June 2, 2014

Backfield Battles: Watchful eye on tailbacks in camp


CFL.ca Staff

TORONTO — Last season was the year of the running back in the CFL with the league’s top five tailbacks accumulating 5,796 yards and 41 touchdowns.  

What may be different in 2014?  The league’s leading rusher Jon Cornish will still attempt to hold onto his title but his closest challenger, Kory Sheets, is no longer a member of the Grey Cup Champion Saskatchewan Roughriders, Chad Simpson was not retained by Winnipeg, Chad Kackert’s healing ankle leaves question marks in Toronto and Chevon Walker looks to return to form in Ottawa.

With all the competition in the backfield, CFL.ca looks at the training camp battles and club depth across the country as training camp gets underway.

Why have one versatile playmaker in the backfield when you can have two? That was the BC Lions’ philosophy last season when they brought in Stefan Logan to complement Andrew Harris down the stretch.

Harris was his old reliable self while Logan  promptly registered 236 yards and a major in four games after returning from the NFL.

As both enter training camp however, who is the primary ball carrier?  Is there enough room for both?

Harris is a ratio-buster but that has done little to stop GM Wally Buono from bringing in healthy competition.  Buono was never shy to do so with his quarterbacks a few years back and his linebackers two years ago so why would he stop now?

Barring injury, neither are truly a threat to not make it out of camp – they are both simply too good.  But who lines up on the first snap behind Travis Lulay come Week 1, could be told with their respective play in camp.  Buono and head coach Mike Benevides have created just enough doubt in each players head to make them better.

Last season was an up-and-down year incumbent starter Hugh Charles.  The quick tailback battled injuries in different spurts throughout the 2013 season but enters camp healthy and ready to keep second-year import John White at bay.

White filled in admirably in an offence that tended to stray from the running game for periods of time last season but he and Charles will also have to contend with Arizona State grad Jamal Miles who was seen sparingly but showed that he had the ability to make people miss.

Don’t forget that Charles had a career year while veterans Cory Boyd and Jerome Messam attempted to grab reps in a bizarre three-back roster in 2012, finishing with 887 yards.

The important factor in this battle may be who can help protect quarterback Mike Reilly the best after he took a beating in 2013.

There is no place in the league you will find more certainty in the starting tailback spot than Calgary.  Cornish is not only the focal point of the Stampeders running game, but the face the franchise.

If his 2012 season was phenomenal, there are no words to describe his 2013.  The only challenge may be trying to find something Cornish didn’t do.  He won the rushing title, league Most Outstanding Player, Most Outstanding Canadian and the Lou Marsh award for Canada’s best overall athlete.  His 1,813-yard season is enough to put any argument to bed but the real story in the backfield is behind him.

Matt Walter showed that he could spell Cornish at times and the versatile playmaking of Jock Sanders (formerly of Saskatchewan) gives the Stamps even more depth.  Walters and Cornish’s non-import status may allow for Sanders to stay in the lineup with a flexible ratio.

If there is a question mark in camp for the defending Grey Cup champs there is no doubt it is in the backfield.  Their Grey Cup MVP and rushing leader Kory Sheets is now property of the Oakland Raiders and the aforementioned Sanders is in Calgary.

It is an open competition at tailback in Riderville.

The Riders currently have five running backs on their roster which is three more than combined carries they all have recorded.  Only Clifton Smith has carried a ball in a game and it was twice last year with Calgary.

Looking to make a name with themselves alongside Smith is Andrew Lalonde (Saskatoon Hilltops), Curits McNeal (USC), Keith Tosten (Oklahoma State) and Jermaine Thomas (Florida State)

The lack of experience may scare some Rider fans but they must not forget they had the same reservations when a little-known Sheets emerged as a superstar exactly two years ago in training camp.

Let the battle begin!

Chad Simpson was the man in the Bomber backfield but after an impressive second half to 2013, Will Ford has earned the right to enter camp as the favourite.  He will have five other running backs trying to knock him off his post however.  The Bombers organization has shown little hesitation when it comes to replacing running backs with a host of ball-carriers running the rock since Charles Roberts was the uncontested starter years ago.

What may give Ford more leverage is his ability to return kicks, something he proved he was more than capable of doing in his second year in Blue and Gold.  On his side may be a head coach, Mike O’Shea, who more than values productive special teams.

Chad Kackert’s rise to stardom could not have happened quicker and on a larger stage, helping lead Toronto to a Grey Cup in 2012 and assuring him the no. 1 tailback spot in the process.  But 2013 was a challenge for the stalky back, fighting off injuries until his season was ultimately ended with a broken ankle right as he started to regain his form.

The injury and durability issues would see Kackert call it a career as training camp opened and would be added to the coaching staff as the Strength and Conditioning Coach. Kackert’s retirement creates a battle in the backfield for the Argos as they look at a few new additions to find their next starting running back.

The leader will be returnee Curtis Steele but he will face stiff competition from former Houston Texans running back Steve Slaton who signed with Toronto in the off-season. Durability issues have haunted Slaton throughout his NFL career and that could leave an opening for the Argos first round draft pick, Manitoba Bison Anthony Coombs who could provide some youth and a different style to the running game for the Argos.  

The experience will likely win out as Steve Slaton seems on his way to a starting role with Toronto but don’t be surprise if Coombs can grab some reps throughout the season as he adjusts to the pro game.

Anothe back to keep an eye on is Oregon grad Jeremiah Johnson who joined as an FA and has been impressive through rookie camp and the first few days of main camp.

Not unlike Calgary, there is little doubt who will carry the rock in TigerTown.  CJ Gable essentially took Chevon Walker’s job out from under him and his quickness and ability to block for his quarter
back was rarely matched by anyone else on the Ticats roster.

What the ‘Cats look for now is some insurance.  With Walker now in Ottawa, Tavoie Moore looks to find a backup spot in a race that only includes three backs.

The focus in camp may be on not over-working Gable and readying him for the regular season.

Once one of the most feared playmakers in the CFL, Brandon Whitaker now looks to re-establish himself in the Alouettes offence.  The Als have depth at this position, it simply comes down to who will step up.e

Whitaker has the resume, Jerome Messam has the power and experience and Tyrell Sutton has the momentum.

Sutton took over in the Als push to the playoffs and proved very quickly that he could be relied on to take the pressure off a very green quarterback in Troy Smith.

Youngster Steven Lumbala has a year under his belt but the unknown is Johnny White.  White was a free agent signing out of North Carolina, the alma mater of general manager Jim Popp.

With all the focus on the void in Saskatchewan’s backfield and the uncertainty of Kackert in Toronto, its foolish to overlook Montreal’s camp where some of the stiffest competition may live.

Anyone who watched the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the beginning of 2012 remembers the damage Chevon Walker did to opposing defences.  Quickness combined with speed and vision, Walker became an instant sparkplug in the ‘Cats offence.  But an injury combined with the emergence of CJ Gable and Walker became expendable – picked up in the Expansion Draft, Walker is now the favourite to take handoffs from Henry Burris when Ottawa debuts.

Walker has three others trying to make names for themselves above him though.  Houston grad Michael Hayes, Coastal Carolina back Eric O’Neal and Charleston product Jordan Roberts.  The latter impressed at the REDBLACKS mini-camp in Florida a few months back.

The good news for those vying crack the roster is there are no incumbents, making a spot a little easier to come by.