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New-look secondary key for Calgary Stampeders ahead of CFL season

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Demerio Houston brings ball-hawking skill, Bentlee Sanders offers fresh talent to Calgary club’s retooled defensive backfield

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The secondary became a primary point of focus in the off-season for the Calgary Stampeders.

So for the 2024 CFL campaign, the defensive backfield certainly has a new look.

One with more ball-hawking ability, they hope.

“We’ve got some different people,” said Stampeders GM/head coach Dave Dickenson. “It’s a solid group. I think we have upgraded. And now we’ll just see if we can do it week-in and week-out.

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“But to me, we got knockdowns last year and we’ve got interceptions this year.”

The boss can say that given the moves he made to retool his secondary after just a team-total nine INTs in 2023.

The biggest transaction came in the form of free-agent addition Demerio Houston, a cornerback who led the league in interceptions — a sparkling seven in just 15 games — last year.

“Just felt wanted more here in Calgary,” said 27-year-old Houston, of choosing to sign on with the Stampeders after spending parts of three seasons with the highly successful Winnipeg Blue Bombers. “I just feel like I’m just coming over to make a change, make a difference and do whatever I need to do to help my team be successful.”

His journey to success on another team begins Friday, when the Stamps play host to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the season opener at McMahon Stadium (7 p.m., TSN, QR Calgary).

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“I feel like they look to me to be a leader,” said Houston, at just 5-foot-10, 173 lb. “It’s a different role for me, because I’m used to being in the background in Winnipeg. So I’m used to being quiet. Now here in Calgary, I’m more vocal, and I’m trying to work on that. If they need me to play offence, I’ll do it. If they need me to step up and be more vocal, I’ll do it. Whatever I need to do, I’ll do it to help this team be successful.”

What Dickenson & Co. want is a difference-maker — something the North Carolina native and former star of the NCAA’s Southern Jaguars has in his skill set.

“Expect big plays, whether it’s big tackles or pass deflections or — of course — interceptions,” continued Houston. “My personal goal is to do it again and try to excel higher in interceptions.”

With Houston aboard and at boundary corner, that pushes sixth-year veteran Tre Roberson to the other cornerback spot on the wide side of the field.

And after two successful seasons with the Montreal Alouettes, Rodney Randle Jr. joins the Stamps to assume an inside spot at defensive halfback.

American Branden Dozier is back for a fourth season at safety for the Red & White to provide stability.

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But it’s likely more fresh faces slotting in for the other halfback job — quite possibly 2024 first-round draft pick Ben Labrosse — and stepping up into the sixth secondary spot when schemes call for a defensive back — perhaps American Bentlee Sanders.

Their rise — and the talents of other new players, to boot — made it possible for the Stamps to release veterans Titus Wall and Brad Muhammad.

“He’s a good returner, too — he’s fast,” said Dickenson of Sanders. “Thought he really showed well (in last Friday’s pre-season win over the host Blue Bombers). I thought guys stood out, and he was one of them.”

Calgary Stampeders practice
The Calgary Stampeders mingle during practice at McMahon Stadium on Monday, June 3, 2024. Brent Calver/Postmedia

Sanders comes to the Stamps after a decorated NCAA career with the South Florida Bulls and then the Nevada Wolf Pack.

“Wherever they need me, I’ll play to the best of my abilities,” said the 25-year-old Sanders, whose stat line in 2022 with Nevada was 82 tackles — including five for losses — three forced fumbles, four passes defended and five interceptions — including one pick-six.

“You might look at me and say, ‘Aww … he’s too small,’” continued Sanders, at just 5-foot-9 and 175 lb. “But when I get on the field, you’re not gonna think I’m that small of a guy. I come with some dog. I come with some grit. I just love the game so much. So you’re gonna see my passion on the field every day.

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“My mission was just to show these coaches I could still play ball. I mean … I’ve been away from the game for about two years now, so I need to just show them I can come in and help the team in any way they need me.”

Americans Kobe Williams and Daniel Amoako, Calgary’s own Nick Statz, Ontario’s Malcolm Thompson and Australia’s Bailey Scott-Devine — all with CFL experience — return to the Red & White secondary, as well.

Meanwhile, Montreal’s Kaylyn St-Cyr — another 2024 draft pick — and Americans Kenyon Reed and Tyler Richardson have been added to the practice roster, while 2024 draftee Jackson Sombach has been returned to the U SPORTS’ Regina Rams but remains property of the Stamps.

“I do think we’re not quite set on who’s playing yet,” continued Dickenson of his secondary. “We’re going to let guys compete. We did have some nice interceptions (in Winnipeg last Friday). We tackled well, we’re playing fast, and we covered fairly well.”

“I know it’s a great group of guys — that’s what also made me come over,” added Houston. “Just here to help the team get to the ultimate goal, which is the Grey Cup.”

SHORT YARDAGE

Amoako (knee) is sidelined by injury … So, too, are four of his Stampeders teammates — WR Rysen John (hamstring), OL Kyle Saxelid (knee), DL Darius Williams (calf) and Jason Janvier-Messier (Achilles) … WR Clark Barnes (knee) and WR Tyson Middlemost (ankle) returned to practice Tuesday … Tickets are on sale for all Stampeders games at www.stampeders.com.

tsaelhof@postmedia.com

X: @ToddSaelhofPM

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