When you’re retooling a defense, it doesn’t matter if your fresh faces are castoffs or castaways, under the radar or never even got off the ground. The Alouettes went off-season free agent “expensive”, but now they’re thriving with: “The Expendables.”
Alan-Michael Cash. Ventrell Jenkins. Kenny Ingram. Mike Lockley. These CFL unknowns have helped replace some of the most likeable and talented Alouette defenders of the past decade, from Eric Wilson and Anwar Stewart in the trenches to Diamond Ferri and Ramon Guzman at linebacker.
“Some of these new guys we’ve been trying to get up here for years but they kept sticking in the NFL and so we’d drop them off the Neg List,” reveals Alouette General Manager Jim Popp.
“Some I didn’t know much about---Billy Parker had helped coach and indoor team in Virginia one off-season and he told me this kid (Cash) could play. I’d had my eye on him before (he’d played at NC State where an assistant coach named Marc Trestman was toiling in obscurity) because he played with the son of friends of mine who had their kid go on to the Seattle Seahawks.”
With the Expendables, so many football people have looked the other way at times. Now with the Als feeling like they’re on a roll, they hope opposing quarterbacks will be looking the other way.
Cash and Lockley were bottom of the depth chart at the start of 2012 training camp, the odds stacked against them. Expendable training camp fodder, perhaps. Now they’re roommates with their careers reborn heading into the CFL’s real season.
“Everybody’s buying in,” professes Lockley, who knew of current Alouettes Kenny Ingram and the longterm injured Bear Woods from high school ball in Orlando, Florida.
“It’s not dumbed down---we’re doing what we’re supposed to,” the stocky linebacker turned rush-end says of the common media portrayal that new coordinator Jeff Reinebold’s schemes were out-scheming his own players.
Being an Expendable means playing an old game new ways in a new country. Lockley had been a middle linebacker since he was a teen, but is learning pass-rush techniques that pay off when the Als frequently have 5 men up on the front.
“Coach (Mike) Sinclair has taught me a lot: hand placement on run plays, hand placement on pass plays.”
Ingram has transitioned from safety to linebacker to find himself working against the hulking offensive tackles of the Canadian game, a remarkable transition for the former New York Giant property.
“I looked at the big signings in the offseason (notably Aaron Hunt and linebackers Restelli and Davis, the latter being the only one still in Alouette bleu, blanc, rouge).
“I was 4th on the depth chart when camp started,” Ingram brags. “It’s been a huge role change but here the coaches have confidence in me. Here they’re just opening it up, making us freer. New York and Montreal, both are great defences, but Coach Reinebold is giving us more freedom.”
“He did things in camp we didn’t know he could do,” admits Popp.
With freedom comes responsibility. Some Expendables can’t handle that.
Ventrell Jenkins was leading his team in sacks but was made a healthy scratch by Trestman early in the season. Trestman spoke of the need for consistency and for the former NFLer to “consider what the game means to him”...CoachSpeak for: you could be expendable.
“I wasn’t doing the right things,” Jenkins confesses. “Wasn’t studying, wasn’t producing. You need a coach like that...he cut my reps and made it clear I needed to get myself together.”
“When I was in the NFL I followed Montreal for some reason. I told myself if I ever went to the CFL, I could fly around there. It’s a fun place to play.”
Jenkins had no idea Popp had already seen the spark in him. When injury trouble hampered the solid slab of a d-tackle, he made his offer.
“I didn’t talk to anybody,” Jenkins concedes. “I just came up to learn on the fly. I didn’t know the rules and it was a difficult defense to learn...not the traditional ‘over-under’. It’s great...I’ve adapted to it well.”
That doesn’t excuse an Expendable from the human cannon fodder chores on special teams, of course.
“In the NFL you’re just trying to make a roster so you’ll do it,” admits Ventrell. “I’m a big guy with speed so I’m gonna end up on teams. If it makes us better, it makes us win.”
“I give full credit to our scouting department and Jim Popp. He saw something in us.”
But every Expendable is frequently reminded by Coach Reinebold: “Your name is not on that chair.”
“That’s why our practises are so competitive,” says Ingram, who credits fellow former Giant Brandon London and SJ Green for emotional support on his climb from the depths of the depth chart.
“Coach Reinebold is going to keep it real with you. I’ve never had a d-coordinator like him.”
The Expendables have proven themselves to their coaches. Now they’re proving themselves to each other.
“They have to play beside each other,” Popp assures. “Coaches learn what guys can do and players understand better.”
When that happens, no one is expendable.