A football team's depth chart is a fluid thing, as prone to the effect of injury as the seas are to the moon's pull.
Heading towards this Saturday's home game against the Calgary Stampeders, the Toronto Argonauts' roster is a shifting tide, with questions aplenty; If newly acquired defensive back Dwight Anderson is in, who's out? If linebacker Shea Emry's injury keeps him out, who patrols at middle linebacker? Is veteran safety Matt Black back in, or does Jermaine Gabriel get the start for the second week in a row?
And there's another biggie.
With the CFL's Canadian Player Of The Week, Andre Durie, sidelined for about a month and a half, who will step into his slotback position and try to fill his rather large cleats?
“He’s a dynamic player," said Argos' head coach Scott Milanovich of Durie. "There’s not a lot like him.”
Not a lot. But, there might be one already in the Argonaut stable. Someone whose skill set is reminiscent of Durie's, even if that skill set is still in the early, formative stages.
As the Argos prepare to keep the offence humming without one of its great spark plugs, the rookie running back from Manitoba is practicing at slot. Anthony Coombs, it may be time for your close-up.
“Just have to adapt on the fly, now," said Coombs, shortly after a rain-shortened practice. "I’m getting used to the slot position. I have been learning it as well as running back.” and might be on track to start this weekend.
More than one observer compared him to Durie when Coombs was being put through his paces at the draft combine, last March. Fast, shifty and with good hands, it's why - if you’re looking to mimic what Andre Durie does in that Argos' offence - the rookie tailback best fits the bill.
“Oh yeah, I see it," said Coombs, of the Durie comparison. "You know, I always hate comparing players because somebody always kind of gets offended and Durie’s one of the best players, I feel, ever to play in the CFL, as a Canadian. I don’t think I’m there, yet, at Durie’s level. But I do have some similar qualities that he has.”
Coombs first game in the CFL - two weeks ago in Winnipeg - was solid but not spectacular as the Toronto coaching staff eased him into action. Last Saturday, however, against Saskatchewan, he fully displayed his breakaway speed in ripping off a 28 yarder on one carry, on his way to 6 lugs and 52 yards. Coombs added a catch for 18 yards and that is the skill he'll most need do display - along with conscientious and effective blocking - if he starts at slot against Calgary.
“Whatever the team needs me for, I’ll step into that role,” replied Coombs, when asked if he was fine with a move to slot. “It doesn’t matter whether I’m playing running back or slot. I just want to get the ball and make plays for my team.”
Beyond being a team guy, the 21 year old Manitoba Bisons' grad feels playing slot would afford him even more opportunity to make big things happen.
“This position is good. It allows me to get into open space,” he said.
Not only that, Coombs knows Argo slots can sometimes be asked to step inside and run the ball, something Durie did on two occasions last week.
Durie's contributions to the Argonauts' offence are measurable only if you spread your arms as wide as they will go, and also only if you have seven-foot long arms. His work is trumpeted by everyone from Milanovich to one of Durie's slotback partners, Chad Owens. Owens is spectacular in his own right but there is little doubt that he has been afforded a touch more room out on the field by opponents who'd like to key on him, but realize they can't, with Durie being equally as dangerous. Owens provides that same kind of scenario for Durie and in that they are as effective a duo as there is in the Canadian Football League.
If Coombs is to fit the bill in the slot, he'll need to catch, react and deke in lightning fashion to keep that dynamic alive. Durie's considerable run after catch abilities allowed him to set a single season record for YAC (yards after catch) in 2013, with 685.
“Not having Durie is a huge blow to our offence and I’ve just got to fill the role until he comes back and our offence gets to full strength,” said Coombs. Although "anything can happen in football," he is settling in as a slotback (or 'R' position, as it's known) very nicely, thanks.
“I feel pretty comfortable with the playbook so far. Everything is going smoothly and I anticipate it to continue to do that until game day.”
“The most important thing is alignment and motion," he continued, explaining the main difference between tail and slot. "To make sure that you’re at the spot that you need to be. That comes with studying. The ‘R’ position is more mental, if anything.”
Life without Andre Durie will test the Argonauts' offensive depth and what general manager Jim Barker referred to during training camp as "flexibility" and "options." Believing their talent pool - particularly that of their Canadians - is capable of helping them ride out losses due to injury, it appears the team's prized first round draft pick has become essential in illustrating that point.
“We’ll use Coombs some in his (Durie's) spot, we’ll kind of do it by committee," said Milanovich after Monday's practice.
“ The stuff that he does on the field as well as off the field make him one of the best players in the league. He's someone that I continually learn off of, each and every day. ”- Anthony Coombs
When Durie went down on Saturday, Mike Bradwell, a dutiful and diligent back-up at both slot and wide receiver, did his usual superb work as a blocker and also scored on a 5 yard touchdown reception. He would be in the mix in the committee to which Milanovich referred. As might receiver Natey Adjei, the rookie national speedster out of the University of Buffalo, who was behind Durie on the slotback depth chart last weekend.“We’ll try to ease him in and not ask him to do too much,” the coach continued, sounding like the plan to replace Durie might mean Coombs is plan 'A,' but not the only way the Boatmen could go.
“Right now they have me learning both positions," said Adjei. Taking some reps at slot, he's also getting some at the 'Z' receiver position, the one held by starter Spencer Watt. Adjei professes to have no preference when it comes to playing inside or out and knows the value of being a chameleon. “In the long run it’s gonna pay off because I’m gonna be super-versatile,” he said.
As for Coombs, he'll keep working on the pass catching skills that could lead him to a start in his third professional game. If so, no doubt the injured Durie will be there to help with the transition.
“He’s a true pro," Coombs said of Durie. "The stuff that he does on the field as well as off the field make him one of the best players in the league. He’s someone that I continually learn off of, each and every day.”
The Extra Point
As Adjei tries to impress the Argos' brass this season, he's realized that his blazing speed will take him only so far in pro football. A young receiver has to learn about nuance and deception.
“When you’re new, you want to run it (a pass pattern) exactly the way it’s drawn," he said.
"But, the DB’s at this level are gonna stop that, you know, if you just run it the way it was drawn. So, you have to add a little flair, a little change of speed to create separation, so that’s something I try to work on.”
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