Measuring Up: Running Game

Even though the CFL is a passing league, a team needs a solid running game to keep the opposing defense honest. The Eskimos were all set to go with a non-import tandem in 2009, and then Jesse Lumsden got hurt in the first game of the season. Cue the entrance of Arkee Whitlock, who proceeded to have a disastrous first game wearing the Green & Gold.

Lucky for Arkee Whitlock that Richie Hall is a patient man, and the coach’s patience and  confidence in the rookie running back paid dividends during the rest of the season. Whitlock finished the year with over 1,200 rushing yards, good for third in the league. He also scored 12 rushing touchdowns, good for second in the CFL behind Montreal’s Avon Cobourne. The lifespan of running backs in professional football is short, but it appears that the Eskimos may have found themselves a gamer for the next couple of years. Throw in the versatile Calvin McCarty, combined with three very good non-import fullbacks, and the Eskimos should be in good shape when it comes to the running game in 2010.

BC Lions

Martell Mallet translated 1,240 yards on the ground and six touchdowns in 2009 into an NFL contract with the Philadelphia Eagles. The Lions currently have six sunning backs on their roster with three imports and three non-imports. Jamal Robertson, signed as a free agent from Toronto, will compete with two CFL rookies in the form of Mickey Dean and Yonus Davis for the starting job. Robertson has shown well while playing for the Argos and will most likely emerge as the opening day starter. On the non-import side, second year running back Jamal Lee will try to take the next step into becoming a more involved player.

Calgary Stampeders

Joffrey Reynolds continues to be a model of consistency as he led the CFL in rushing in 2009 with over 1,500 yards on the ground. The 30-year old running back continues to produce at an amazing rate and is one of the most dangerous offensive players in the league.  Calgary will be brining four other running backs to camp. Jon Cornish and Rob Cote provide valuable depth as non-imports on the roster with Cornish being the primary backup at running back while Cote fills more of the receiving fullback role. Import Derek Watson saw spot duty for the Stampeders in 2009 and will need to fend off the newly signed Rafael Little for a roster spot in training camp. The key to the run in Calgary is Reynolds, and as long as he continues to perform, the Stampeders will have a good running game.

Saskatchewan Roughriders

The Roughriders have seven running backs currently signed to their roster. They were the only team in the CFL in 2009 not to have a 1,000 yard rusher on their team with Wes Cates finishing the campaign with 932 yards on the ground. Despite that fact, Cates should once again be the principal ball carrier for the Roughriders in 2010. Chris Szarka is nearing the end of his career, yet continues to be a very good starting fullback. Stuart Foord and Neal Hughes provide valuable non-import depth that also contribute to the Roughriders special teams unit. On the import side, Dominique Dorsey returns to the Saskatchewan prairies where he began his career. Dorsey will take some snaps on offense, but his true value is in the return game. Lavarus Giles, who spent some time with Winnipeg in 2009, and Marcus Thigpen will be in tough for a roster spot.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers

Fred Reid might be the most underrated running back in the CFL. He was second in rushing in the league in 2009, but failed to get a lot of attention due to being part of less competitive Blue Bombers squad. Winnipeg will need to have a strong running game in 2010 as they currently do not have an established starter at quarterback. Lead blocking fullback Jon Oosterhuis will be back for his second year on the offensive side of the ball. Aside from Reid, Yvenson Bernard and Daryl Stephenson provide good depth at running back. Aside from the returning players, Emmanual Marc, a 2009 cut from the BC Lions training camp, will be the only other competition at the position heading into training camp.

Hamilton Tiger-Cats

Like Arkee Whitlock, DeAndra Cobb was the benefactor of an early season injury. The Michigan State product became a fast fan favourite showing great skill and quickness from his first touch. Running back Andre Sadeghian and fullback Darcy Brown provide the non-import content to the roster. Neither contributed significantly to the Tiger-Cats offense in 2009. First year imports Brian Calhoun and Jhamal Fluellen will compete for the back-up position behind Cobb. Although the Tiger-Cats recently release Kenton Keith due in part to injury concerns, it will be interesting to see if the organization is willing to take a chance on hometown favourite Jesse Lumsden. With only five backs signed for training camp, there is certainly room on the roster for more competition.

Toronto Argonauts

The Argos lost their leading rusher from 2009 during the off-season when Jamal Robertson signed with the BC Lions to replace Martell Mallet. Their leading rusher coming into camp from last season is now Jeff Johnson, who gained 52 yards on the ground, so finding a new lead back will be a priority for the Argos as they attempt to start the rebuild process. Recently signed Cory Boyd and DeCori Birmingham will compete with  Amos Allen, who was signed late last year for the feature back snaps in training camp. The Argos need to hope that one of these additions can have the same type of success experienced by top rookies Cobb and Whitlock in 2009. The team will also have a strong non-import contingent attending training camp.  The aforementioned Johnson, along with Bryce Crawford and Andre Durie provide good depth to the Argos specialty teams while providing some ability on offense as well. Fullback Peter Quinney, who attended the Winnipeg Blue Bombers camp last year, will attempt to dislodge one of the veterans for a roster spot.

Montreal Alouettes

Montreal is the class of the CFL because they are strong at every position. Their running game is no exception. Avon Cobourne rushed for over 1,200 yards in 2009 and led the league in rushing touchdowns with 13. Built much like the Eskimos when it comes to the running game, Montreal employs three non-import fullbacks and a non-import back-up running back in the form of former Eskimos draft pick Dahrran Diedrick. Their fullbacks do not have the experince of the Eskimos fullbacks, but having that many non-imports certainly offers a little flexibility to the coaching staff when juggling the roster around the import ratio. Brandon Whitaker will face a good challenge from new signings Corey Council and Roosevelt Ross for the back-up position behind Cobourne. Certainly not a position of weakness for the defending Grey Cup champions.

Analysis

With seven of the eight feature backs from 2009 coming back healthy and either in the prime of their careers or still improving, running games in the CFL should be strong in 2010. Montreal, Edmonton, and Hamilton should all have good running attacks. It will be interesting to see how Joffrey Reynolds fares behind what can only be described as a patchwork offensive line. Reynolds is talented, but running backs still need the holes opened for them. Assuming Jamal Robertson makes the transition from the big smoke to the west coast, the Lions should be able to keep pace with the top-tier teams. Saskatchewan should also be okay when it comes to the running game if Wes Cates continues to perform as should Winnipeg so long as Reid stays healthy. The only team with any questions is Toronto, who will need to find a feature back quickly if they want to compete this year. Of course having a mobile quarterback like Henry Burris and Darian Durant will add teams like Saskatchewan and Calgary continue to use the run in a variety of different situations in the coming season.

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