It's getting hard to identify the Toronto Argonauts' toughest foe is this week.
Is it the feisty, first-year Ottawa RedBlacks, all amped up to play before a sellout crowd in their home opener Friday night?
Or is it the team's own internal injury bug which, these days, has morphed into an ugly, giant-sized cockroach? Just as hard to kill, too, it seems.
Toronto centre Jeff Keeping got a chuckle out of that cockroach analogy, then quickly straightened up and met the Argos' growing list of injury sidelined veterans with a shrug and a straightforward response.
“This is one of those things that you deal with in a football season," he said. "Just a matter of when.”
First, free safety Matt Black goes down with a broken arm, removing some much needed veteran presence from the defence. Difficult as that situation is - as well as a few other injuries on that side of the ball - it's the decimated Argos' offence that needs to ride out a stretch where three crucial, veteran receivers are out.
Andre Durie is a month and a half away from returning after suffering a broken clavicle in Week 2. Jason Barnes, on a gimpy knee, is unlikely to suit up on Friday night. Now, the Argos' main catalyst on offence, slotback Chad Owens, is out for at least three weeks and - according to head coach Scott Milanovich - "Possibly significantly longer.”
Ouch. That's three big bites from that injury cockroach, taking away players who have accounted for 560 of quarterback Ricky Ray's 982 passing yards in 2014. Together, Durie, Owens and Barnes have hauled in 46 of Ray's 84 completions.
“This is where guys (have a chance to) step up and make a name for themselves and become stars," said Milanovich, just after delivering the bad news about Owens. The 2012 CFL Most Outstanding Player has a soft tissue foot injury, meaning the Flyin' Hawaiian is grounded with wonky landing gear.
Expectations from a veteran like Keeping are that the next guys up must make this their opportunity to shine.
“We have the luxury of having great veteran playmakers but when one of them goes down, we fully expect the next guy to come in an not just fill shoes but make plays and change the outcome of the game," said the 9th year Argo, in his 10th CFL season.
Keeping, by the way, says his health is just fine, thanks. Hey, the way things have been going, you can't blame a guy for asking.
He knows the pain of being sidelined. In fact, Keeping missed the entire 2008 season after sustaining a serious knee injury in training camp, after having signed with the Montreal Alouettes as a free agent.
It's why Keeping has plenty of sympathy for the Argos' vets who are down. However, he sees the other side of the equation; when a star is taken off the roster, a hungry youngster is added.
“You’re kind of excited for the next guy up because you know these guys work their tail off in practice," the 2013 CFL all-star explained. "There’s a level of excitement when you know a guy who’s been working hard gets his chance to come in and play.”
So, Anthony Coombs gets another start in Durie's slot position. Rookie receiver Darvin Adams, who took Barnes' roster spot for last weekend's game against Calgary, likely gets a second start, in Ottawa, as well. With Owens in a walking cast, another rookie, Terrell Sinkfield, looks to have the inside track on starting too.
“We’ve got some good guys behind him who can step up to the plate," said running back Curtis Steele, who is another Argo vet that is taking the roster rearranging in stride. "That’s why they’re on this team,” he continued, explaining that - like Keeping - he expects the young replacements to do more than survive.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence in the young guys,” said Steele, who may see his own workload increase in light of the changes. There's that possibility, even though he has plenty on his plate as one of Toronto's premier special teams players as well as duties in the backfield.
“With the workload, right now, I’m satisified," said the second year Argo, then added that he's always up for an increase in action. "That’s every back’s dream is to have more carries. The workload is alright, right now, but you could always ask for some more.”
Toronto RB Curtis Steele is confident in his club's ability to battle through their current injuries.
If Steele doesn't see more carries or receptions out of the backfield, could be that running back Jeremiah Johnson will see an increase in that type of activity. Or, if his own injury woes are behind him, Steve Slaton could be pressed into action. He showed silky smooth pass catching abilities, at tailback, during the pre-season.
Then, there are the injury replacements. Any of them might just grab their opportunity by the throat and stake their claim. Keeping says his confidence in them is high.
“Absolutely," he answered, firmly. "I think some of the guys that you saw 'practice rostered,' they did it because they made huge plays in pre-season and they’re guys that have the ability to make plays.”
Beyond that, Keeping likes the cut of the jibs of the youngsters. He credits Milanovich and general manager Jim Barker with insisting that players fit more than just the athletic bill, if they are to be Argonauts.
“Character plays a big part in it. How guys fit in to our locker room. We’re lucky, we’ve been surrounded by guys that, I believe, have great character. Those traits and the type of men they are, carries into their work ethic. That’s kind of why we have confidence heading into a game with new guys.”
Takes more than character and ability to make a back-up a starter, though. Preparation is essential. Keeping agrees with that and says that part of the scenario is covered.
“Those guys are always getting lots of mental reps, so that they can be prepared to come in. Plug and play.”
Plug and play. It's a philosophy that many modern football teams embrace. Instead of shredding the usual playbook, just tinker with it and insert the kind of player that can keep the drum beating. It's how the Calgary Stampeders can win a road game with Jon Cornish, Maurice Price, and Nik Lewis out of their line-up.
It's what the Toronto Argonauts will attempt to do in Ottawa, this Friday. With Durie, Owens and Barnes out of the picture for the foreseeable future, Ricky Ray will see not so familiar teammates in what should be familiar places, if 'plug and play' is proceeding smoothly.
Asked what he, as a team leader, can do to help ensure understudies are filled with assurance as they prep for the challenge, Keeping talks about not really changing a thing.
“I think a lot of it is just not really acting different at all. Making sure that the young guys see that the veterans on the team continue business as usual and prepare the same way, practice the same way and make sure that they see that we have confidence in the mantra of ‘next man up.’”
The Extra Point
Friday night lights will blaze over CFL football in Ottawa for the first time in more than eight years, this weekend. Keeping and the Argonauts are aware they will be part of something rare.
“It’s going to be a special night," he said. "I can only imagine how excited they (the RedBlacks) are but I think a lot of guys here are excited."
“Last time I was in Ottawa to play a game was in my rookie year. So, it’s exciting, to get the chance to go back there. It’s obviously going to be a great atmosphere. Seeing pictures of their stadium on the internet, I think it’s going to be a great place to play.”
A freelance broadcaster and writer, Don is also the in-stadium announcer for Toronto Argonauts home games. A familiar voice to Toronto sports fans, he hosted the morning show at The FAN for more than 10 years. Follow Don on Twitter @CFLLandry
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