06/07/2012 04:23 EDT | Updated 08/07/2012 05:12 EDT

Whitaker, Montreal Alouettes gearing up to take another run at Grey Cup

He led the CFL in rushing and was a league all-star in his first season as a starter with the Montreal Alouettes.

But the most vivid memory Brandon Whitaker has about the 2011 campaign was the ball sailing off his fingertips on a third-down gamble that allowed the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to earn a 52-44 overtime East Division semifinal road win over Montreal that ended the Alouettes' two-year reign as league champions.

"My mom, my girlfriend and family reminded me a lot about last year but the only thing I can remember is that dropped ball in the semifinal game," Whitaker said in a telephone interview Thursday from the Alouettes' camp. "That was the main thing I used this off-season as motivation to get ready for this year.

"I was truly blessed to have a good year last year but I want to do even better.''

That's a scary thought considering after serving as veteran Avon Cobourne's backup, the five-foot-10, 200-pound Whitaker led the CFL in 2011 in carries (226), yards rushing (1,381) and yards from scrimmage (2,019) as Montreal's starting tailback. He also added 72 catches for 638 yards and finished the season scoring 10 touchdowns (four rushing, six passing).

And while the 26-year-old native of Edmond, Okla., has a lock on the starting tailback position, he's not leaving anything to chance in training camp.

"I have a little bit more confidence coming into this camp but my mentality remains the same," he said. "There's a lot of good competition out here and I'm competing for a job just like every other year.''

Then again, Whitaker need not look far to understand that success, especially in the CFL, is fleeting. The 33-year-old Cobourne, a two-time Grey Cup champion with seemingly plenty left in the tank, remains unsigned after being released this off-season by Hamilton.

But Whitaker, who speaks often with Cobourne, expects to see his former teammate back in the CFL soon.

"I feel we're going to see him (in CFL) a couple of weeks into the season," Whitaker said. "I don't think he's done with football at all.

"He has a lot more to give.''

And so, it seems, does the Alouettes. Despite finishing finished second in the East Division last season with a 10-8 record, Whitaker believes Montreal is the team to beat in its conference.

"Hands down," he said. "When we have AC (quarterback Anthony Calvillo) and the receiving corps we have along with the defence we're picking up, Montreal is Montreal.

"Last year was unfortunate but I definitely feel like Montreal is still the team to beat in the East.''

The 2011 campaign marked the first time in four years Montreal hadn't finished atop the East Division. And the loss to Hamilton ended the Alouettes streak of three straight Grey Cup appearances (2008 loss to Calgary, '09 and 2010 wins over Saskatchewan).

Montreal's Grey Cup aspirations were certainly bolstered when Calvillo announced he'd return for a 19th CFL season — and 15th with Montreal — in 2012. Last year, the veteran quarterback threw for a league-high 5,251 yards with only eight interceptions in 654 passing attempts, the third straight season of single-digit picks.

What's more, Calvillo surpassed Damon Allen as pro football's all-time passing leader and enters the season with 73,412 yards.

"It's definitely an honour to be out on the field with a Hall of Famer," Whitaker said of Calvillo. "He's the best quarterback in the league, the best quarterback to play the game.

"I feel lucky and definitely want to take advantage of every opportunity I get with him.''

Calvillo and Whitaker weren't the only Alouettes to enjoy outstanding 2011 campaigns as Jamel Richardson was the CFL's leading receiver with 112 catches for 1,777 yards and 11 TDs. But among those missing from Montreal's camp are such veterans as receiver Kerry Watkins (retired) as well as defensive linemen Anwar Stewart and Eric Wilson (both released).

All signs point to a very tight and close East Division this year.

Winnipeg opens the 2012 campaign as the defending conference champion and despite the absence of offensive linemen Brendon LaBatte and Obby Khan and rush end Odell Willis still boasts a solid lineup. Both Toronto and Hamilton both figure to improve after acquiring veteran quarterbacks Ricky Ray and Henry Burris, respectively, this off-season.

The Argos also made former Alouettes offensive co-ordinator Scott Milanovich their new head coach while Hamilton GM Bob O'Billovich hired veteran CFL assistant George Cortez as his new head coach while also signing former Saskatchewan slotback Andy Fantuz, the top player available in CFL free agency.

"It's definitely going to be an interesting run this year," Whitaker said. "There aren't going to be any giveaway games and there's definitely going to be tough competition.

"But we'll be ready to go.''

So will Whitaker, who has set his personal 2012 goals but is keeping them to himself. But there's no hiding what's atop Whitaker's wish list: Hoisting the Grey Cup in November at Toronto's Rogers Centre to cap a wild 100th anniversary celebration of Lord Earl Grey's historic mug.

"Oh yeah, that's No. 1," he said. "I can tell you that one.''