'We're going to run the damn ball': Roughriders keen to focus on ground game this season

A healthy competition has been brewing at Saskatchewan Roughriders training camp over the weekend.

Following the departure of starting running back William Powell to the Ottawa RedBlacks in the offseason, the Roughriders are ready to establish a new identity on the ground after a lacklustre statistical year that saw the team finish sixth out of nine teams in rushing offence.

“We’re going to run the damn ball. Try and stop us,” running backs coach Kelly Jeffrey said.

Hoping to help Jeffrey accomplish his bullish goal are Shaq Cooper and Jamal Morrow.

The pair have been roommates while the Roughriders are at training camp in Saskatoon, creating plenty of moments to bond off the field as they compete for a job on the field.

With less than three weeks until the regular season, most conversations lead to the playbook.

“We teach each other, we help each other out on a lot of stuff. Just being there for each other. That's what he's about,” Cooper said of Morrow.

“Nine (times) out of 10, when we’re talking we’re going over plays.”

Morrow feels the growing relationship with Cooper is a natural fit so far.

“As soon as I met him, we clicked right away,” Morrow said.

“We got a lot of things in common … so it’s definitely cool to room with him and form that bond and friendship.”

Morrow is the only holdover on the depth chart amongst American backs. After seeing spot duty last season, he is the lone back the coaching staff is familiar with, but he doesn’t see the starting role as his to lose.

“I wouldn’t say that,” Morrow said with a smile.

“I don’t look at it as a job to lose. It’s more of a just going out there to do what I do and wherever the chips fall, that’s where they fall.”

However, Morrow's head coach sees him as having an advantage to earn the starting role.

“All things being equal, we will go with a veteran player that knows the system and knows how we do things,” Craig Dickenson said.

Dickenson also sees Frankie Hickson and Troymaine Pope as two other running backs he’s enjoyed watching so far in training camp.

Jeffrey is in his first training camp with the Roughriders after being hired over the winter. Being a new coach with the team means there are no favourites, making it a truly open competition for playing time.

“I think having some new eyes on it is always good. You know, I get a fresh perspective. I think none of those guys feel like they're going to be slotted in somewhere without a chance to earn a position, so everybody's got an opportunity to earn,” he said.

“I'm not giving anybody any special privileges.”

Cooper arrives in Saskatchewan after splitting last year between the B.C. Lions and Winnipeg Blue Bombers. Prior to that, he spent two years with the Edmonton Elks under then-head coach Jason Maas.

He sees that familiarity with the now Riders offensive coordinator as a path to success this season.

“You guys may not see it, but it’s the little stuff, you know. So it’s a bonus, being a veteran and just knowing everything and helping other guys out,” Cooper said.

Schemes, matchups and plays fade into the distance when a starting role on the team is on the line. When Morrow and Cooper put their helmets on, the jokes quickly turn into serious competition.

“If you want it, you got to go get it,” Cooper said.