The news that the Montreal Alouettes will be without star running back Brandon Whitaker for the rest of the season is certainly concerning. Whitaker reportedly suffered a torn ACL in Sunday's clash against Saskatchewan, and that will require surgery that will keep him out for the rest of the year. It's a substantial loss; the 27-year-old Whitaker led the league with 1,381 rushing yards (and a crazy 6.1 yards per carry average) in 2011 and was having another strong campaign, picking up 631 rushing yards (with a 5.1 yards per carry average) and 516 receiving yards to date this season. However, the Alouettes are perhaps better-equipped to survive this loss than almost any other CFL team, as replacement Victor Anderson has looked quite effective in limited playing time thus far.
Granted, Anderson's performance thus far is in an extremely small sample size. He's only received 30 carries this year and has only notched seven catches; most of his work has come as a kick returner, where he's picked up an impressive 427 yards on 18 returns (23.7 yards per return on average). At first glance, his 130 rushing yards aren't all that impressive, as that gives him an average of just 4.3 yards per carry. However, it can be difficult for running backs to be effective on a few touches per game, as they sometimes need to get into a rhythm. When Anderson was made the feature back earlier this year following an injury to Whitaker, he dominated in his first CFL start, picking up 102 yards on 18 carries (5.7 yards per carry) in a hostile environment in Edmonton. He's also made big plays in lesser roles, picking up two rushing touchdowns on the season and hauling in seven passes for 64 yards and a touchdown. Sure, he isn't a proven answer at this point in time, but he's displayed remarkable potential. That bodes well for how he'll do in Whitaker's place.
The Whitaker/Anderson situation is further endorsement of the talent-first school of team construction general managers like the Alouettes' Jim Popp and the B.C. Lions' Wally Buono have embodied over the years. Instead of focusing on shoring up weak spots and ignoring areas of strength, they're constantly in pursuit of talented players even if they already look set at that position. It's paid off for the Alouettes in plenty of cases. One particularly notable one is from how they were criticized for taking kicker Brody McKnight in the first round of the 2011 CFL draft (eighth overall) and then trading for Sean Whyte, but have since traded McKnight for Derek Schiavone, a (likely-higher) first-round pick and a fourth-round pick (both in 2013). Even though McKnight never made an impact in a Montreal uniform, his acquisition still benefited the team.
Similarly, Avon Cobourne started with Montreal as a special-teams player and even a linebacker at times, as the Alouettes were set at running back with Robert Edwards and Jarrett Payton, but Edwards' release and an injury to Payton paved the way for Cobourne's ascension. The Als then let Cobourne walk in free agency after 2010, leading to Whitaker's rise. (Funnily enough, Cobourne's now involved in a similar situation in Hamilton: the Tiger-Cats released him, then brought him back after an injury to Martell Mallett, then benched him behind Chevon Walker, but he's been extremely effective when called upon.) Of course, acquiring tons of players at one position doesn't always work out; Edmonton's loaded up on talented RBs this season, but it's led to issues with their playing time and utilization. On the whole, though, having depth is tremendously helpful, especially at a position like running back where injuries are commonplace. We'll see how Anderson does, but Alouettes' fans have more reason for optimism than fans of most teams would after losing a player of Whitaker's calibre.
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