After a busy off-season in which the Riders hired Corey Chamblin as head coach and parted ways, be it through retirement, free agency or waivers, with some two dozen players, including Gene Makowsky, Jerrell Freeman, Andy Fantuz, Wes Cates, Lance Frazier and Barrin Simpson, while signing several high-profile free agents and draft picks, the Green & White kick off the 2012 CFL season with a game tonight in Hamilton against the Tiger Cats (TSN 5 p.m.)

To help set the stage, we’re joined by two long-time CFL observers: Ron Mexico and Earl Camembert (Cal Corduroy was scheduled to participate too, but he suffered an upper body injury of some sort while watching the Riders in pre-season and wasn’t able to make deadline*). Throughout the season, they’ll participate in several fan forums to discuss developments with the Riders and CFL to date and look ahead to upcoming games.

In their first pre-season game on June 13, the Riders got pounded by the Lions 44-10 in Vancouver. Then back home on June 22 they lost to the Stampeders 33-31 on a last-play field goal. How did you think training camp and the pre-season went for the Riders?

RM:  I think it went fairly well. I actually watched a few practices in training camp and thought the intensity and pace were impressive. I’m not overly concerned about the B.C. game, but will be real worried if the season starts and our defensive backs are 12 yards off the opposing receivers.

EC: I think that camp went pretty much as expected. The team made a lot of changes in the off-season so I wasn’t surprised when B.C. handed them their rear ends in the first pre-season game. The second game was somewhat more encouraging, but I don’t think Calgary has much this year either.

CC: The exhibition season is hardly a good barometer for the season’s performance, but having said that, it’s all we really have to go on.  As happened last year, the Riders danced into B.C. and promptly got their proverbial a**es handed to them.  And there certainly wasn’t much to talk about in the positive light.  So let’s write that game off.  Calgary was a much better game, but then again, Calgary isn’t exactly the elite of the league this year.  Summary:  Neutral at best.

Now that the Rider roster has been finalized, what newcomers do you think have the potential to be impact players?

RM: Depends on how you define “impact”. In the glamour positions, you’d have to say running back Cory Sheets looks like he could be impressive. Outside the glamour positions I would say watch Sam Hurl on special teams, and at linebacker when he takes over from Shomari Williams a few games into the season. Dominic Picard and Brendan Labatte should make a positive impact on the offensive line as well. Another guy to watch is defensive back Paul Woldu. I wouldn’t be surprised if he plays the wide side field corner.

EC: Cory Sheets looked good in the two pre-season games. When you look at overall impact, though, I think through the season that the two offensive linemen the team signed in the offseason will have the most impact. If they don’t, then the Riders are in trouble.

EC: I’m not an Odell Willis fan, so I remain to be convinced the past-Mayor of Swaggerville will have an impact … at least a positive one.  Shomari Williams was invisible in both pre-season tilts, so middle linebacker remains a huge question mark.  The defensive backfield will look different without Lance Frasier who, if not on the field, then in the locker room, was a positive force for the defense.  I expect an improved offensive line this year (and Lord knows we needed it).  I’m surprised that Dan Goodspeed remained on the team, and while there are high hopes for Ben Heenan, it was obvious to me (at least in the B.C. game) that he is indeed a rookie.  Kory Sheets looked quite good in the first two games.  But running back for the Riders hasn’t been a strong point for years, so we’ll wait and see about him (or Brandon West for that matter).

Among the players who were released around the league were there any surprises? Are there any cuts from other teams that you’d like to see the Riders bring in?

RM: If you look at the list, you likely won’t recognize many names, other than Calgary receiver Kenyon Rambo who had health trouble. One surprise was Calgary cutting their first round draft pick (5th overall), defensive end Ameet Pall. There must be some kind of story behind that. I can’t think of any cuts I’d bring in other than possibly the B.C. tackles. I don’t even know their names, but I know there was no way they’d beat out the two guys the Lions have there now.

EC: Prompted by this question, I went and looked at the cuts around the league and really don’t think there’s anyone who should be brought in. Any of the recognizable players who got the axe were all well into their 30s and I don’t see much point in signing these types of players given the direction the team is going in regard to youth.

CC: I was surprised by the release of Lance Frasier, but not shocked per se.  Any surprise cuts (Kenyon Rambo, Stevie Baggs) are not really anything we’re too interested in.  They’re older and (perhaps with the exception of Rambo) not really the impact players they once were.  Rambo might help to shore up our receiving core if we (a) get hurt, (b) he can still pass a physical, and (c) we can tolerate his cockiness (which is a stretch).

Heading into the season, are there areas of the team you expect to see marked improvement in from last year? What aspects of the team remain a concern?

RM: I expect to see marked improvement in the running game, not just because of the players but because of some additional running plays. I think the offensive line will be better. The entire defence is a concern.

EC: As mentioned earlier, the offensive line has made the most positive changes and should be less of a concern this year than last. That should bode well for the running game too. The defensive backfield and linebackers though are a significant concern, and if the team doesn’t get a pass rush, then it’s going to be a long year defensively.

CC: I am expecting a marked improvement on O-line. I am hoping for a marked improvement on D-line (but not necessarily expecting it).  I have no idea where we’ll be at linebacker, but a guy like Jerrell Freeman is tough to replace.  The secondary will be a wait-and-see, but the usual Richie Hall defensive schemes have demonstrated little evidence of delivering a championship level defense.  And it’s time for Darian Durrant to decide if he is going to be an elite quarterback and leader or if he will go down in history as the quarterback that could never get over the hump to greatness.

Looking at the league as a whole, do you see anybody challenging the Lions in the CFL West? As far as the East goes, who do you regard as legit contenders there?

RM: I don’t see anyone touching B.C. In the East, I think Hamilton and Montreal are the top teams, and there may actually be the first crossover of an Eastern team into the Western playoffs.

EC: B.C. is clearly the class of the West barring injury. The other three teams in the division are pretty close and injuries likely will dictate who finishes where. I thought that Calgary might be decent, but Drew Tate isn’t the answer based on what I saw from him at the pre-season game. Eric Tillman must still be on the painkillers he was on here when he traded Ricky Ray and thought he could do anything with Steven Jyles at quarterback. Jyles hasn’t cut it anywhere he’s been, and Kerry Joseph was old three years ago when the Riders dealt him. Edmonton is likely destined for the basement. Hamilton thinks they have a shot this year, but Henry Burris was done two years ago. Anthony Calvillo is what, 56? Montreal is going to have a drop off because he’ll get hurt. Same with Buck Pierce in Winnipeg. If I had to pick someone to come out of the East, I’d still say Montreal unless Calvillo gets hurt. If he does, then it’s Winnipeg.

CC: The Lions appear to be in a league of their own in the West.  I don’t see anybody really challenging them for top spot.  The remaining three are a toss up.  In the East, as much as I can’t stand Henry Burris, the Ti-Cats will be a good team this year.  Montreal is always tough, but Anthony Cavillo gets his Canada pension this year, and at some point, that’s got to affect their team.

* Cal recovered in time to file his copy before kick-off so I added his responses.