Road to start­ing role in CFL can be wind­ing one for quar­ter­backs

Edmonton Journal - - SPORTS - GERRY MOD­DE­JONGE gmod­de­jonge@post­media.com Twit­ter: @Ger­ryMod­de­jonge

Chris Strev­eler doesn’t have to look far to see the liv­ing em­bod­i­ment of just how big an op­por­tu­nity he’s get­ting.

Just one locker over, in fact. With Win­nipeg Blue Bombers start­ing quar­ter­back Matt Nichols out for up to six weeks with a knee in­jury suf­fered in train­ing camp, the fresh-faced rookie out of South Dakota is tak­ing his first step into the CFL squarely in the spotlight — one that has proven elu­sive for so many piv­ots look­ing to make their mark in the three-down loop.

And there aren’t many who have had a more tu­mul­tuous trek than Nichols, who paid more than his fair share of dues since en­ter­ing the league with the Eski­mos back in 2011, only to see op­por­tu­nity af­ter op­por­tu­nity taken from him.

It be­gan in 2012, when pol­i­tics sur­round­ing the Ricky Ray trade pre­vented Nichols from a le­git­i­mate chance at com­pet­ing for the start­ing role that had been handed to the in­com­ing Steven Jyles.

“A lot of peo­ple don’t know that,” said long­time Eski­mos re­ceiver Adar­ius Bow­man, who fol­lowed Nichols to Win­nipeg in free agency in the off-sea­son. “They wouldn’t let him.”

Who could for­get the im­age of Nichols ly­ing on the turf in Toronto with his foot pointed in the wrong di­rec­tion af­ter be­ing brought in to try to sal­vage an East Division cross­over he should have started in the first place?

The fol­low­ing year, Nichols was com­pet­ing throw-for-throw against free agent ac­qui­si­tion Mike Reilly in train­ing camp, only to drop out of the race af­ter in­jur­ing his knee in a pre-sea­son game.

And when Reilly’s knee was in­jured in the 2015 sea­son opener, Nichols floated the Eski­mos’ boat un­til the starter was healthy, keep­ing the Eski­mos in con­tention on what turned into a ti­tle run.

All the while, head coach Chris Jones was push­ing his own prodigy, James Franklin, which ended in Nichols get­ting traded mid-sea­son to Win­nipeg for a sev­enth-round con­di­tional draft pick.

“I’ve def­i­nitely got his­tory with Matty Ice (Nichols), but this guy Chris has got me very ex­cited. His en­ergy,” Bow­man said of Strev­eler. “Def­i­nitely a rookie, so you know the mis­takes that come with that.

“But I’m 100 per cent con­fi­dent in our vet­er­ans, our team, our of­fen­sive co-or­di­na­tor, to put him in the right place and al­low him to go out there and make plays.”

TOUGH STUFF

Eski­mos wide­out Derel Walker cracked the list of tough­est re­ceivers to cover in the CFL, as compiled by four-time all-star cor­ner­back-turned-TSN an­a­lyst Davis Sanchez.

“Like most top re­ceivers in this league, (head coach and of­fen­sive co-or­di­na­tor) Jason Maas moves him around a lot, but you can of­ten find him at that X wide re­ceiver (po­si­tion),” said Sanchez, whose 13-year pro foot­ball career spanned both sides of the border, in­clud­ing a sea­son in Ed­mon­ton in 2005. “He has pro­to­typ­i­cal skills. He’s got speed to burn but his great­est strength is his crisp, pol­ished route run­ning.

“The Esks will go to work on your bound­ary side when (quar­ter­back Mike) Reilly gets a pre-snap read see­ing Walker alone with no line­backer body help or the safety lean­ing weak.”

The other re­ceivers Sanchez named are Toronto’s S.J. Green at No .1, fol­lowed by the ver­sa­tile Du ron Carter in Saskatchewan at No .2, and Ot­tawa’s Greg Elling­son was No. 3. The fourth spot was a tossup be­tween two re­ceiver/re­turn­ers — Ot­tawa’s Dion­tae Spencer and Hamil­ton’s Brandon Banks.

“I’d say all five of ours are prob­a­bly the top-five tough­est, in my opin­ion. I don’t think we have a weak link in our re­ceiv­ing corps,” Reilly said. “But Derel’s earned a rep­u­ta­tion in this league be­cause of what he’s done dur­ing his time here and he looks bet­ter than I’ve seen him look com­ing in and get­ting a full train­ing camp with us, which has been a lit­tle while, and he’s an­other year into be­ing a vet­eran.

“He’s added to his game and that makes it even more chal­leng­ing to cover a guy that al­ready felt very dif­fi­cult to stymie.”

In and out: A pair of po­ten­tial starters in the sec­ondary are on the long-term in­jury list, as CBs Johnny Adams and Ar­jen Colquhoun have been six-gamed, along with fel­low DB Mercy Mas­ton, who was one of five Eski­mos to suf­fer an Achilles in­jury over the past year. OL Jean- Simon Roy has been placed on the six-game as he con­tin­ues to re­cover from a knee in­jury that cut his 2017 sea­son short, along with new­comer WRs Juron Criner and Gio­vanni Aprile ... WR Bryant Mitchell is the lone Eski­mos player on the one-game in­jured list.

By the num­bers: Ed­mon­ton and Win­nipeg are both 5-5 on open­ing day since 2008 ... Thurs­day ’s game is the ear­li­est reg­u­lar-sea­son game in league his­tory, beat­ing 2004’s lid-lifter be­tween Saskatchewan and Toronto by one day.

KEVIN KING

Win­nipeg Blue Bombers wide re­ceiver Adar­ius Bow­man is ex­cited by the po­ten­tial he sees in rookie quar­ter­back Chris Strev­eler.

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