The onset of the 2019 season brings higher than usual expectations for the Winnipeg Rifles — not only because Winnipeg is seen as a legitimate contender to capture a Canadian Junior Football League title, but they are currently touting, arguably, their best top-to-bottom football team in years.
There’s a lot of truth to the age-old football adage; everything starts and finishes at quarterback. Complete football teams always hold strong quarterbacking essential, and the Rifles expect big things from their point-position, with stability, skill, and experience in third-year quarterback Riley Naujoks.
Due to injury in his second junior season, Naujoks started and finished only three games in 2018. This season, the 6-foot 200-pound St. Paul’s High School product is expected to not just bounce back, but be a focal point on one of the country’s junior football powers.
“Physically, he has the ability to be one of the top quarterbacks in the entire CJFL,” said Rifles head coach Geordie Wilson. “All of the tools are there. It’s the mental component — he knows what he’s doing. He needs to be decisive, make quick reads, trust them, and deliver the ball. Because when he does that, he’s good.”
“He throws the ball on time. He has a very strong arm. In our league he can make every throw necessary. We expect him to be upper-echelon and lead our team to a whole pile of wins.”
“Right now I feel so much more comfortable,” said Naujoks after leading Team Black to a 20-19 edge over Team White in the Rifles’ annual inter-squad “Black & White Game” to conclude training camp. “We have so much depth at the receiver position. It’s very comforting to know I’ve worked with these guys for three years and they’ve stuck around and are all-in with you. It’s a nice feeling to know we have strong players out in the receiving corps.”
“We have so much height and size that I trust them to make the catch and go up and get it. We have a couple guys who are almost like a safety blanket.”
The offensive line will make it all happen for Winnipeg, in keeping Naujoks upright and allowing him to operate the offence.
“This O-line, I think this is the best group we’ve had since I’ve been here,” said Naujoks. “They’re really strong — the starting five and the guys behind them. It’s nice to feel like we have one of the strongest O-lines this year because I don’t want to be running for my life back there.”
Who Winnipeg hopes will be running wild are the Rifles’ tailbacks. The club flexes a dynamic duo of third-year runners in Brandon Urciuoli, who was embedded in training camp with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers this year, and Mathe Mitayango, whose explosion is evident whenever he touches the ball.
“It takes a little pressure off,” added Naujoks. “Sure, we have a great receiving corps, but we don’t want to be throwing it 40 times a game. It’s nice knowing we have two players who are really talented that, when you give them the ball, they’re going to go make a play with it. Having ‘Urch’ and Mathe back there means so much to me — again, it’s just a comforting experience.”
Another oft-applicable age-old football adage; talent only takes you so far. Dedication, focus, and leadership are qualities the Rifles have worked tirelessly to instil in their culture, throughout the locker room. Naujoks has led the progression here as well.
“He truly committed to offseason training,” added Wilson of his quarterback. “He has assumed a leadership role. The quarterback position always lends itself to leadership, but Riley talks with all the guys and has started showing up and leading by example daily, in the offseason workouts and throughout training camp.
The Rifles hold a Canadian Junior Football League preseason ranking of No. 7 in the nation, and open their 2019 campaign at home on Sunday, August 18 at 1 p.m. against the five-time-defending Canadian Bowl champion Saskatoon Hilltops. More information can be found at RiflesFootball.com or on social media @RiflesFootball.