Dukes, Argos to kick off ’24 season hosting B.C. Lions

Dukes, Argos to kick off '24 season hosting B.C. Lions
BC Lions wide receiver Bryan Burnham (16) makes a touchdown catch as he his defended by Toronto Argonauts defensive back Jalen Collins (7) during first half CFL action in Toronto on Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021.

Cameron Dukes and the Toronto Argonauts won’t exactly be easing into the 2024 season.

Dukes will start Sunday when Toronto hosts B.C.

The Lions, after consecutive West Division final appearances, have been pegged by some as favourites to play in the Grey Cup on Nov. 17 at B.C. Place Stadium.

“They’re talented,” Dukes said of B.C.’s defence. “They’re going to fly around, a disciplined defence that’s coached well.

“It’s going to be a dogfight but we’re prepared for that. We’re ready to go.”

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Dukes starts in place of incumbent Chad Kelly. The CFL’s 2023 outstanding player was suspended by the league for Toronto’s two exhibition contests and at least nine regular-season games for violating its gender-based violence policy.

The suspension followed an independent investigation into a lawsuit filed by a former strength-and-conditioning coach against Kelly and the Argos. Both were settled this week.

However, Kelly must undergo confidential assessments by an independent expert and attend mandatory counselling sessions conducted by a gender-based violence expert. He must complete both satisfactorily before the CFL will consider his reinstatement, adding it reserves the right to modify Kelly’s discipline.

The six-foot-one, 205-pound Dukes will make his third career CFL start after going 1-1 last season as a rookie. Toronto head coach Ryan Dinwiddie, also its offensive co-ordinator, has the same message for Dukes that he did for Kelly.

“Just manage the game, make the right throws and take care of the football,” Dinwiddie said. “If things aren’t there and they break down, use your legs because that’s one of his strengths.

“We haven’t held back anything on offence … he handled it last year as far as the heavy load so he gets it.”

Toronto posted a 16-2 record and 9-0 home mark — both league bests — last season. But in addition to Kelly being suspended, key performers like running back A.J. Ouellette (Saskatchewan), linebackers Adarius Pickett (Ottawa) and Jordan Williams (traded, Hamilton), cornerbacks Jamal Peters (Ticats) and Qwan’Tez Stiggers (NFL’s New York Jets), kicker Boris Bede (released), returner Javon Leake (Edmonton) and defensive linemen Brandon Barlow and DeWayne Hendrix (both Ticats) are no longer with the team.

“I know they’ve gone through changes,” said Rick Campbell, B.C.’s head coach/co-GM. “They’ve got dudes, they’re going to be athletic, they’ve got experienced coaches, all of those things.

“We’ll have to be ready to go.”

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Veteran kicker Lirim Hajrullahu, entering his 11th pro season, returns for his second stint with Toronto. He won a Grey Cup with the Argos in 2017.

“I’m really blessed to be able to return to this great organization and continue my career,” he said. “Going into my 11th year feels surreal … but I take that with great honour to be able to share experiences and bring what I bring to this team.”

Fortunately for Dukes, a Toronto offensive line that allowed a CFL-low 19 sacks in 2023 returns intact. And Ka’Deem Carey, the 2022 CFL rushing leader with Calgary, gets his first start with the Argos.

Receiver Damonte Coxie (39 catches, 787 yards, five TDs) is hurt but veteran DaVaris Daniels (52 receptions, 1,009 yards, eight TDs) again anchors Toronto’s receiving corps. Daniels, 31, enters his eighth CFL season as its leading active receiver with 366 catches for 5,579 yards with 38 TDs.

B.C. has an all-time 28-24 record in Toronto but the Argos have won their last three home games versus the Lions.

Quarterback Vernon Adams Jr., who threw for a CFL-high 4,769 yards and 31 TDs (second overall) last year, leads a potent B.C. offence. Adams is 32-19 as a CFL starter but 2-4 versus Toronto.

B.C. will be without injured receiver Keon Hatcher (78 catches, 1,226 yards, six TDs) and veteran Dominique Rhymes is now with Ottawa. But Alexander Hollins (78 receptions, 1,173 yards, nine TDs), Jevon Cottoy (57 catches, 807 yards, four TDs) and Justin McInnis (46 catches, 690 yards, four TDs) will all suit up.

And veteran running back William Stanback makes his Lions’ debut.

“(We’re) optimistic but you don’t know what’s going to happen until you play games for real,” Campbell said. “I think that’s the thing all the teams go through, including us, where you wonder where you stack up when you play for real.

“We’re excited to see where we are as a team.”

Ditto for Dinwiddie, whose squad is still establishing its 2024 identity.

“I think we’re kind of finding it,” he said. “We have a good idea of what we’re going to be defensively.

“Offensively I don’t see us changing our approach. We’re going to run the ball downhill, most of our O-linemen are still here. Now, are we going to throw the ball down the field as much with Cam as compared to Chad? I’m not sure about that.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 8, 2024.

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