The more he played, the more Bryce Carter improved this year.
The big Ottawa REDBLACKS defensive end dressed for just six games last year in his first CFL season but still managed 10 tackles and two sacks.
This year as a regular starter Carter had 31 tackles. His 12 sacks left him tied for second place behind the 18 recorded by Mathieu Betts of the BC Lions.
“My first year I was kind of in and out of the lineup,” Carter said in a telephone interview after practice this week. “Some weeks I would be on the active roster, some weeks on the practice roster. This year, getting the opportunity to be a full-time starter, as the season kept going along, I got way more comfortable.
“The game started slowing down a lot for me. I was able to go out there and just make plays.”
Carter’s performance was strong enough for him to be named the REDBLACKS’ nominee for the CFL’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player Award.
It’s an individual award but Carter said it takes a team to earn the recognition.
“A lot goes into that,” he said. “My name is on the award but I’ve got to give thanks to all my coaches and the guys I play with on the d-line and the secondary linebackers. It’s like a whole team thing.”
The REDBLACKS (4-13) wrap up a frustrating season when they host the defending Grey Cup champion Toronto Argonauts (15-2) Saturday at TD Place.
At six-foot-one and 252 pounds, Carter has the speed and strength defensive coaches love. But the 25-year-old from Steelton, PA said brain matter can be as important as muscle mass.
“I.Q. and play recognition is very big,” he said. “You have to have a good feel for things and anticipate things. Technique is huge up here. Some guys are good at running the edge, some guys are good at overpowering guys.”
Like in any occupation, hands on experience is crucial to learning.
“You can watch film, you can watch your teammates play,” said Carter. “But the main thing that helps guys, especially young guys, you’ve got to get those repetitions in a game. That’s going to get you a lot better.”
Some seasons, everything works for certain players. Betts, a Montreal native, set the single-season record for sacks by a Canadian. He had managed nine sacks in his previous 21 CFL games over three seasons.
“Some guys just have a knack for getting in the backfield,” said Carter. “As you keep going further along you start getting more comfortable and more relaxed.”
Veteran coach Barron Miles, who spent 12 years in the CFL as a defensive back, took over as Ottawa’s defensive coordinator this season.
It took time for Carter to learn a new defensive scheme and for Miles to adjust to the players he had.
“I think that goes hand in hand,” said Carter. “Players learn their coaches and coaches learn the players. You figure out what you can do with certain guys. How you can play your secondary, what you are going to do with your linebackers and what you need your defensive linemen to do.
“You have to sort all that stuff out. That was a big thing for us this year.”
It wasn’t an easy season for the REDBLACKS. Ottawa lost three of its first four games before upsetting the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in Week 6. One of the most frustrating losses came in Week 15 when the REDBLACKS blew a 19-point lead in the fourth quarter in a 41-37 loss to the Lions.
“Coach (Bob) Dyce did a good job,” said Carter, who attended James Madison University. “We never felt like we were a bad team. We just felt like we weren’t putting together a full four quarters of football.”
The REDBLACKS were competitive most nights. Seven of their losses were by 10 points or less, four by four points or less.
“That’s what we talked about in our meetings,” said Carter. “We’d watch films. We were just three or four plays away from winning games. We never really felt we were out of it or didn’t want to come into practice. We always felt like we were three or four plays away.”
The losing did take its toll.
“All the practices, the workouts, being away from your family, you do all these things for one thing and that’s to win,” said Carter. “When you’re not winning, nobody is coming in super happy about what is going on. But you have to be professional because it’s your job. We had to come into work with the same mindset of getting better and trying to get a win.”
Carter sees plenty of positives to build on next year.
Quarterback Dustin Crum, who took over for Nick Arbuckle after injuries to Tyrie Adams and Jeremiah Masoli, completed 244 of 350 passes for 2,836 yards, eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He’s Ottawa’s nominee as the league’s top rookie.
Entering the final game of the season, running back Devonte Williams has a chance at 1,000 yards after collecting 952 yards on 170 carries. The second-year player is Ottawa’s nominee for Most Outstanding Player.
Second-year receiver Justin Hardy has 79 catches for 890 yards and two touchdowns.
“A lot of young guys stepped up this year and showed what they can do,” said Carter. “You can work with these guys going forward.”
Saturday’s final game against Ottawa may mean nothing in the standings, but Carter said it does have meaning for the REDBLACKS.
“We want to close the shop in the right way and go into the season with our heads high and feeling good,” he said. “It’s a big game for us. We’re going to take it as seriously as we took the other 17 games.”