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It’s a bit of a muddle in the Toronto Argonauts’ backfield right now but that’s not really a bad thing.
While Monday night’s pre-season win in Winnipeg didn’t offer any clear-cut answers as to who’ll be taking over the number one running back spot, it did serve to show that it will be someone who is up to the task; that the Argos have far from a bare cupboard.
Three newcomers are making their marks, and a second year back-up is making his case in the battle to emerge as the number one tailback in 2014.
Curtis Steele, Steve Slaton and Jeremiah Johnson all find themselves firmly in the race, with first round draft pick Anthony Coombs in position to nip at a heel or two.
With the early retirement of 2012 Grey Cup MVP Chad Kackert, the Argos are looking for the next all around backfield performer; one who can not only make things happen when he has the ball, but also when he doesn’t.
Steele, who’s splendid special teams work alone is enough to make him a veritable lock for a roster spot, has reminded fans and coaches that he ought to be included in any conversation about who will be the number one lugger of the rock when the season opens in Winnipeg, on June 26.
It was a year ago that he first hit the radar, dipping, cutting and powering his way to the job of backing up Kackert, with a strong pre-season showing, particularly in a home game against the Montreal Alouettes at Varsity Stadium.
In Monday night’s pre-season win over the Blue Bombers, the 27 year old native of Franklin, Tennessee showed some of those moves again in gaining 38 yards on 6 rushes and getting airborne for a touchdown carry from the one yard line.
Coombs (21 years old), Slaton (28) and Johnson (27) are more like Kackert, especially when it comes to their statures. Their skill set in receiving short passes in the flats and turning quickly will continue to be tested. While Steele may not seem the same kind of back in those situations as they may be, his substantial abilities when it comes to leaping over defenders on dive plays is an ace for him.
As much as offensive abilities are plainly necessary, what is also obvious to any Argos observer is that the ‘not so glamorous’ tasks will tell an important tale as well.
All of the hopefuls absolutely must be able to pick up the blitz as well as chip block any defensive lineman who breaches the first layer of protection along the offensive line. Kackert was more than adept at that. He was terrific, and whoever emerges as the top running back out of camp will need to display that they can at least be a quick study in that area, if not already fairly polished.
Johnson, for one, welcomes that part of the job. In fact, he says, he relishes it.
“I’m in love with it,” he gushed. “There is nothing better than catching a 290 pound D lineman in the chest and making him fall. That makes you feel like you’re Superman.”
Johnson, whose breakaway speed has wowed the Argos’ brass on a daily basis throughout training camp, is fully aware that his stable mates can match much of what he brings, with the difference maker being the down and dirty grunt work when he’s called on to stay in the backfield and ward off the quarterback-seeking missiles.
“We all have the athletic ability to go out there and make touchdowns, make moves on the last defender. But at the end of the day, the point is to keep Ricky Ray’s back clean and I think that is what’s going to set everyone apart. Who is going to stick their nose in there and who is going to put their body on the line for that man. That future hall of famer.”
Johnson’s night in Winnipeg was a mixed bag. He showed that great getaway speed on a 23 yard carry in the second quarter but put the ball on the turf in the third when he was rocked by a hit he didn’t see. A more tightly tucked ball may have avoided that and lest you write him off as a butter fingers, it’s early for that. Recall that Kackert had a propensity to fumble as well, a trait which he cleaned up well by the time his first tour of duty as a starter had ended in 2012.
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Slaton, whose NFL numbers suggest he is a credible double threat (808 yards on 100 career receptions, 1896 yards on 442 rushes), gets the publicity for his two touchdowns on Monday – one on the ground, one through the air – and he played as advertised, though he was not challenged by Winnipeg defenders on either of his majors. He looked crisp and confident and very polished, as you’d expect.
With Coombs, the Argonauts have their ratio-busting back of the future and there seems no need to rush that process. With Steele, Slaton and Johnson all further along in their development, there is the luxury of spotting their prized rookie in the backfield and at slot, for the time being. Coombs didn’t pop on Monday night, nor did he disappoint, making it a perfectly acceptable debut.
If Coombs rises to the occasion of starting tailback – be it tomorrow, next week or next season – it will be imperative that the Argos have a Canadian who can back him up, allowing for flexibility in case of in-game injury. That’s where Anthony Woodson comes in, and the team believes he is a more than capable understudy.
There are a lot of possibilities behind Ray. A lot of ball carriers who believe they are the answer and if you wonder if that can lead to friction, Johnson maintains it isn’t present now.
“If we’re at each other’s necks, we can hinder each other as a group,” he said, assuring that there is harmony.
“I’m here to help,” he continued. “I’m here to make other people better. When you make other people better that makes you better as well because you’re going over what you already know and you’re perfecting it.”
So, with decent outings for all the candidates on Monday night, the job of continuing to impress at practice resumes this week and next.
Then, in the final pre-season game, against Hamilton, another chance to separate.
Right now, it’s up for grabs and happily for the Toronto Argonauts, that’s not due to a scarcity of options.