If you really think about it, the Calgary Stampeders defied the odds last year.
The team played a direct-from-CIS rookie in the important centre spot, and Brett Jones not only played every game, he excelled and won the Canadian Football League’s 2013 Most Outstanding Rookie award.
Jones' rise was a remarkable story, but the Stampeders may have a similar one in 2014.
Hulking offensive line rookie Brander Craighead is making himself visible at Stampeders camp. Craighead was actually selected ahead of Jones in the 2013 Draft but played his senior year at University of Texas-El Paso instead of joining the Stamps for what would have been his first pro season.
Craighead has been working with the Stampeders first offensive line unit at the left guard spot. That spot was vacated when the team traded Jon Gott to Ottawa in a Draft night deal. Craighead has looked very comfortable for a pure rookie.
“It’s a lot of fun working with experienced guys,” said Craighead following a recent practice.
"It’s a lot of learning and it’s a slow process.”
Craighead, a native of Belleville, ON, has the physical part of pro football in hand. He checks in at six-foot-seven and 300 pounds. But learning the playbook and learning the nuances of pro football will be a process.
“In college it was about one-third this speed, so I got to learn really fast,” laughed Craighead.
“I’m still waking up every morning trying to realize that this is my job, it’s really fun.”
While Craighead battles to learn professional football, he has a big admirer in Jones.
“Definetly he’s working real hard and getting in the playbook,”said Jones.
"I remember my training camp and it’s just how fast everything is coming.”
For his part, Craighead has been very quick to lean on Jones for support and direction as he adjusts to the professional game.
“I have leaned on him a lot. I’ve sat down with him to look at the playbook,” said Craighead.
“He’s an incredibly smart offensive lineman, incredibly smart football player and he’s definetly helped me adjust to playing at this level.”
The addition of Craighead to the offensive line, is only one anticipated change to the Stampeders mix.
This off-season saw all-star Dmitri Tsoumpas retire, J’Micheal Deane claimed by Ottawa in the Expansion Draft and Gott traded to the REDBLACKS. Plus the team also selected Laval’s Pierre Lavertu with the first overall pick in the 2014 Draft.
However, there are three holdovers, who will be looking to open holes for league-leading rusher Jon Cornish. In addition to Jones, left tackle Stanley Bryant will return, as will Edwin Harrison. The right tackle spot features the return of University of Calgary product Dan Federkeil.
“I’m getting used to the new guys playing beside me,” noted Jones.
“Things are coming together really well.”
The grind of the two-a-days will undoubtedly take it’s toll on Craighead and other hopefuls. However, the early returns suggest the Stampeders could duplicate their feat of a right-off-the-campus offensive lineman stepping into the regular group. As with everything in training camp, time will tell.
Mark Stephen is Sports Director of CHQR Radio in Calgary and has broadcast Calgary Stampeder games since 1996. Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkonFootball.