Former CFL rushing leader Stanback rounding into form with Montreal Alouettes

TORONTO — It's been a steady, gradual return for William Stanback.

The 2021 CFL rushing leader will appear in a sixth straight game Sunday when Montreal visits the Toronto Argonauts in the East Division final. The six-foot, 233-pound Stanback suffered a fractured ankle during the Alouettes' season-opening 30-27 road loss to Calgary that required surgery.

Stanback, 28, returned for Montreal's 24-18 loss to Ottawa on Oct. 10 and in its final four regular-season games ran for 142 yards on 31 carries (4.6-yard average) with a touchdown.

Stanback had 66 yards on 10 carries in last weekend's 28-17 East Division semifinal win over the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

"Going into this game, I'm probably at 85 per cent," Stanback told The Canadian Press. "I'm feeling really good.

"The rehab has been very good. I'm just trying to get the strength back, that's been the key."

Stanback has averaged roughly eight carries and 42 yards rushing (5.4-yard average) per game since his return. Last season, Stanback ran for a CFL-high 1,176 yards on 193 carries (6.1-yard average) in 12 regular-season games, registering 15 or more rushing attempts nine times.

Stanback registered 1,048 rushing yards (6.2-yard average) in 14 regular-season appearances in 2019.

But depth at running back has allowed Montreal to ease Stanback's workload. The Alouettes also have Canadian Jeshrun Antwi (600 yards, 106 carries, 5.7-yard average) and American Walter Fletcher (85 carries, 486 yards, 5.7-yard average, one TD), creating an interesting three-headed rushing attack.

"I think it's tough for any team to try and stop that," Stanback said. "The thing is you have to gameplan for us all, and not only that, you have to think about our receivers and you can argue we have some of the best receiver groups in the league.

"The coaches understand Fletch can run and catch, Jeshrun can run between the tackles and get outside, catch the ball and play special teams, he can do it all. I can run the ball, bruising. It's going to be hard to stop that but the coaches just have to continue to put us in the right spots."

Eugene Lewis (91 catches, 1,303 yards, 10 TDs), the East Division's outstanding player nominee, anchors Montreal's receiving corps.

Toronto linebacker Henoc Muamba tipped his cap to all three Alouettes running backs but said the Argos have a plan to deal with Montreal's ground game.

"Those three guys, they're all very good backs," Muamba said. "AC (Montreal quarterback coach/playcaller Anthony Calvillo) has been doing a really good job of having diversity as far as what they want to do . . . . it's a really good scheme and they seem to be in sync.

"At this point in the season . . . you tighten up on specific details of the defence and we feel confident in the details, we feel confident in the gameplan. I keep telling the guys the win is in the details and if we're able to execute, we're in good shape no matter who's in there."

Toronto will also have a two-headed rushing attack Sunday. Veteran Canadian Andrew Harris resumed practising last week after requiring surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle in August and will complement East Division all-star A.J. Ouellette.

Toronto is also expected to have linebacker Wynton McManis back after he missed its final four regular-season games with a knee injury. McManis, the Argos' top defensive player nominee, registered a team-high 88 tackles with three sacks, a forced fumble and two interceptions.

Toronto (11-7) finished atop the East Division to secure home-field for the conference final for a second straight season. Last year, the Argos lost 27-19 to Hamilton.

Montreal (9-9) took second in the East and dropped the season series to Toronto 2-1. But both losses were by one point, and the margin of victory in the three contests was just seven points overall.

Montreal also heads into the East final having won eight of its last 11 contests (including the playoff win over Hamilton). The Alouettes made a coaching change early this season as Khari Jones was fired July 6 following the club's 1-3 start and replaced on an interim basis by GM Danny Maciocia.

"It was a little tough just seeing it," said Stanback, who was injured when the move was made. "At first, I didn't really see the vision but as I started to see what was being done and how it was being done, I started to catch on and understand what Danny wanted to do.

"I'm a part of it and appreciative of being a part of it."

Stanback has a simple answer regarding the biggest reason for Montreal's turnaround.

"The key, I believe, is our communication," he said. "Whenever someone is messing up or looks like they might not know, we make sure they do know and they're in their right place.

"We managed to persevere through this and find a way to win when it meant the most."

Having a close-knit locker room hasn't hurt, either.

"Everyone hangs out, the camaraderie, I'm telling you, is through the roof," Stanback said. "We all bond with each other so well and everyone communicates."

And that extends to the running backs room, also.

"We (Stanback, Fletcher and Antwi) text each other, we watch film together," Stanback said. "And that translates to the field."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 12, 2022.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press