55 Yard Line - CFL

Sean Millington, Jon Cornish and the rise of the Canadian RB

The Canadian quarterback conundrum is still ongoing, but non-imports are making their mark at another skill position typically reserved for Americans this CFL season. That position? Running back, where both Calgary and B.C. will go with Canadians as their main tailback Saturday night at B.C. Place (10 p.m. Eastern, TSN/NFL Network).

Canadian running backs were quite common in the early days of the CFL, but the league started to go away from them in the late 1970s and 1980s. That began to change back with Sean Millington (seen at left above in a 2002 game), who will be inducted into the B.C. Lions' Wall of Honour Saturday and recognized at halftime of the Lions-Stampeders game (along with former defensive back Joe Fourqurean). Guys like Millington and Orville Lee (father of current B.C. RB Jamall Lee) helped to start to change that, but they faced plenty of opposition; Millington was typically listed as a fullback and often asked to block for imports instead of carrying the ball, and Lee wasn't featured as heavily after he left Ottawa. Here's what Millington told Lowell Ullrich about the struggles he faced:

"I was battling the stigma that you can't have a Canadian guy be a feature running back my entire career," said the man known as "Diesel" during his 10-year CFL career. ... "You have to have the [talent], but if you have a legitimate guy give him a chance," he said. "Everyone knows running backs get better with time and touches.

After Millington and Lee, there were brief renaissances with players like the oft-injured Jesse Lumsden, who had his own important role to play in the saga, but most of the CFL's featured backs throughout the 1990s and over this last decade were Americans. Canadians in the backfield were generally relegated to blocking and special-teams duties, but that's now starting to shift again.

We're going to see one featured clash between Canadian running backs Saturday night, when top Canadian for September Jon Cornish (seen at right above in a September game) returns to his old stomping grounds with Calgary and B.C.'s Andrew Harris tries to outduel him. However, the impressive list of non-import running backs in the league at the moment goes beyond just those two. Edmonton has Jerome Messam and Calvin McCarty, Toronto has Andre Durie, B.C. also has Lee (who's mostly playing special teams at the moment) and Winnipeg has new draft pick Carl Volny (who did well before getting hurt last week).

There are plenty of other Canadians in the backfield whose impact thus far has been more in the traditional fullback/special teams mould, but they could perhaps break out if given a chance; that list includes Montreal's Mike Giffin, B.C.'s Rolly Lumbala, Saskatchewan's Stu Foord, Hamilton's Darcy Brown and Daryl Stephenson, Edmonton's Mathieu Bertrand and Toronto's Bryan Crawford, among others. There may well be more capable players on the way from the CIS ranks, too: the Calgary Dinos have three great backs (Stampeders' draft pick Matt Walter, plus Anthony Woodson and Steven Lumbala), UBC's Dave Boyd is very promising, and Regina's Adrian Charles and Laval's Sebastien Levesque are both having terrific years.

Part of the reason we may be seeing more Canadians carrying the ball is thanks to the rise of the running-back-by-committee system, which has given extra opportunities to the likes of Cornish and Messam that they might not have seen in the old one-featured-back ideal. Another reason is just the sheer rise in Canadian talent; the level of CIS play has consistently risen over the last decade, and more Canadians are making notable impacts south of the border as well (as Cornish did at the University of Kansas). Still, the most crucial factor may be a willingness by league executives to rethink the old dogma of reserving certain spots for Americans. Here's what Millington told Mike Beamish about how coaches used to think:

"It was more the coaches who had to wrap their minds around the fact that 'I'm just a running back,' " Millington said.

"Players are pretty egalitarian in that sense. They don't care how we win, or who is doing the winning, as long as we win. They recognize a guy who has ability, who can get the job done, a lot sooner often than the coaches. They're on the field with you. They see the blocks, they see the runs. And they feel the result more viscerally, I think. When you go to war, you don't care who's got your back."

And here's what Cornish told Beamish about the current game:

"I'm worried about being the best back in the CFL. I'm not worried about being the best Canadian back in the CFL," said Cornish. ... "I don't have a Canadian backup. I'm not in there because of the ratio thing," Cornish said. "My story is different than those other guys. Joffrey [Reynolds] is a great friend and he's done a lot to help my career. But I'm playing now because the coaching staff considers me to be the best running back. I'm averaging almost eight yards a carry. I'm averaging 18 yards a catch [18.2, on 16 receptions]. I'm in the right place at the right time."

Canadian, American, Albanian, Bohemian, it doesn't matter. Cornish is good. That's why he has Calgary's stamp as "feature back."

It's reassuring to see Canadian talent given that kind of opportunity, and Cornish, Harris, Messam and the current lineup of Canadian running backs is proof that this line of thinking has merit. Players like Millington and Lee deserve plenty of credit for blazing the trail to get the league to this point, though, and it's the players still on their way who may make Canadian RBs even more prominent. The saga of Canadian running backs will have its past and present collide Saturday night, but it's the future that looks the brightest.

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