Toronto Argonauts running back Chad Kackert makes his first start of the season Saturday night and it comes in the most unusual of circumstances – replacing a league leader.
No, it's not the league leader in fumbles. Kackert is in the unique position of replacing the CFL's leading rusher after Toronto released Cory Boyd in a surprise move last Sunday.
The 25-year-old will make his debut when Toronto (3-3) takes on the Calgary Stampeders (3-3) in a battle between two teams trying to climb above .500.
Kackert, a compact 5-foot-9 and 198 pounds, is in his second season with Toronto. He started four games last season with Boyd sidelined with an injury.
“You could say there’s more pressure (this year) because we released the leading rusher but that’s not the way the coaches are coaching me this week,” said Kackert. “They're not coaching me with the pressure, they’re just coaching me to go out and play my game. If they didn’t believe that I could go out and do something, they wouldn’t have released Cory.”
It remains to be seen whether the unexpected move will kick-start a sputtering Argos offence that has failed to produce a touchdown in the last six quarters.
“Some guys have the ability to make plays. They show up on game day. Chad, I believe, is one of those guys,” says rookie Toronto coach Scott Milanovich. “We’re going to find out in the next few weeks and the rest of the season how he handles being a starter but he’s earned this opportunity and we’re looking forward to seeing what he can do with it.”
Kackert is a bit of a known commodity to the Stampeders, as they brought him to training a camp in 2010. His stay was brief, however, injuring his hamstring on the first day and subsequently being released. Yet the same dynamic qualities remain that made him a guy that was sought after by Calgary.
“He’s a hard runner with great quickness, a good all-round back,” said Calgary coach and general manager John Hufnagel. “I expect him to run the same types of plays that they have been running and they have been practicing. But, don’t give him the edge because he’s got speed.”
Kackert’s best start last year came July 29 in a 26-25 loss to Edmonton. He carried the ball 20 times for 139 yards and two touchdowns.
“From the few games I watched from his short stint he had last year, he’s explosive, he’s fast, he gets to the gap quick,” said Calgary middle linebacker Juwan Simpson.
The Argonauts are coming off a bye week. They were last in action on Aug. 6 when they lost 18-9 to the B.C. Lions. In that game, quarterback Ricky Ray was intercepted three times and Toronto also lost a fumble.
“We need to play better, we have to protect better, and we have be a little more efficient with the ball,” Milanovich said. “You can’t turn it over four times and expect to win a football game.”
While Toronto is looking for a bounce-back performance, Calgary is hoping for more of the same.
Led by a career-high 170 rushing yards from Jon Cornish, the Stampeders beat the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 31-20 on Aug. 9. It was the first time since opening week that Cornish has rushed for more than 40 yards. In his final seven starts last season after taking over the starting job from Joffrey Reynolds, the native of New Westminster, B.C., was held under 40 yards only once,.
“I literally wrote down every single thing that I did well last week and over the last few weeks. Now, I have a pretty good picture of what works for me and what doesn’t,” said Cornish. “Football is very mental game. Any time you’re having to deal with 300 pound guys coming to grab you, attack you, smash you into the ground, you have to be mentally prepared and I feel this last game was the game I was most mentally prepared for.”
In the first meeting against Toronto, a wild 39-36 Argos victory in week two, Cornish was held to 39 yards on seven carries. Linebacker Robert McCune, who was teammates with Cornish last year, knows that containing him a second game in a row will be challenge.
“Jon’s a good, well-rounded back, he’ll hit it between the tackles, he’ll bounce it to the outside, he’ll also catch the football out of the backfield and make long runs,” said McCune. “We just have to play the football that we play. It starts off with doing what we do – knowing our assignments, running to the football and stopping the run.”
Toronto is looking to make it five straight wins over the Stampeders.
“Any time you come off a win against a good team like Hamilton, we’re definitely feeling good. But we understand that this Toronto team, they’ve been tough for us the past few years,” said Simpson. “I'm confident in our team, I’m confident in what we bring to the table but we just can’t give teams any leeway. It’s such a tight league this year, you have to be on your game for the full game.”