We are creeping ever closer to June and the long-awaited CFL season opener in Montreal. Over the the waning weeks of the off-season, we’ll turn the spotlight on each division, breaking down players by position. There are new faces in new places and many of them have shifted the balance of power in the league. This series will bring you up to speed if you missed the flurry of activity these last few months. We continue in the CFL running back preview, East Division edition.
CFL Running Back Preview – East Division
Ottawa Redblacks: Mossis Madu/William Powell
Last season, the Redblacks played a mean game of running back roulette. During the preseason, it looked as if Powell would be the opening day starter. Injury prevented him from ever taking the field in 2016. Because of that, Travon Van assumed the feature back responsibility, for three weeks. Van too was injured in a game against the Montreal Alouettes. From that point on the search for a reliable running back began in earnest.
Nic Grigsby, a former CFL running back and current used car salesman in Florida, made a splash for couple of weeks, then fizzled out. Back-up and national player Kienan LaFrance also served as a stopgap, as did Madu, who joined the club in the latter part of the season. Each enjoyed a certain amount of success, but it was hard to build a solid ground game with an ever-changing cast of characters.
This off-season, Van was lost to the Edmonton Eskimos and LaFrance to the Saskatchewan Roughriders via free agency. Ottawa is confident that they will get to enjoy a full season of Powell this year. He took the field seven times in 2015 piling up close to 450 yards while averaging 5.9 per carry. On top of that, they are hopeful that Madu can build off his last season. He amassed an impressive 498 yards in only six appearances with the Redblacks.
Hamilton Tiger-Cats: C.J. Gable
The Ticats are all in on Gable. Hamilton has made no major plays for a free agent running back nor do they seem to be trying to address the position. This should come as no surprise to anyone. It’s clear that head coach Kent Austin and offensive coordinator Stefan Ptaszek do not have a run heavy philosophy. They are more inclined to let their star quarterback Zach Collaros air it out. With that in mind, the veteran running back is a good fit for the system since he is not expected to break out on long runs, or to wear a defence down.
Despite his role, he finished sixth among running backs with 693 yards. He also added another 405 in receiving. Those stats earned him East Division All-Star status. He will again enter the season as the lead back. All the same though, he should not get too comfortable. While the Ticats did not sign any veteran free agents, they did bring some fresh blood on board that could push Gable for touches.
On March 9th they inked a deal with Cierre Wood, a veteran of several NFL practice squads and a Notre Dame alumni. That same day, they signed Alex Green, who spent time with the Green Bay Packers in 2011. Both players are new to the league and could not gain a foothold down south, so they stand to be little more than training camp competition for Gable.
Montreal Alouettes: Brandon Rutley/Tyrell Sutton
It was a rough season for the Als. They struggled in every facet of the game last year. One of the weakest parts of their game was the running back position. Montreal addressed their issue at quarterback through free agency and in doing so probably used up all their fire power to do much else. To that end, Sutton and Rutley return to carry the mail for the Alouettes in 2017.
Rutley signed an extension in February to stay with the team for the next two seasons. He is coming off a season in which he finished seventh in the league in rushing yards. While that might sound impressive, he managed to get there with only 495 yards, almost a full 200 yards less than sixth place. He does not lack talent and can also provide some help in the passing game to boot. Darian Durant is at the helm now. Maybe it will go a long way to helping the other parts of the Als offence come back to life. Rutley should benefit from that.
As for Sutton, he finds himself on the heels of an injury-plagued season. An MCL put him on the shelf early in July. That was a blow to Montreal as they had high hopes for the 2015 leading-leading rusher. Upon returning, weeks 10 through 15, he averaged 10 carries a game with sporadic results. He did not see action beyond that as Rutley became the starter for the remainder of the season. For Sutton as is the case with Rutley, the presence of Durant can only help this season.
Toronto Argonauts: Brandon Whitaker
Whitaker was a dominant force out of the backfield for Toronto last season. He was one of only two running backs to surpass the 1000-yard mark. His only downside was his low touchdown total. Whitaker only found the endzone on three occasions last season. Despite that, he was quite effective moving the ball for the Argos tallying three 100+ yard games. Fresh off a recent contract extension, Whitaker will reassume lead back duties in 2017.
There is another interesting story that developed during free agency that bears monitoring. Former NFL running back Kendall Hunter was brought on board as a possible complement for Whitaker. Hunter was a member of the San Francisco 49ers for four seasons before being picked up by the New Orleans Saints. He was impressive behind Frank Gore as the “change of pace” back. The hang up to Hunter is his potential for injury. Several times in his career he has found himself on the sidelines due to being hurt. Should he make the team and stay healthy, he could be to Whitaker what he was to Gore.
Next Week: CFL West Division Running Back Preview