New wave of CFL quarterbacks benefits from rare opportunity

It's a new week in the Canadian Football League, which means there's a chance the game stars will include at least one young quarterback unknown to the fans, coming out of some school they've never heard of (Arkansas Tech? Occidental College?)

The chances of that happening again are slim, but it's been that kind of a season in the CFL. In fact, six quarterbacks have made their first starts in recent weeks -- with surprising results. The latest shocker was supplied by Tanner Marsh, who came off the bench and out of anonymity to produce two straight victories for the Montreal Alouettes -- a team that had been struggling under the best passer in league history.

He joined a growing list of young guns that have shone this year, most notably Bo Levi Mitchell of Calgary, Zach Collaros of Toronto and Drew Willy in Saskatchewan. In Week 5 alone, three backups recorded victories. This week, the list of newfound starters includes Mitchell, Collaros, Marsh and Winnipeg's Justin Goltz.

And Marsh, who three weeks ago was third on the depth chart, looks like he'll be starting until further notice after the Alouettes put Anthony Calvillo on the nine-game injury list with a concussion.

The emergence of these arms has a lot of people speculating that this may be the best crop of young quarterbacks to enter the league in years -- a development that has the Ottawa RedBlacks licking their chops in anticipation of the upcoming expansion draft.

But is that really the case? Are the likes of Marsh, Mitchell, Collaros and Willy really newfound gems or fool's gold?

Television analysts Matt Dunigan and Giulio Caravatta aren't convinced that a huge crop of young quarterbacking stars has suddenly emerged, though they both like a lot of what they see in Mitchell and Hamilton's Dan Lefevour.

They believe this situation is a matter of better preparation meeting rare opportunity.

Because of a quarterbacking establishment that is aging and becoming more fragile, young QBs are getting opportunities that many of their predecessors never had. Look at poor Adrian McPherson, who for most of his Montreal stay was nailed to the bench behind Calvillo, coming on to the field basically to let defenders use his head as a drum on short-yardage plays.

This year, because of injuries to Calvillo, two previously untested quarterbacks are getting a shot in Montreal alone. Injuries to Toronto's Ricky Ray and Calgary's veteran QBs have allowed Collaros and Mitchell to strut their stuff.

It's been fun to watch, but don't get carried away in reserving Hall of Fame spots for these guys, says TSN's Dunigan.

"I think it's just circumstantial," says Dunigan, though he does believe Mitchell will be a star in short order. "It looks like one of the best crops in a while, but what's unique is the amount of playing time they're getting and how many are getting the opportunity to start."

As Dunigan points out, Travis Lulay was the third-stringer in B.C. only four years ago. Edmonton starter Mike Reilly was his backup last season and Calgary's off-and-on starter Drew Tate was No. 2 in Calgary only two seasons ago.

Sportsnet football analyst Caravatta agrees that injuries have opened doors but says there are other factors involved.

For one, all CFL teams have increased their free agent camps and those are unearthing more talent. Marsh, for example, was discovered at one. Secondly, teams seem to have realized that their backups and even third-stringers must get more practice time.

"Teams are beginning to realize that their backups have to be ready," Caravatta says. "There was a time that even the backups got only two or three reps in practice. Now the No. 3 guys are getting some reps. They're starting to bring all three quarterbacks into the mix."

So when a Calvillo, Ray or Darian Durant goes down, the guy who replaces him at least has some familiarity with his teammates and his team's offence. Think about how lost some of the backups in recent seasons have looked when forced into action.

Another reason behind this emergence of talent is the Ottawa factor. With teams allowed to protect only one quarterback, they are being to forced to evaluate their own talent. Since game action is the only true measure of ability, coaches are more likely to use a young back-up when the starter is less than 100 percent.

That is also great news for Ottawa, which should benefit from having several quarterbacks basically auditioning for them this year.