Super Mario: Alford leading the way on Als special teams
CFL.ca will be previewing the 2021 season, breaking down special teams, defence and offence for all nine teams as they get set to hit the field.
Mario Alford is a cheat code.
Regular humans start the game as little Mario, then need a mushroom and eventually a star.
But Alford? He’s just Super Mario.
Alford took the league by storm, collecting stars and stomping Goombas along his way, in the later parts of the 2019 season and into the playoffs. We all remember the 99-yard kickoff return TD he scored in the Eastern Semi-Final against Edmonton in 2019, right? That was the third longest kickoff return in CFL playoff history and was the longest kickoff return in a CFL playoff game in the last 55 years.
The 29-year-old’s late-season success – including scoring two punt return touchdowns in his first two outings to go along with his playoff heroics and a regular season 24.2 yard average on punt returns – was enough for Danny Maciocia and co. to want to keep him around and inked the return specialist to a new deal in late December of 2020.
Having a reliable returner is a welcome addition for Montreal after the team’s revolving door of returners in 2019. They had 10 different players with 4+ returns including Alford, Greg Reid, Shakeir Ryan, Quan Bray, Marcus Taylor, Kaion Julien-Grant, Jeremiah Johnson, Shaquille Murray-Lawrence, Ryder Stone and Felix Faubert-Lussier.
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While they won’t use all of those players again this year, it’s likely that Bray will see some action on special teams. Bray has mostly been used on offence as a weapon for Vernon Adams Jr., but he has returned a few kicks for the Als and could do the same this summer. To go along with his 58 passes for 818 yards and six touchdowns on offence in 2019, the five-foot-10, 184-pounder amassed 123 yards on 14 punt returns and 45 yards on two kickoff returns.
Unsurprisingly, defensive turnovers are an important part of football but field position actually may be a little more so. In head to head play, teams with better starting field position went 65-16 in 2019, winning 80% of the time while teams that won the turnover battle won 77% of the time.
So with Alford returning kicks and punts, special teams coordinator Mickey Donovan can only hope that he will help to improve the Alouettes starting field position. The team ranked seventh in the CFL in that category (35.3) in 2019 – ahead of only Toronto (34.1).
Montreal signed Kerfalla Exume from Winnipeg as a free agent earlier this off-season and he will be a great addition to their coverage unit. The 27-year-old was tied for second in the league with his teammate, and 2019’s Most Outstanding Special Teams Player runner up, Mike Miller with 25 special teams tackles.
Exume comes from a team that was ranked No. 1 in many special teams categories including opponent field position at 33.1. Montreal was fourth in that same category (34.2) behind only Winnipeg, Saskatchewan and Hamilton, and Exume will only help to build on that this season.
Jean-Samuel Blanc quietly became a force for the Alouettes on coverages, racking up 21 special teams tackles, good for fifth in the league. Ty Cranston, Christophe Normand and Bo Banner also all contributed, tallying 13, 11 and 9 special teams tackles, respectively.
On the kicking side of things, the absence of Boris Bede is sure to be felt.
Bede, who is now a Toronto Argonaut, often pinned opponents deep on kickoffs and kicked 88.6 per cent on field goals, which was second best in the CFL (only behind Sergio Castillo, who is currently in the NFL). The 31-year-old also was almost perfect on converts, connecting on 43 of 45 attempts.
That being said, there will likely be a camp competition for who will take over the kicking duties this year between Tyler Crapigna, Felix Briere and three others, including National David Cote, American Matt Mengel and Global Joseph Zema.
Crapigna has suited up in 49 career games in the CFL, converting 98 of his 115 field goal attempts for an 85.2 per cent average. He has the leg to boot the tough kicks – his longest field goal was from 53 yards out when he was with the Saskatchewan Roughriders. With the Riders, he tallied 8,370 yards on 139 kickoffs and while he was with the Argos, he amassed 2,576 yards on 41 kickoffs (62.8 yard average) which was good for fourth in the CFL.
At long snapper, veteran Martin Bédard continues his reign at the position after he signed a two-year deal in February of 2020. In 16 games in 2019, Bédard made four tackles on special teams and he was also the winner of the Jake Gaudaur Veteran’s Award.
Overall, Donovan and co. will have a lot to work with this upcoming season. If Alford can continue his Super Mario-like speed and a kicker emerges as a threat, the Alouettes special teams contributions will help to continue the momentum of their first playoff appearance since 2014.