bates had just three catches for 20 yards and a TD after recording six receptions for 123 yards and a touchdown in five games last year.
Milanovich said there was a reason why the Argos chose not to keep any of the four receivers.
"Once you're a starter, there are guys that can accept a backup role and there are guys that maybe can't" he said. "These guys are all so competitive . . . I don't think they would've been happy in a role as a backup/mentor."
News from © The Canadian Press, 2016