April 5, 2018

Landry: Special teams star eyeing bigger role with Argonauts

Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

Llevi Noel has a simply defined goal for 2018; He wants to spend more time on the football field.

The goal might be simple, in principle, but reaching it will not be. There is a difference between simple and easy and Noel knows it.

Already a mainstay as an integral part of the Toronto Argonauts’ special teams, the 26-year-old has an eye on catching more footballs even as he plans to continue to hold on to his perch as one of the top special teams tacklers in the CFL. To do that, Noel is shooting – as well as watching – a lot of video, attempting to sharpen his skills as a receiver.

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Noel leaps over a player during a game against the Tiger-Cats in 2017 (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

“Hopefully it pays off and I get to showcase a little more on the offensive side of the ball,” said a cheerful Noel, his enthusiasm cutting through the way his body usually does as he races downfield to try to blow up an opponent’s kick return.

The third-year veteran is looking forward to continuing in his efforts as one of the CFL’s top special teams gunners, a role in which he finds immense satisfaction as well as success. But the native of Toronto made his way through university and junior football as a pass-catcher and that is a passion that will not fade, so he is also eyeing a spot in the Argos’ receiving corps, a place where he has seen limited action over his first two seasons.

Noel is not complaining about that, mind you. He’s just feeling hungry.

And that he’s up for the challenge. CFL observers are keen to see if he is. Possessing a tantalizing combination of speed and size (6’4″, 210 lbs) the prospects for his emergence as a top-flight receiver seem bright.

Will he get – and take advantage of – his chance?

We’ll get to Noel’s blueprint for appearing more often when the Argos’ offence has the ball but, first, let us examine his rise to prominence in the controlled mayhem that is life on special teams. After all, that is where many of the young men drafted a few weeks from now will need to prove themselves as rookies in the CFL. You often need to do the heavy lifting on specials to earn a doorway to more. As the man they call “Llevi The Fly” attempts to go through that doorway, it is worth observing what he has done in order to stand on the porch in front of it.

Noel was selected 31st overall, by Toronto, in the 2016 draft. He’d turned a few heads as a young man, first with the University of Toronto and then, in his final amateur season as a member of the Windsor AKO Fratmen of the Canadian Junior Football League, where he hauled in 25 passes for 398 yards and six touchdowns, while hauling back both a kick-off and a punt for additional TDs.

He garnered a little more attention at the 2016 combine when he did well in a couple of the explosive drills, finishing second in both the vertical and broad jumps. Perhaps, though, he was just too raw, too much of a “maybe” to be selected higher than the fourth round. Six receivers were picked before him, including Acadia’s Brian Jones, taken by the Argonauts with the fourth overall selection.

Noel was seen as developmental depth with potential and was expected to earn his keep at his first pro training camp as a special-teamer. The question was: could he use his speed and size to his advantage and emerge as a wedge-buster at the pro level? He was a quick study, leading the Argos in special teams tackles with 19, as a rookie. In year two, he upped that total to 27, finishing second in the CFL. Noel hadn’t played much on the teams while with U of T, but he did in his last year with Windsor. He liked it. Still does.

“I love going down, evading the blockers and beating the returner to the spot before he gets there and making the tackle, making the play,” he said, with relish in his voice. Noel is aware, usually, what his tackle tally is during any given game, because he desperately wants to get to the ball carrier, seeing anything less than that as a gunner’s failure.

“I usually count, every game,” he chuckled. “I’ll be honest. I’m like ‘got one.’ Because if you don’t get one it feels like you just haven’t done anything.”

Noel has played in all 18 games in two seasons with the Argonauts (Dave Chidley/CFL.ca)

Noel’s affinity for finding lanes and anticipating where a returner might be going next are keys to his success as a special teams tackler.

Technical knowledge is crucial as well and in 2017, he was gifted with the teachings of a master when Kevin Eiben joined the Double Blue as special teams coordinator. The former linebacker set the Argos’ single season special teams tackle record (33) in 2003.

“He dominated special teams in his day,” said Noel of Eiben. “His feedback has been the easiest for me to transition to my game. When you have someone who’s done this over and over and over again and actually knows exactly how to do it, then you really pay attention to what they’re saying.”

Noel’s 2017 season culminated with a tour de force in the Grey Cup Game, when he turned in the best special teams effort of his career, making five tackles on Calgary Stampeder returns.

“At the end of the game, I didn’t think I had five,” he laughed, adding that he became aware when friends started texting congratulations to him, along with his game totals. “I feel like I really contributed to that Grey Cup. Everyone has their performance goals. And that exceeded what I thought I was gonna do. I was happy with it.”

Happiness is a fluid thing and that brings us to 2018, and Llevi Noel’s ambitions for the upcoming season.

Excited to remain an Argo, he agreed to terms with the team on a new two-year contract, more than a month before free agency hit. He could have been forgiven had he opted to see if there was another roster out there that might have held assurances of passes being thrown his way. He didn’t, staying in Toronto because he feels he’ll get a fair shot at more receiving reps during training camp, ultimately leading to an increase in touches. “They did say that there’s always potential for me to play receiver,” he confirmed.

In 2017, Noel had merely one reception, for seven yards (it was a touchdown). In 2016, he had three catches for 51 yards and one touchdown. Four balls in two seasons. That won’t satiate an ambitious receiver’s appetite.

“We have a lot of Canadian receivers on our team,” said Noel, insisting that it’s a reality that drives him, doesn’t intimidate him. “I think as an athlete you gotta have that competitive edge. And I know that the guys that are around me are gonna push me to be the best that I can be.”

“We’ve got a good structure,” he continued, explaining why Toronto is the place for him as he attempts to break loose as an offensive contributor. “Good leaders, coaches and players. I want to be in the best environment that I know of.”

That Toronto environment changed a lot from year one to year two. During his rookie campaign, under General Manager Jim Barker and Head Coach Scott Milanovich, Noel asked a lot of questions. Last season, under General Manager Jim Popp and Head Coach Marc Trestman, he did a lot more with his eyes than his voice.

“The last two years I’ve been learning like crazy,” he said. “And it’s been from all of the receivers. It’s not so much what people are saying, but just watching them play. Watching them run. Watching them come in and out of their breaks.”

Noel poses with his teammates after winning the Eastern Final at BMO Field last season (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

In particular, observing one veteran star has been beneficial, according to Noel.

“S.J. Green? Very helpful,” he said enthusiastically. “Even just watching his game.”

Specifically, Noel is wowed by Green’s ability to deceive defensive backs with the subtleties at the top of his routes. “You don’t wanna give away what you’re doing before you do it,” he laughed. It is something that Noel is working hard on this off-season, running patterns in solitary fashion or sometimes with someone like former U of T teammates Simon Nassar or Marcus Hobbs pitching the leather his way.

Whatever the circumstance, Noel makes certain that he can track how he’s coming along.

“I usually videotape my routes,” he explained. “I’ve got a little camcorder. And I’ll watch. I’ll run, say, five routes and then I’ll come back and watch it. If I find something that doesn’t look the same, or get the look that I want from it, I’ll watch myself run one more, come back and go ‘okay, I got it again.’ Then try to run five more the same way.”

Crafting consistently sharp routes takes repetition and dedication and Noel is aware of the physical work that needs to be done.

Getting the mechanics of it all down will give him added confidence at training camp, he figures. As will the optimism of feeling like the mental side of competition is coming together as well.

“Every year the game is supposed to get slower for you,” said Noel.

“That’s when you know you’re getting the hang of things. Last year it got slower for me.”

The game slows down, progress accelerates. At least that’s what Llevi Noel is hoping for. Hoping he can be even busier in 2018, without leaving behind the thing that has helped him make his mark as an Argo.

“Yeah, I wanna start. A hundred per cent I wanna start,” he said, when the question was put to him bluntly. “And even if I started, it’s not like I wouldn’t wanna play specials.”

“Because that’s what got me in the position that I am. And I love doing it.”