MONTREAL - Brandon Whitaker never doubted he would be back.
And after nine months of rehab on a blown out right knee, the flashy Montreal running back who led the CFL in rushing in 2011 is set to return when the Alouettes play host to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers on Thursday night at Percival Molson Stadium.
"I'm more anxious than anything," Whitaker said Wednesday. "I've been taking hits in practice and things like that, but it's my first game back and there will be a couple of butterflies there."
The Alouettes (1-0) and Bombers (0-1) will face one another for a second straight week to start the CFL season.
Whitaker was held out of the season opener to give him extra time to recover from a torn ACL ligament suffered in a game against Saskatchewan in September.
His return is timely, as his replacement at the opening of Winnipeg's new Investors Group Field, Chris Jennings, suffered an ankle injury in the 38-33 victory.
How much he plays and how effective he will be is uncertain, even if Whitaker says the knee is now stronger than before. As bad as the injury looked at the time, he never considered giving up football.
"That never went through my mind," the 27-year-old Whitaker said. "What went through my mind was that it was going to be a long road back and that I had to take it one day at a time.
"My main focus was to get better every day. I feel good right now."
Whitaker's best game in 2012 before he got hurt was in Montreal's second game of the season, which was also against Winnipeg. That night, he piled up 235 passing and receiving yards.
"He does it all," said Montreal receiver Jamel Richardson. "They call him two-way Whitaker for a reason.
"I'm just glad he's healthy and back out there. I want to see him get some carries and I want to see him take that first hit. Then we'll go from there."
With Jennings out, Noel Devine and rookie Steven Lumbala will back up Whitaker, with Devine also returning kicks.
Fullback Patrick Lavoie will also return from injury.
The Alouettes jumped on the Bombers early in the opener, aided by a Geoff Tisdale interception on Buck Pierce's first throw of the game. Winnipeg dominated the third quarter and had the lead only to see Anthony Calvillo pilot Montreal to the comeback win.
Both will need adjustments. Winnipeg turned the ball over four times, while 40-year-old Calvillo was sacked four times.
Bombers coach Tim Burke is not a fan of back-to-back games.
"You'd much rather play a team a second time after you've played more games," he said. "You know more about them.
"You know more about yourself. Plus, you're constantly evolving schematically in all three phases during a season, so playing back-to-back, there's not much evolution there in what you can do. So you end up doing a lot of the same things you did before. You just hope you do them better."
However, he knows where the Bombers need to improve — turnovers.
"That's the number one thing," he said. "I think we could have won the game if we didn't turn the ball over, especially early, and get off to a poor start.
"There's a mindset there that you're behind and things aren't going well."
Winnipeg is looking to avoid dropping to 0-2. They had an 0-4 start last season and ended up a dismal 6-12.
Pierce went 19-for-34 for 258 yards and two touchdowns in the opener, while Calvillo overcame a slow start to go 20-for-35 for 264 yards and one TD.
Calvillo bruised his right thumb on a defender's helmet, but said there was no serious damage and it didn't bother him in practice this week.
What bothered him more in the game was a new rule that calls for a procedure penalty if the centre drops his head more than once before a snap. Montreal's Luc Brodeur-Jourdain got called three times before the Alouettes figured it out.
Calvillo said it was particularly tough for visiting teams using silent counts as a way to deal with crowd noise.
"But now we'll adjust for the next time we play in the noise," he said.
It was a first win for new head coach Dan Hawkins, who said he got a congratulatory message from former boss Marc Trestman, now head coach of the Chicago Bears.
And it was Montreal's first game under new offensive co-ordinator Mike Miller, whose game featured more running plays than they ran under Trestman.
"One thing is how (the Bombers) will adjust to our new fly-sweep that we introduced to them last week," said Calvillo. "That will be a little different.
"And they'll have a lot of different coverages that they didn't show. So it's a mystery what they'll do, but we have some new stuff as well. But whether you play back-to-back or not, you just have to go out and beat them and that's what we're going to try to do."
Calvillo had kind words for former Alouette and Argonaut safety Etienne Boulay, who was not kept on after Toronto's Grey Cup win in November. Boulay announced his retirement on Wednesday.
"He helped us win Grey Cups and he was a good friend when he was here," said Calvillo. "I'm just glad to see that he's walking away from the game with a few championship rings."