In a season when the Als’ offence has at times been as exciting as watching cement dry, their Special Teams have also been anything BUT special.
That is about to change.
The only silver lining of last week’s loss to the Argos was the emergence of a heat-seeking missile of a “gunner” on coverage teams named Dominique Ellis. The former property of the NFL’s Chiefs and Bills had been to an Argos’ open tryout, but rejected.
He was a force with four special teams tackles, and may one day be a force on the defensive side of the ball for the Alouettes as well.
At this rate, Ellis is soaring up the charts to contend with teammate Winston Venable for the CFL special teams tackles crown.
Not bad for a guy who saved his career by driving from his off-season home in Georgia to Vero Beach, Florida for an Alouettes casting call on the suggestion of his agent.
“I’m an open tryout guy!” Ellis enthused after chuckling about the fact Montrealers assume he speaks French because of his first name.
He’s only listed at 195 pounds officially, but Ellis reveals he’s bulked up to 210 while keeping his speed.
“He is slapped together,” admitted GM Jim Popp, already on tour of NFL training camps looking for more diamonds in the rough. “He’s made it difficult not to keep him on the roster.”
“Coming out of camp, Ellis was the last guy put on the practice roster,” Popp reveals. “He’d already been told he was cut, but other guys decided not to go on ‘pr’, so he decided to stay. He survived and he’s making the most of his opportunities.”
It was hardly the first stroke of luck in the unpredictable life of Dominique Ellis.
He started playing football at age four, idolizing his older brother David, six years his senior.
“Football is the culture down there in the South. My older brother is my football hero to this day. He had me on the sidelines as a kid so I started doing everything he did: the way he wore his socks, wristbands...he was my ultimate hero.
“But he got no college opportunity. He’s still the best player I ever seen.”
“We were lower class from the ‘hood, college was out of our spectrum,” Ellis explained. “I was intelligent but didn’t really care about school. I had some better breaks than him. I didn’t get recruited until senior year and I’m one of the first in my family to go to college.”
Kids from College Park, and West End Atlanta were more likely to be snared in the gang lifestyle than go on to university.
“The gangs gave us a pass, some even said ‘dont fall into this lifestyle’,” he said.
“Yeah, who isn’t drawn to it, especially when you’re struggling? It was attractive, but mom always kept me on that path. My older siblings always looked out for me. They treated me as the baby; I’m still the baby.”
During his junior year in high school, coaches from Oregon came to see a teammate, but offered Dominique a scholarship on the spot.
“I said ‘whatever’,” Ellis confessed.
“My mom worked jobs to support us and I just wanted to help her. She had me hit Google up what that opportunity could mean.”
At a All-Star game, he met a coach named Marc Trestman, then of a team called the Alouettes off in some foreign land.
The DB coach for the game was none other than Ellis’ current teammate and role model, Jerald Brown. Als’ D-line coach Keith Willis was also there, and had crossed paths with Ellis at North Carolina State (Ellis would switch to South Carolina State).
“He’s a hard matchup, young raw and powerful,” Popp explains.
“Gunner on punt cover, he runs well, is stronger than most of them and he’s very good open field tackler. He’s still learning how to play in the CFL at halfback, SAM or WIL (linebacker).”
But if “Teams” are the emotional gauge of your football team, Montreal is suffering from split personality disorder.
The Punt return unit is dead last in net production of just 1.8 yards, unconscionable given the five-yard halo rule. Kickoff returns rank only 7th netting only 18.2 yards.
There have been anything BUT “many happy returns” for Larry Taylor in his latest Montreal tour of duty. Still seeking his first punt return TD since his 1st tour back in 2009, while his average is at a career worst 6.0.
Alouettes blockers have taken more penalties than any other special teams unit in the CFL outside of Toronto. The Als’ return squad has drawn 14 flags, twice as many as clubs like Saskatchewan and almost double his former club the Stampeders.
Taylor insists there’s no frustration building.
“Nah there’s no frustration there. You gotta be patient. I know what I’m dealing with.”
What about his average languishing near the bottom of the chart?
“Last time I heard, I was leading the league in return yards,” a chuckle flowing through his perma-smile.
“A returner can only do so much. We have a lot of young guys out there versus veterans who understand the game, the type of stuff that allows a returner to be able to showcase his talents.”
“I’m not frustrated. I have faith and continue to believe in those guys...they’ll get it done. We're trying to put it all together to get some big gains and start hitting some homeruns on returns. You only can do what’s being given to you.”
He’d love to bring the “Battle of Alberta” mentality into action Friday night, but he'll have to give up his spot to Bo Bowling, the Alouettes’ ultra-patient reserve receiver/returner. Taylor is dinged up and was held out of practice all week, and was placed on the one-game injured list on Thursday.
“I’m used to playing against Alberta (he means Edmonton),” says Taylor. I had a lot of success against those guys...I’m always looking forward to play against Coach Jones because he always brings a challenge and you know his guys are going to play hard for him and they’re playing really well in all three phases of the game.”
“It should be a really great game.”
Rick Moffat is the Voice of the Montreal Alouettes on CJAD 800. He works alongside former CFL Dave Mudge. Moffat's first attended Grey Cup was as a fan in '77 - the infamous Tony Proudfoot "Staple Game". Rick is proud to say he had his first beer at an Als' game during the Marv Levy Era. Follow Rick on Twitter @RickMoffat.