September 19, 2019

O’Leary: Mitchell giving trust to rookie receivers

Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

He’s overcome an injury that cost him seven games this year and returned to find his team hovering around .500, after becoming accustomed to the view of the CFL from the top of its perch. 

If that wasn’t enough adversity for Bo Levi Mitchell, this week — his fourth game back after hurting his pectoral muscle in Week 3 — he’ll be playing with an almost entirely new cast of receivers. 

When Mitchell takes the snap on Friday night at BMO Field in Toronto and looks for his targets, Eric Rogers will be the only familiar face that he’ll see. 

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Aaron Peck and Colton Hunchak are the other slotbacks, while Josh Huff and Michael Klukas are at the wide receiver spots. That makes for some very notable absences. Reggie Begelton, the league’s leading receiver with 1,036 yards, is dealing with a groin injury. Richie Sindani was close, Stamps head coach Dave Dickenson said, but with a bye week waiting after this game against the Argos, the team erred on the side of caution. 

Klukas has the most CFL experience of the four receivers and he’s just in his second year, coming out of the University of Calgary. Hergy Mayala, the Canadian rookie out of Connecticut and Mexican receiver Andres Salgado (also a rookie) are listed as the WR backups. 

Peck hasn’t recorded a stat yet this season, while Hunchak, Klukas and Huff have a combined 33 catches for 380 yards with zero touchdowns. You can assume that Rogers, with 57 catches for 678 yards and eight touchdowns this year, will be busy on Friday. 

That’s tough on the receiver and the quarterback; especially when your QB is still getting his feet under him after a long absence.

“I know when I played you get used to certain guys’ body language, how they run routes, they give you indicators,” Dickenson said. “We’re still working, even Hergy and Klukas and Colton it’s not like Bo’s had a lot of time with these guys. It can impact you obviously, but we’re all pros. We’re practicing hard. We’re trying to get better.

“Aaron’s been with us a long time. He just hasn’t taken starter reps at all this year, since preseason. Josh has been up and down with injuries. We’re looking forward to him just improving week to week and hopefully he’ll make some plays for us.” 

While there was a will-he/won’t-he presented through the week on Begelton, the team mostly knew where it stood with its receivers, giving Mitchell the week — albeit a short one — to put in as much work as possible. 

“When you have four rookies starting, to me the challenge is just making sure that you give them trust,” Mitchell said. 

“Don’t try to do too much and tell each guy what to do on every play. Don’t assume somebody’s going to do something wrong. Just allow those guys to go out there and play football and do their job and you take care of your job. And when mistakes happen, talk things out, move on to the next play. 

“It’s not necessarily just tough on me. I have to be very precise in my decision making and making sure that I’m getting the ball to everybody and not focussing on any one person.” 

Josh Huff will play in his fifth game this season on Friday against the Toronto Argonauts (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

The seven games that Mitchell missed mark the most significant injury in his career. In the Stamps’ first two games of the season,he felt like something was wrong, but he couldn’t pinpoint why he wasn’t throwing the ball the way he wanted to be. Then his arm gave out on him in Week 3 against BC. 

“The time off, it hurts. If your team’s winning it’s a little easier, you know, because it makes you feel a little bit better. We dropped three (games) and I was just itching to get back to try and help get us back winning.” 

With Mitchell back at QB, the Stamps are 3-0 and are making a push to get back on top of the West Division. Their win over Hamilton last week gives them the same record as Saskatchewan at 8-4. Winnipeg is still at the head of the pack at 9-3. 

As he’s watched his quarterback try to find his rhythm again, Dickenson said that Mitchell has been solid at times, but not spectacular. Over the last three games, he’s made 68-108 passes (63 per cent) for 859 yards, with four touchdowns and three interceptions. 

“I think it’s been improving,” Dickenson said. “I thought his first game was the one I was expecting maybe a little bit more rust and I didn’t see that. In fact it might have been his best game of the three.

“But he’s getting into his groove and he’s trying to figure out the players around him as well. He understands how to be successful, so I have to kind of go back to some of the things I know he likes better maybe than Nick (Arbuckle) and try to get those plays called. It’s still a work in progress, but obviously, 3-0 is a good start.”