Arden Zwelling is a media and information graduate from The University of Western Ontario where he worked as a sports and associate editor at the Gazette, Canada’s only campus daily. He is also a web editor and blogger for The Score where his University Rush blog was featured during the 2010 CIS football season. Follow Arden on Twitter at @ArdenZwelling.
It’s not like Matt Walter hasn’t been yelled at by football coaches before.
So when the Calgary Dinos running back fumbled twice against the Simon Fraser Clan in 2008, he knew he was going to hear it from Dinos running backs coach Gino DiVincentis.
No big deal, just having a bad day.
But the verbal dressing down DiVincentis leveled on his second-year tailback — ‘the ball is much more important than you are,’ DiVincentis explained — was so far beyond anything Walter had ever endured from a coach before, that he was too scared to even think of fumbling the football ever again.
And he hasn’t.
Walter has gone 33 straight games, spanning more than two and a half years, without fumbling the football. He’s piled up more than 450 carries, 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns since then.
But that one statistical category that has stayed firmly at zero.
“There’s nothing worse than fumbling for a running back. That’s the worst mistake you can make — no one wants to see that,” Walter said. “So I’m glad I can hold onto the thing. I think it’s a skill that some CFL coaches may be interested in.”
No kidding — a running back that doesn’t fumble would likely be pretty high on the list of many a football coach. Right beside a quarterback that doesn’t throw interceptions and a linebacker that doesn’t miss tackles.
Of course, Walter’s fumble-free streak will probably be snapped at some point if he goes on to a long career in the CFL. It’s just bound to happen. But if the streak helped earn him a shot in the pros it would make it all worthwhile.
The 23-year-old Calgary native spent last weekend in Toronto at the CFL Evaluation Camp presented by Reebok, trying to do one of the rarer things one can manage in Canada — to play running back professionally.
Much is made about the struggles of the Canadian quarterback and how long it has been since a homegrown talent played the position professionally with any kind of consistency.
But Canadian running backs have had their own mountains to climb.
Despite being one of the most talented backs to emerge out of the CIS in the past decade, Calgary’s Jesse Lumsden — practically bred to play the position, being the son of former CFL fullback Neil Lumsden — has struggled to find consistent work in the CFL as he’s battled through a number of injuries.
Carries have even been few and far between for BC Lions homegrown running back Jamall Lee, who turned the 2009 Evaluation Camp on its head by setting records in both the 40-yard dash and the vertical jump after smashing the Quebec university league’s rushing record.
Forget the quarterbacks — it isn’t any easier to play running back as a Canadian either.
“It’s definitely tough to get up there. I think it’s possible. But you’ve got to be at a different level than everyone else and you’ve got to be able to show that you’re the type of guy that can handle the position,” Walter said.
Want to play running back in the CFL? Well you better be ready to play special teams and a lot of it.
That’s been the reality for Lee with the Lions and Walter expects nothing less if he gets a chance with a CFL team.
“I fully expect to come in and play special teams and I’m more than willing to bust my butt going hard out there,” Walter said. “Teams are going to want a guy who can run around and play a number of different roles and I think I can do that.”
Running around certainly won’t be a problem for the five-foot-ten, 210-pounder who ran the best forty-yard dash of all the running backs at E-Camp with a time of 4.65 seconds.
Walter also led the tailbacks in broad jump while finishing second in the short shuttle, vertical jump and bench press, meaning Walter could have the all-around abilities to be a very useful contributor on special teams where pure athleticism is especially important.
Walter wants to be a running back more than anything, but if getting there means he has to pay his dues on special teams for a few years before he can get consistent snaps — it won’t be a problem.
“All CFL teams want to put someone where they think they’ll play best and help the team win,” Walter said. “I’m more than willing to be a team player and play anywhere on the field. At the CFL level, I’m definitely going to capitalize on any opportunity I’m given.”
Nevertheless, Walter has been a running back for eleven years and has spent his past four quietly putting up some impressive numbers under the shadow of Dinos stars Anthony Parker, Nathan Coehoorn and Erik Glavic.
After bursting onto the scene in 2007, running for three touchdowns in the first game of his college career and being named Canada West rookie of the year, Walter has two Canada West rushing titles, two All-Canadian awards and three Canada West All-Star selections to his name.
In 2008 he took over for the injured Anthony Woodson in week two and won the conference rushing title and was the Canada West nominee for the Hec Crighton Trophy despite playing just six games.
It’s an impressive resume for a guy who doesn’t get a lot of press and has had to share his carries with fellow backs Woodson and Steven Lumbala over the years.
But when you’re on a team that wins three conference championships in a row with a host of All-Stars and All-Canadians, you just enjoy the ride.
“Playing at Calgary has just been awesome, especially with the team growing and evolving each year,” Walter said of playing in his hometown. “We were a crazy bunch of athletes there and anyone could make a play at any time. We were really keen to try to get better every year.”
The Dinos did get better every year, going from a disappointing 4-4 record in Walter’s first season, to an 18-6 regular season record over the next three years, including two trips to the Vanier Cup.
They lost on both occasions but Walter will tell you the experience of making it to a national championship, let alone two, is second to none.
Walter feels that experience, along with playing for Dinos’ coaches Blake Nill and Greg Vavra who run a pro-style offence, puts him and his Dinos teammates a step above other potential CFL rookies.
“With the offence that we ran, one play would have four permutations of the same thing. So all of a sudden one play expands into four and that makes it so much more complex,” Walter said. “I think that’s the kind of knowledge we’re going to need on the next level.”
Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have Walter’s dynamic combination of power and speed either.
If Newton says that force is generated by mass and speed, then Walter must be able to generate a lot of force. At a muscular 210 pounds, Walter has the size to break through the line and with a 40-time on par with most of the receivers at E-Camp, he clearly possesses the speed to burn the secondary once he’s through.
“A lot of guys think I’m a power back coming in but I was really glad I got the chance this weekend to show that I can utilize my speed as well,” Walter said. “You’ve got to have that explosion to break a few tackles and then that second level speed at the same time. You want to be able to be used in all situations.”
But Walter’s game continues to adapt and believe it or not, Walter would actually like to pack on an extra ten pounds by the time he reaches a CFL training camp.
But wouldn’t that affect his speed?
“What’s interesting is I find the more weight I gain, the quicker I get,” Walter said, debunking scientific theories across the planet.
We’ll give you a second to wrap your head around that concept. But the proof is in the numbers.
At last year’s East-West Bowl, Walter came into the competition at 200 pounds and ran the slowest forty-yard dash time of his life at 4.81. Ten months later and ten pounds heavier at E-Camp in Toronto — Walter runs a 4.65.
“Honestly, I don’t understand it. It doesn’t make any sense to me,” Walter said. “But that’s how it’s always been for me. Maybe if I can put on another ten pounds I can get even faster — who knows?”
|2||Blue Bombers||DE||Mulumba, Andy|
|3||Alouettes via EDM||LB||Edem, Mike|