CALGARY - Stampeder running back Jon Cornish returns to the West Coast where he grew up playing football as Calgary's No. 1 tailback now.
Cornish, from New Westminster, B.C., played high school games at Vancouver's B.C. Place and his first there as a Grade 8 student. He was B.C. provincial high school player of the year in 2001.
The Stampeders (8-5) face the streaking Lions (7-6) at B.C. Place on Saturday. Calgary can clinch a playoff berth with a victory, but the Lions are the hottest team in the CFL at six wins in a row.
Cornish moved ahead of the venerable Joffrey Reynolds on Calgary's depth chart two games ago. Cornish quickly made an impact and just as quickly earned recognition from the league.
The 26-year-old was named both the CFL's offensive and Canadian player of the week after running for 149 yards and scoring two touchdowns in Calgary's 40-3 win over Saskatchewan last Saturday. It was the first time a Stampeder running back cracked the 100-yard mark in a game this season.
In his two games as a starter, he's had 22 carries for 233 yards. Cornish was also named the CFL's top Canadian for the month of September, when he totalled 336 rushing yards plus 153 receiving yards.
"I always felt I could play at this level," Cornish said. "It's just an opportunity presenting itself so I took advantage of it."
"Accolades are good and stuff but at the end of the day, I think it's a little too much for a guy who has only started two games right? You can never use one or two games as a metric for determining any kind of information. I'm not about to give myself more credit than I deserve."
Calgary drafted Cornish in the second round (13th overall) out of the University of Kansas in the 2006 Canadian college draft. As a rookie in 2007, he got his feet wet in the CFL playing on Calgary's special teams.
He was able to develop at his own pace the next three-plus seasons as backup to Reynolds, Calgary's franchise leader in rushing yards and the CFL's top rusher in 2008 and 2009. Cornish gradually worked up to playing one series out of every three running plays in the last season and a half.
Heading into Calgary's game versus Hamilton in Week 13, Calgary head coach and GM Jon Hufnagel determined the Canadian was ready to be the team's primary ball carrier on running plays.
Cornish, six feet and 205 pounds, is averaging 7.8 yards per carry this season. He's scored four touchdowns on 62 carries for 485 yards this season.
"I knew he would get to this point in his career because he has all the intangibles to be the best back in this league," quarterback Henry Burris said. "The fact that he's Canadian as well, going to the University of Kansas, putting up the type of numbers he did there and for us to be able to steal him in the draft and get him here to Calgary, now we're starting to reap what we've sowed."
Cornish's promotion feels bittersweet. Reynolds was a healthy scratch the two games he's started. Import LaMarcus Coker was activated from the practice roster to back up Cornish.
"It's cool that I get this opportunity, but it sucks that is comes at the cost (of Reynolds)," Cornish said recently.
Calgary running backs coach Mike Gibson lists Cornish's attributes as the ability to adjust to opposing defences on the fly, the power to break through tackles and the speed to outrun linebackers who have angles on him.
"He runs through a lot of arm tackles," Gibson said. "The opposition may feel they have him tackled at different times and he's able to break tackles because he has high leg drive and he's always picking his feet up. Very seldom do you see him getting tripped up."
Spending so much time in the shadow of Reynolds could have been frustrating for Cornish, but used the time to learn from the best in the business.
"Now that he's getting more opportunities to play, you see the experience that he's had in the past, he's learned from," Gibson said. "You would hope the success he's had will only make him hungrier for success.
"That's about the person. Time will tell that. But he's had a good attitude. He brought his lunch pail and worked every day this week coming off a big game. You hope those attributes continue."
Calgary will appreciate a covered stadium in Vancouver after a wet and windy final practice Thursday at McMahon Stadium. Cornish, however, doesn't feel sentimental about B.C. Place or seeing it for the first time since its $560-million renovation and unveiling last week.
"It's still B.C. Place," he said. "They didn't change the concrete. Sure, it looks nice. It'll be an interesting experience because it's new and more people are attracted to the building. It should be cool."
A win is more significant for him because it is the first rung on the ladder of the team's aspirations this season that include winning the West Division and West final en route to the Grey Cup in Vancouver.
"A playoff berth, first place, playing at home, win that game, Grey Cup," Cornish said. "That's the plan."
Receiver Ken-Yon Rambo and linebacker Brandon Isaac (leg injuries) will not play Saturday. Landon Talley, who scored both of his career touchdowns versus B.C., is in for Rambo and Johnnie Dixon is expected to rotate into the lineup to for Isaac.