TORONTO — Carries, passes out of the backfield, the odd receiver route, making people miss — all qualities any successful running game owns.
In Toronto Argonauts training camp, there is a simple mandate for the handful of running backs vying for the starting spot come Week 1: Protect Ricky Ray.
There is no doubt that the reining East Division Most Outstanding Player is the Boatmen’s meal ticket and head coach Scott Milanovich makes no reservations about that fact.
The key to the Argos success is keeping Ray healthy and keeping him off the ground. This is what makes the running back spot in Toronto so unique. Block and protect first, get your touches second.
“It’s very hard in our league to go eighty, hundred yards without any sort of big play and that’s the hard thing about our tailback,” Milanovich told CFL.ca this week. “We want a guy who can make a guy miss and is great in the open field, but he still has to have enough courage and strength to protect Ricky. So those guys can be hard to find.”
Even prized rookie, Anthony Coombs — who the Argos traded up for and selected third overall in the Draft — sounds like a veteran when asked about protecting Ray.
“If you don’t keep him (Ray) clean you won’t see the field, no matter how talented you are as a running back.”
Coombs had high praise for the three-time Grey Cup champion quarterback.
“Ricky is our offence, without him we are a totally different team. He’s a veteran and probably the best quarterback in the league.”
How valuable is Ray to the Argos?
In games where Ray has played most of the game, the Argos are 14-8 (.636) and when he’s injured or missed a game the Argos are 7-7 (.500) during his two seasons in Toronto.
The only returning running back from last year’s Argos roster, Curtis Steele, was blunt about the running backs priorities in camp, when asked about protecting the Argos pivot.
“It’s very important, in a matter of fact it’s our number one job,” he said.
Another Argo newcomer, Jeremiah Johnson, spoke about the crucial part of any running back in the Argos scheme is to protect their most valuable asset under centre.
“Like coach said, you have a potential hall of famer back there; we want to keep his jersey clean, keep him up right at the end of the play and we want to keep him throwing those dimes. That’s our number one, first and foremost keep that man up and clean.”
If any of these running backs don’t take protecting Ricky Ray seriously, no matter how many yards they rush for, Milanovich has no problem in sitting or cutting the player.
Look no further than Cory Boyd.
During the 2012 season, Boyd was on a tear to begin the season. After six games he was the league’s rushing leader; accumulating 447 yards and averaged 5.5 yards per carry, however he wasn’t an efficient enough blocker in the backfield.
Milanovich made it very clear that it was one of the main reasons the Double Blue released the star tailback mid-season.
It caused a stir at the time and questions were raised – rarely do you see a team cut the league rushing leader in the middle of the season, but this paved the way for Chad Kackert to take the carries and help protect Ricky.
Amongst the questioning period of cutting Boyd, it seemed to work as well as put all backs on notice.
Not many people questioned Jim Barker or Milanovich as they went on to win the 100th Grey Cup at home in Toronto.
In the midst of one of a heated running back competition with the sudden retirement of Kackert, Steve Slaton put it in perspective.
“If you can’t protect the quarterback then you’re not going to be on the field. “
Whoever emerges as the starting running back for the Argos this season, one thing is guaranteed, they’ll be the best blocking back on the roster.