December 30, 2011
Canadian running backs Andre Durie and Andrew Harris both signed contract extensions Thursday, and their situations have plenty of overlap but one very notable difference. Both have come up through the Canadian football ranks, with Harris starring in the junior ranks with the Vancouver Island Raiders before catching on with the B.C. Lions and Durie shining at the CIS level with the York Lions, and both have overcome plenty of adversity; Harris finally got a chance to establish himself in B.C. this year, but only after Jerome Messam was traded and Jamal Robertson's role was reduced, while Durie bounced back from a terrible injury at the university level and has gone on to become a consistent player for the Argonauts. The key contrast between the two is that Harris is a prominent name across the CFL now thanks to his play down the stretch and the outstanding Canadian award he picked up in the Grey Cup, while Durie remains much more of the CFL's Rodney Dangerfield: a great talent who gets no respect.
There's one primary reason for Durie's lack of inclusion in the discussion of great Canadian running backs, and it has to do with the "running" in the title of the position. Durie picked up just 106 rushing yards in 2011, and that was the most he's collected in his five CFL seasons. However, when you look a little deeper, his value to the Argonauts goes well beyond just the rushing game. In a pass-heavy league like this one, it helps a lot when you have running backs who can catch; if teams drop a lot of defenders, they can be vulnerable underneath to short slants and outs, and a speedy, agile back like Durie with a terrific set of hands is a tremendously valuable asset. He also has the ability to line up at slotback, giving the Argonauts positional flexibility. Durie has caught 54 passes each of the last two seasons, picking up 632 yards and a touchdown in 2010 and 665 yards and four touchdowns in 2011.
This past year, Durie (seen at top evading Winnipeg's Deon Beasley in a July 23 game) was Toronto's second-leading receiver, and he finished less than 100 yards behind top man Chad Owens. Pass-catching by running backs is expected to some degree in this league, but Durie is one of the few whose skills in the area go well beyond mere requirements and on into the transcendent range. Simply put, he might just be the best pass-catching back in this league. He certainly is by yardage; Montreal's Brandon Whitaker finished second in receiving yards in 2010 with 638 yards, but it took him 72 receptions to get there, giving him a 8.9 yards per catch average that pales beside Durie's 12.3. Durie's consistent productivity whenever he's thrown the ball makes him a terrific weapon for Toronto, and he should fit perfectly into an offence run by Montreal transplants Scott Milanovich and Jonathan Himebauch, as the Alouettes have long believed in running backs as pass-catching threats. With Durie, they have a great one.
Suggesting that Durie is merely a one-dimensional weapon isn't accurate, either. He's quite capable of running the ball when given the chance, and averaged 5.9 yards per carry last season. Of course, Toronto already has one great back in Cory Boyd, but the contrasting styles of Boyd and Durie could make them a terrific backfield tandem. Boyd's the power back who runs straight over you, while Durie's the agile trickster who tries to get around. If the Argonauts put them both behind the quarterback together and let defences try to figure out who's getting the ball, that could be very tough to stop.
Of course, none of this is a knock at Harris, and it's notable that much of his success came in the receiving game too. He ran for 458 yards and a touchdown last season, but his 4.8 yards per carry average was far from ideal; his pass-catching game was superb, though, as he hauled in 30 passes for 395 yards and seven touchdowns. He still could improve in both the rushing and receiving games, too, as he's only 24 and just finished his first CFL season where he recorded any stats. Still, the Grey Cup's reigning Most Outstanding Canadian doesn't need much in the way of publicity. It's just worth remembering that with all the talented West Division Canadian running backs in Harris, Calgary's Jon Cornish and Edmonton's Messam, Toronto also has a great one in Durie, a man who receives everything but hype.