MONTREAL — William Stanback is ready to carry a full workload. His timing couldn't be better.
The Alouettes running back has only been given a limited number of carries since returning from a broken ankle sustained in Week 1. But as Montreal prepares for Sunday's CFL East semifinal against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Stanback feels better than he ever has this season and is poised to help the Als earn their first playoff win in eight years.
"This was the ultimate plan of me just being back and getting close to at least 100 per cent for the playoffs," Stanback said. “That's why a lot of people were asking why I'm not in the games or I'm not getting as many touches or carries, there’s a reason why.
"This was all in the plan of me just gradually getting back and not just throwing me in the fire and trying to run on a hurt ankle."
Jeshrun Antwi and Walter Fletcher stepped up in Stanback's absence. Antwi replaced the 2021 East Division Most Outstanding Player from the get-go and rushed for 600 yards in 18 games. Fletcher came in via trade with the Edmonton Elks in June and contributed 486 rushing yards in 14 games.
"I'm happy with his progression, I think this is as close as we're gonna get to a very healthy Stanback,” said Alouettes GM and interim coach Danny Maciocia. “Having said that, I love our backfield. You’ve got a little bit of everything back there between him, Fletcher and Antwi and we're gonna take full advantage of what each one brings to the table.
"Hopefully that will give us an opportunity to take some shots downfield."
For Stanback, the Alouettes will be a “three-headed monster” in the backfield on Sunday afternoon.
“Everybody is great at different things, and we all bring a different calibre of play to the table,” he said. “Fletch is a scatback, he can catch the ball out of the backfield. Jeshrun can literally play both positions fullback and running back. He’s a great running back, catching the ball in the backfield as well lowering his shoulder.
"I'm a pounder with some speed to it too so we complement each other so much.”
The Ticats beat the Alouettes once this season in a 24-17 win on July 28, with Montreal winning the season series between the two Eastern rivals for the first time since 2015. The Ticats, however, are the defending CFL East champions, losing to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers 33-25 at last year's Grey Cup.
"Experience is the one thing that it’s tough to prepare people for if they don’t have it." said Tiger-Cats head coach Orlondo Steinauer. "Anytime you have people that have been there before and they’re playing an intricate part on your football team, I think it’s extremely important because who else do you look to?"
Hamilton confirmed that quarterback Dane Evans will be its starter. There was cause for concern after Evans had exited their regular-season finale with a thumb injury.
"He hasn't missed any reps, to be honest with you. He's been out there," Steinauer said. "You’re going to see tape on there, but he can make all the throws. If you’re out there, you still can hear the ball whistling through the air. Dane will be fine."
The Alouettes will have a different offensive line than in their last matchups with Hamilton. Sean Jamieson suffered a torn ACL on Oct. 10 and the experienced lineman has since been replaced by David Brown. Rookie Pierre-Olivier Lestage will also start in his first CFL playoff game at home in Montreal.
"Hamilton has one of the best defensive fronts that we've played against this year so it will be a street fight," said Lestage. "Those are games we like to play. It'll be won in the trenches. I think we've shown this year that we can run against them, we can pass against them so it should be fine."
MONTREAL ALOUETTES (9-9) VS. HAMILTON TIGER-CATS (8-10)
AWE OUT: The Alouettes will be missing linebacker Micah Awe for a second straight game with a shoulder injury. Chris Ackie will be starting in his place at middle linebacker.
FOURTH STRAIGHT: With a win, the Tiger-Cats could clinch a fourth consecutive appearance in the East Final for the first time since 1986.
AVOIDING HUMILIATION: The Alouettes will want to avoid a feat that no club wants to accomplish. With a loss, Montreal would be the first CFL team ever to lose three straight semifinals.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 5, 2022.
Tristan D'Amours, The Canadian Press