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Alouettes may have growing pains as post-Calvillo era begins with Smith at QB

MONTREAL - Troy Smith is ready to hear Anthony Calvillo's name mentioned every time he lines up at quarterback for the Montreal Alouettes.

The Heisman Trophy-winning pivot, who joined the Alouettes midway through last season, will be the club's first opening-game starter other than Calvillo in 15 years when Montreal plays its first game of the 2014 CFL regular season at Calgary on Saturday.

They are massive shoes to fill, with Calvillo having retired in the off-season as the league's all-time passing leader.

"I'll never stop hearing those references," Smith said this week. "I think it's great to be mentioned with a great name like that.

"I haven't done nearly the things he has, and just holding onto his coattails a bit has been fun so far. But as a man, I definitely want to make my own path. That's why I'm here."

Smith takes over the key position on a team that was a powerhouse for most of Calvillo's time behind centre, but which has been sliding in recent seasons.

And even though they remain well-stocked with top talent at many positions, the Alouettes are perceived as a team in decline.

Last season was a disaster, with the inexperienced Dan Hawkins fired as head coach only five games into the season, followed shortly by a season-ending, and career-ending, injury to Calvillo.

They finished 8-10, tying their worst record since they returned to Montreal after a 10-year gap in 1996, and lost to Hamilton in the East Division semifinal.

This season hasn't started well either, with team architect Jim Popp's bid to keep the head coaching as well as general managing job turned down. Tom Higgins, who was out of coaching since 2007, was named the new head coach, but the offensive co-ordinator he hired, Rick Worman, was fired midway through training camp.

Then the club lost both its pre-season games, including a 26-10 setback at home against expansion Ottawa in which they failed to score a touchdown with new OC Ryan Dinwiddie calling the plays.

Smith was not sharp while playing just over half of that game, but neither were backups Tanner Marsh and Alex Brink.

All three got starts last season, with Smith emerging as the most promising to take over the top job. Now he has to play well enough to keep it.

"I don't look at it as a transition year," said Popp. "That was last year.

"There's going to be a transition, but we were faced with this starting in Game 6, and we played two thirds of the year without Anthony Calvillo, knowing he probably wasn't coming back.

"We had four different quarterbacks that won games and the team realized they could win without Anthony. That was a big hurdle. It's a little nerve-wracking, but like with all great players you lose, you just have to march on. It's not so much to replace that guy, but to find someone you can win with. How great they'll be, we'll find out."

There were two main positives to come out of the off-season. One was the return of Larry Taylor, who gives them a kick return threat they haven't had in recent seasons. Another was the signing of former NFL star receiver Chad (Ochocinco) Johnson, who so far looks to have a positive influence on and off the field.

The 36-year-old Johnson has been out of football for two years, but Popp said he showed up in shape and has been a "great fit."

"I think he can do great things for us," Popp said. "Every time we play somebody, their attention is on him, and not on S.J. Green and Duran Carter. So if he's an attention grabber and everyone's talking about him, great. Chad's used to that. And Chad, with each game and experience he has in this league, is only going to get better as the season goes along."

Smith will have an impressive set of receivers with Green, Carter, Johnson, Taylor, Brandon London, Eric Deslauriers and the repatriated Dave Stala. Gone are Jamel Richardson, who had a knee injury and was cut, and veteran Arland Bruce.

"We've got the best receiving corps in the league," said Popp, who is particularly high on Carter, the son of former NFL great Cris Carter, who gained 909 yards in only 12 games after making his CFL debut in August.

"All I say is 'CFL, enjoy what you're watching because you'll be watching him in the NFL next season,' He'll have the majority of NFL teams after him, and we're not talking about as a third or fourth receiver. He can go in and have an impact like Cam Wake. He's at that level."

There is a first-rate running back in Brandon Whitaker and a solid offensive line anchored by left tackle Josh Bourke, despite the retirements of Scott Flory and Andrew Woodruff and the departure of Michael Ola to the NFL.

The defence lost starting middle linebacker Shea Emry to Toronto, but should remain among the league's best under defensive co-ordinator Noel Thorpe with veterans like rush end John Bowman and linebacker Chip Cox leading the unit.

The Alouettes' kick teams have been weak for the last three seasons, including when Marc Trestman was head coach and didn't name a full-time special teams co-ordinator.

But they looked good both on returns and kick coverage in the pre-season and they may be a key area of improvement. Taylor's ability to avoid the first wave to pick up extra yardage should be a bonus.

It will likely take some time for the offence to jell. And if it turns out that Smith doesn't have what it takes to be a regular CFL starter, it could be a long season indeed.

Starting the campaign against Calgary, followed by a home game against B.C., should give Higgins and idea of what it will take to re-establish Montreal's reputation as a Grey Cup contender.

"Every indication is that Troy Smith's going to be our guy, but sometimes there are growing pains," said Higgins. "If you look at Anthony's career, at the start it wasn't as stellar as it was at the end.

"All that being said, (Smith) comes with good intangibles. He's from a good program. He's got the system down. Practices are going good. So let's see him get measured up against the best."

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