For the first time in decades, one-quarter of the CFL is expected to start a Canadian at tailback. Jon Cornish beat out Joffrey Reynolds for the starting job in Calgary midway through last season (leading to Reynolds' offseason release), while B.C.'s Andrew Harris also took over the Lions' top running back slot from Jamal Robertson (who retired this offseason) partway through 2011. Both are predicted to be their teams' top rushing options this season. It's a remarkable renaissance for Canadian running backs, and it could have been even higher if Edmonton starter Jerome Messam (voted the league's top Canadian last season) hadn't left for the NFL. There are also other Canadian backs like Toronto's underrated Andre Durie, Winnipeg's Carl Volny and Anthony Woodson, Calgary's Matt Walter and B.C.'s Stu Foord who could make their own impacts this season. Harris and Cornish will be leading the charge this year, though, and having two talented Canadian players starting at a traditionally-American position represents a tremendous marketing opportunity for the CFL.
Canadian content's always been a crucial part of the CFL, with at least 20 of the 42 players on each active roster mandated to be non-imports. (There are 19 spots specifically for imports and three quarterback spots where nationality isn't counted; those tend to be reserved for Americans.) Teams' top-end Canadian talent and overall non-import depth frequently is a crucial part of where they wind up in the standings, and with Canadian talent generally on the rise, those guys are playing more important roles all the time. However, many of those Canadian players are still assigned to what are generally referred to as "non-skill positions". That's a bit of a misnomer, as it still takes plenty of skill to play positions like fullback, offensive line, defensive line or kicker, and those positions can be crucial to a team's success; the best quarterback in the world won't help much if he's hit on every play. It is true that many of the league's Canadians play less glamourous roles, though, and those who don't fill up the stat sheet often don't draw as much attention.
That's why the rise of Cornish and Harris is so important. We've already seen a shift towards non-import stars at wide receiver and slotback (first in Saskatchewan, now in Hamilton), and that's been notable; on many teams, it used to be that Canadian receivers were the fourth or fifth option on many plays, primarily there just to pad out the non-import ratio, but many non-import receivers are becoming key passing-game weapons. That's been reflected in marketing efforts, and now that needs to happen with running backs; the CFL may be a passing-focused league, but those passes are generally split amongst at least five or six receivers per team, so a team's primary running back is going to see more touches in any given season, and it's certainly important that a full quarter of the league's starting tailbacks are Canadians.
Harris and Cornish are both great stories, too, and they show the many different levels Canadian players are excelling at these days. Cornish starred with the NCAA's Kansas Jayhawks in the Big 12, while Harris tore up the Canadian junior football ranks before joining the Lions. They're both interesting and talented players, and they should be a key part of their respective teams' offences this season. Focusing more marketing attention on them not only would help sell the CFL to fans as a truly Canadian game, but could also encourage young Canadian football players, telling them they can stick with the game even if they play a traditionally-American position. Harris and Cornish represent the CFL's future, and they've shown that Canadians can be stars in this league at non-traditional positions. That's a message the CFL needs to spread.