Two very well-respected members of the Ottawa Redblacks roster decided to retire rather than play in 2023. Antoine Pruneau and Brendan Gillanders have both announced their retirement from the CFL. The two players with very different responsibilities, but one thing rang true about both players; they would do anything the coaching staff asked of them.
Antoine Pruneau Returning Where it All Began
A day many fans hoped would never come, Pruneau bids the Redblacks adieu and moves on to coach his alma mater in U-sports. Antoine Pruneau has spent his entire career donning the red and black. After a very decorated career with the Montreal Carabins, Pruneau found himself garnering CFL attention. During his time at the university, he proved to be extremely versatile. Playing defensive back, linebacker, and special teams for the Carabins, little did he know he was preparing himself for life as a professional football player.
Pruneau would attend the 2014 CFL Combine, garnering recognition for his athleticism. He would go on to run a 4.48 in the 40-yard dash which placed him second on the day. Adam Thibault from Laval managed a 4.45 only barely topping Pruneau’s mark. On the day both Pruneau and Thinault continued to place among the top two in every speed and agility drill.
Antoine Pruneau: 4.05 shuttle, 6.78 3-cone, 10 bench press reps, 34.5 vertical
Adam Thibault: 4.03 shuttle, 6.88 3-cone, 16 bench press reps, 37.5 vertical
This would lead both men to be selected in the 2014 CFL Draft, however, it was Pruneau, not Thibault who came off the board first. Ottawa loved what they saw from Pruneau in the combine, and believed his versatility meant he would get on the field early and often. To his credit, Pruneau did everything in his power to prove them right.
Being selected 4th overall in the CFL Draft is no small feat. This speaks to the kind of player Pruneau was coming out of university, and displays his above-average athleticism. He would be asked to play linebacker right away due to the depth in the secondary in his first season.
During the 2014 season, the defense produced 16 interceptions and 14 of them were accredited to the secondary. Stalwarts like Brandyn Thompson, Jasper Simmons, Abdul Kanneh, and Jerrell Gavins led the way collecting 12 of the team’s 16 interceptions for 197 of the 269 return yards the team had as a whole. Meanwhile, Pruneau was named most outstanding rookie for the Redblacks, and the team believed it would be a “crime” if Pruneau didn’t receive the league-wide recognition of the award.
By season end Pruneau had: 79 total tackles, 2 sacks, and 1 forced fumble
This showcased how well prepared he had been during his time under Current Alouettes general manager and head coach Danny Maciocia. At the time Maciocia was the head coach of the Carabins, and it was his success in Montreal that led him back into the CFL with the Alouettes. In a roundabout way, these two men have each other to thank for how their CFL careers have transpired so far.
Year Two Yields Changes
After playing so well at SAM linebacker in 2014, the coaching staff left him in the position heading into 2015. At 6’1 200 lbs, he was undersized even by CFL standards but Pruneau wasn’t deterred by his size, and simply used his elite athleticism to make up for any shortcomings size-wise that he couldn’t control. Again Pruneau had a solid season this time putting up 80 tackles, 2 interceptions, and 1 forced fumble.
For the next three seasons, Pruneau was locked in as a starter for this defense. Over his first five seasons in the league, he had already collected:
293 defensive tackles
54 special teams tackles
16 passes defended
3 forced fumbles
177 return yards
Not a bad start to a career, even if you were selected 4th overall in your draft class. However, from here, Pruneau began to deal with some injuries. After missing just 1 game through his first four seasons, in 2018 he missed five games and this began to be a trend. In 2019 it was more of the same, he played in just 9 games. In 2020 the entire season was canceled, and in 2021, Pruneau appeared in 11 of 14 games. Finally, in 2022 he played in all 18 games again, but his role had diminished significantly since his career in Ottawa began.
Faced with the free agency after the 2022 season it appears Pruneau had no plans of ever playing for another organization. He chose to retire rather than test the open market. Once a Redblack, always a Redblack. Pruneau helped bring a championship to Ottawa in 2016 and spent the last nine years filling every need for the organization that he could. It’s too bad he’s forced to ride off into the sunset after such a rough year for the Redblacks, unfortunately, many players go out this way every season. Pruneau and Gillanders are just the most recent examples.
From Delivering Devastating Blows to Serving Up Pancake Blocks
Brendan Gillanders has always struck me as the kind of blue-collar lunch pail-type player that every team needs. The Human Kinetics major played football during his university days with the Ottawa Gee-Gees from 2009 to 2013. During his time there Gillanders played sparingly his first two seasons but turned quickly into the workhorse in his final three years.
After two seasons that netted just 1 carry for 9 yards in 2 appearances, Gillanders burst on the scene in his third year at the school. He would carry the ball 132 times for 767 yards, and 6 touchdowns. Adding 17 receptions for 207 yards. Playing in just 8 games Gillanders averaged 122 yards of offense per game. He would continue to get better over time as a runner. Going from a 5.8 yard per carry average to 6.2, and finally 6.8 in his final season. In his last season with the Gee-Gees, he also logged 34 receptions for 321 yards and 3 touchdowns all career highs.
By the time the 2013 season ended, Gillanders had collected 365 carries for 2,284 yards, or 6.3 yards per carry, and 17 touchdowns. He added 60 receptions for 593 yards and 7 touchdowns, 2 kick returns for 53 yards, and 5 tackles. However, no game was more memorable than his 16 carry, 246 yard, 4 touchdown explosion against Waterloo in October of 2012 during a four-game stretch to close his that season Gillanders amassed an insane 640 yards, and 9 touchdowns on the ground.
From Ottawa To Toronto and Back
After finishing his time with the Gee-Gees, Gillanders was signed by the Toronto Argonauts under Scott Milanovich. Milonavich was a long-time quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator, but a first-time head coach this season. He saw potential in Gillanders but saw him more as a fullback than a true running back.
Gillanders would stay with Toronto for two seasons before moving on. During those two years in Toronto however, he seemed to change the trajectory of his career while working under Jim Daley. The long-time special teams coordinator saw Gillanders for what he was. A very talented gunner. He immediately collected 6 tackles as a rookie despite playing in only 13 games and finding himself on the 6 game-injured list.
Coaching Change Leads to Career Highs
In 2015, Jim Daley was replaced by Scott Downing. Downing was hired after landing on his feet at Tulsa as the assistant head coach/tight ends coach/special teams coordinator, following a disastrous run as a head coach at Northern Colorado in which he produced a 9-47 record. This is when a role on special teams started to develop for the fullback. In just his second year he produced what still stands as a career-high with 14 special teams tackles. He would match this feat again in 2019. During this 2019 season, he had his best overall season on offense to match his solid special teams performance.
Collecting a career-high in carries with 23, receptions with 17, and total offense with 191 yards. Despite this carer year, it also marked the first season of what would be a multiple-season stretch of missing games due to injury. In 2019, he missed 2 of 18 games, following the 2020 cancellation, he missed 6 of 14 games, and in 2022 he missed 4 games. After three seasons straight of injury marred seasons, and a 2020 season away from football in recent memory, Gillanders has ultimately decided to call it quits on his football career at 32 years old.
Legacy Stands Strong in Ottawa
Brendan Gillanders legacy isn’t truly legitimized by statistics, but for the sake of putting numbers on his impact:
8 seasons, 118 games, 66 carries, 302 yards, 4.6 average per carry, 39 receptions on 45 targets, for 344 yards or an average of 8.8 per reception, adding 63 tackles, and 1 forced fumble on special teams.
His impact on the team went beyond the stat sheet, and couldn’t be quantified by any number anyway. It was his leadership, and infectious level of effort that truly made him so valuable to every team he played on during his long career. Whether it was offense, or special teams he always seemed to step up in whatever role he was given. His consistency was envied by other players, and likely will be for many seasons.
Heading into retirement it seems Gillanders will put to use his background in human kinetics in an interesting manner. He is now involved with Athletic Alliance Sports Supplements as an engagement official looking to grow a company focused on helping athletes recover from the sports they love.
It is very nice to see these two players step into careers that will keep them very close to the sport that granted them a long and prosperous professional career. With Pruneau coaching young athletes, and Gillanders growing a company to help athletes recover, let us all wish them the best in their careers.
Best of Luck to Two Great Representatives of the Red and Black
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