It feels like we’re in a golden age of CFL returners.
We know how Winnipeg’s Janarion Grant can turn a game on its side on a single play, which was on display in last year’s Western Final and Grey Cup. The same is true for Chandler Worthy of the Alouettes, who is as dangerously consistent as they come.
But if we’re talking about elite returners in 2023, the conversation can’t go far without mentioning reigning Most Outstanding Special Teams Player Mario Alford of the Saskatchewan Roughriders. That wasn’t necessarily the case roughly a year ago.
“I hated coaching against him,” said Riders head coach Craig Dickenson earlier this week. “That’s why we went out and got him. Like, I want him on my team.”
Dickenson’s strategy has paid off and then some.
» Play CFL Pick ‘Em presented by Old Dutch
» Buy Tickets: Lions at Riders
» Sign up and watch CFL games on CFL+ in the U.S. and Internationally
» Subscribe to the CFL’s newsletter for exclusive offers and league updates
After spending the first three games of last season on Montreal’s one-game injured list, Alford was acquired by Saskatchewan on July 3rd in exchange for a fifth-round pick. Just over a year later, that move can officially be certified as a steal.
In 18 games since joining the Roughriders, Alford has set a new team record with six return touchdowns: four punt returns, one kickoff return, and one missed field goal return. He set that record with a pair of punt return majors in Week 6 vs. Calgary, which famously included calling his shot on number two during a halftime interview.
“It’s kind of crazy,” Alford admitted this week. “It hasn’t really hit me yet. I don’t look into stuff like that. I’m just going with the season and trying to get these wins. That hasn’t really settled in with me yet.”
Through six weeks this season, Alford leads the CFL in combined yards (711), punt return yards (401), punt return average (14.9), kick return average (28.1), and is the only player with multiple return touchdowns thus far. He also had a 62-yard kickoff return touchdown called back in Week 5 vs. Edmonton.
With the way things are going, it’s hard not to call Alford the frontrunner for a second straight Most Outstanding Special Teams Player nod. Since the award’s inception in 1999, no player has won it in back-to-back years.
“He’s got great football IQ,” said Dickenson. “He really understands the scheme and he understands blocking leverage. And then he’s got pull-away speed. Once he gets in the open field he’s tough to catch. And his knack for getting it in the end zone…he really has a knack for: if he’s close, he scores.
“It’s been a pleasure coaching him. Hard worker, shows up early every day and just a great guy to have around. We use the term short area quickness, he’s got that. And we also use the term…he’s got track speed, long speed, he’s got that as well.
“He’s a good one.”
There are plenty of talented players deployed in the return game consistently able to get their team solid yardage. In a game where flipping field position is vital, that ability can’t be understated. Alford absolutely checks that box but adds an element that separates him from the rest of the pack.
That’s his propensity for taking the ball to the house.
“Either you have it or you don’t,” Alford said. “It’s just something I’ve always been able to do. I knew I had a good talent when I was four years old just escaping people and being able to run the ball.”
Since entering the league with Toronto in 2018, Alford has nine return touchdowns to his name. But after seeing limited action with the Argos and Als in his first three CFL seasons, it feels like being acquired, and utilized heavily, by Saskatchewan has unlocked one of the league’s most dangerous players.
Alford would tend to agree with that sentiment.
“Credit to the coaches. The way we draw up schemes and the way we talk about things. Me, (special teams co-ordinator) Kent Maugeri and Dickenson. They give me a lot of leeway on some things and ask me what I think. It’s a communication thing and we’re all on the same page.
“I also want to give a shoutout for the guys blocking for me and my teammates. I couldn’t do it without them. I want to give my hats off to them.”
There are ways opposing teams can limit the damage Alford can do, especially on kick returns. But with No. 2 lurking down field on every punt, it’s hard to see Alford slowing down dramatically as the season goes on. His elite speed, both laterally and in a straight line, makes him a huge play threat on every punted ball in play, regardless of where it’s fielded.
Alford is now in the Riders record book, which is a nice thing to have. But he didn’t need that record to be considered one of the CFL’s most explosive and feared players.
All you need to do is watch a game to understand that.