Speed­ster Spencer hits his stride with Red­blacks

Wide re­ceiver, kick re­turner mo­ti­vated by doubters who say he’s too small

Montreal Gazette - - SPORTS - HERB ZURKOWSKY hzurkowsky@post­media.com Twit­ter.com/Her­bZurkowsky1

There’s no guar­an­tee Dion­tae Spencer will re­main in the Cana­dian Foot­ball League. At age 25, he be­lieves the NFL win­dow has yet to close, although he al­ready has dipped his toe in the wa­ter with the Rams and Bears.

But should he stay north of the bor­der, the sky ap­pears the limit for the tal­ented Ot­tawa Red­blacks’ wide-re­ceiver and re­turn-spe­cial­ist.

“Def­i­nitely, I feel like I can be, when healthy and at the top of my game, I can be the best re­ceiver and re­turner in this league,” Spencer said Wed­nes­day, upon the team’s ar­rival in Mon­treal for Thurs­day night’s game against the Alou­ettes. “Hope­fully that can hap­pen. We’ll just see how it pans out.

“Ev­ery time I have the ball in my hands, I feel I can go the dis­tance. My coaches and team­mates be­lieve that, too. It gives me con­fi­dence in my­self. I feel like once I have the ball in my hand and have the op­por­tu­nity, I can put this team in po­si­tion to score points at any given time.”

Spencer, only 5-foot-8 and 164 pounds, was named one of the league’s top per­form­ers last week. On Satur­day against Bri­tish Columbia, he caught seven passes for 61 yards, re­turned four punts for 92, in­clud­ing a 61-yarder, gen­er­ated 60 yards off three kick­off re­turns, and re­turned a field-goal at­tempt 91 yards. Oh yeah, he had one 13-yard carry.

Spencer had 317 all-pur­pose yards. Not a bad day’s work.

“I feel like I’ve been play­ing pretty well, given the op­por­tu­ni­ties that I’ve had,” said Spencer, a na­tive of Ibe­ria, La. “Once I’m in the zone and play­ing good, I feel like I can al­ways have those types of games. There have been a bunch of games I felt I did a lot to help this team win.”

Spencer spent two sea­sons with the Toronto Arg­onauts be­fore be­com­ing a free agent last win­ter. The ma­jor­ity of his rookie sea­son was spent back­ing up the fre­quently-in­jured Chad Owens. Last sea­son, in only 12 games, Spencer caught 71 passes for 706 yards and re­turned 33 punts for 341.

Come Fe­bru­ary, the Ar­gos were in dis­ar­ray, with no gen­eral manager or head coach. Spencer de­cided to sign a one-year con­tract with the de­fend­ing Grey Cup cham­pi­ons, know­ing he would be re­united with quar­ter­back Trevor Har­ris and of­fen­sive co-or­di­na­tor Jamie El­i­zondo. The lat­ter was Toronto’s re­ceivers coach in 2015.

It was Spencer’s de­ci­sion to sign the short-term deal, be­liev­ing it would put him in a po­si­tion of strength.

“We felt he had a lot of up­side,” Ot­tawa GM Mar­cel Des­jardins said. “He’s still young. He’s dy­namic, both as a wide-re­ceiver and re­turner. He was fa­mil­iar with our of­fen­sive sys­tem.

“He’s just start­ing to hit his stride.”

While Spencer might be con­sid­ered too small to play down south, there has al­ways been a place in Canada for guys of his di­men­sion. He played col­le­giately for McNeese State, where he posted one of the most mem­o­rable games in the coun­try with 365 all-pur­pose yards against Stephen F. Austin, good for a school record. That in­cluded two kick-re­turn touch­downs of 93 and 85 yards. He also re­turned a punt 35 yards for a score.

“I’ve ba­si­cally been get­ting (told he’s too small) my whole life,” Spencer ad­mit­ted. “It has mo­ti­vated me through­out my ca­reer, just hav­ing that chip on my shoul­der. I feel like I can do any­thing. The doubters just bring ex­tra mo­ti­va­tion for me.”

While the Red­blacks still have a less-than-scin­til­lat­ing 3-6-1 record, they’re at least on a two-game win­ning streak af­ter los­ing mul­ti­ple con­tests by close mar­gins. And it shouldn’t be for­got­ten Ot­tawa cap­tured the Cup last year de­spite hav­ing a los­ing record.

“Feel­ing the vibe this team has, com­ing off two wins. I think the swag­ger’s there,” he said. “Ev­ery­body’s com­ing into the build­ing with en­ergy. Ev­ery­body’s bought in. The tough losses we took early, it kind of hurt us. But it also helped. We know the feel­ing.”

JA­SON FRANSON/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Red­blacks’ Dion­tae Spencer, who is only 5-foot-8 and 164 pounds, was named one of the CFL’s top per­form­ers last week.

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