REGINA — Jovon Johnson credits Roughrider veterans like Eddie Davis for helping him as a young cornerback breaking into the league. Now in his second stint with the club, Johnson has become the veteran taking Saskatchewan's rookie defensive backs under his wing.
Johnson, playing in his 11th CFL season, has taken on a leadership role with newcomers like Chris Lyles, who plays on the wide side with Johnson.
"I'm dealing with the young guys, trying to help those guys become better pros," Johnson said.
The 33-year-old got his CFL start with the Regina club in 2007, when Davis was a regular in the Riders' secondary. Johnson saw his first game action in the team's final two regular season games that year.
"Guys like Eddie Davis helped me get across that hump. I see why he was doing the things he was doing for me," Johnson said ahead of the Roughriders' Saturday tilt against the visiting Hamilton Tiger-Cats (0-1).
The Roughriders (0-2) are looking to bounce back after two-straight losses that saw Montreal and Winnipeg beat them by one and three points, respectively.
Winnipeg's comeback in last Saturday's game resulted, in part, from busted coverage assignments in Saskatchewan's defensive backfield. One play saw slotback Weston Dressler uncovered in the end zone for a nine-yard touchdown pass.
Lyles, who was covering the receiver next to Dressler on that play, says communication is the major improvement area for the secondary when they play Hamilton.
Despite being a newcomer to Canadian football and learning its plethora of waggles and pre-snap motions, the 22-year-old says he's blessed to be in the spot he has.
"I got a whole bunch of veterans around me (including Johnson) who know what they're doing," he said.
"He's a great communicator … he's certainly respected in our locker room. And he's very vocal in our locker room in a positive way," said head coach and general manager Chris Jones of the veteran cover man.
Johnson says communicating better means slowing things down for Lyles and other rookies. That includes identifying receivers' route combinations like a hitch-dig combo, which is designed to stretch holes between defensive backs.
Jones said that should lead to better cohesion as the season progresses.
"Our boundary-side guys have worked together for a year. Unfortunately, the communication has been lacking there, so we're certainly working on it."
Coverage busts or not, Hamilton's offensive co-ordinator and receivers coach Stefan Ptaszek expects a tight passing game against the Riders' secondary and Jones' constantly changing defensive fronts.
"Chris is unconventional and thinks outside of the box. Identifying what they're doing, where they're trying to get to, will be a challenge. To be honest, they've had a few busts that have hurt them, but otherwise, they played some really good defence," Ptaszek said.
Any success his team generates will come from a dynamic offence that keeps the Riders on their toes, he said.
That means putting "our best guys at different spots on various sets and series, and just making it difficult for them to choose the matchup they'd like to have."
But the Ticats will be down one of their top receivers. Terrence Toliver suffered a torn right ACL in his knee in Week 1 against Toronto after a low tackle from Argonauts defensive back Cassius Vaughn.
Ptaszek said Toliver's absence means Luke Tasker and speedster Brandon Banks will be expected to shoulder more of the work on Saturday.
He said he's also hopeful that Junior Collins will be ready to go as another experienced target for quarterback Zach Collaros.
He and the Tiger-Cats will be looking for more offensive production on Saturday. The team is coming off a Week 2 bye and a Week 1 loss to Toronto (32-15), in which they only gained 221 offensive yards with no offensive touchdowns.
Evan Radford, The Canadian Press