Two years, and three teams later, Arbuckle excited to start for Argonauts

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TORONTO — It's been two years, three different teams and a new baby since Nick Arbuckle last started in the CFL.

He'll get the start Saturday as the Toronto Argonauts look to shake up their offence against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in their long-awaited home opener. The 27-year-old quarterback expects some nerves, but also hopes that two-year gap will melt away once the opening whistle blows.

"It's going to be exciting, I know that for sure, and there's probably going to be combination of the excitement and nerves that creates those butterflies in your stomach when you go out there for the first play," Arbuckle said after Friday morning's practice. "But once we get going, and once that first play happens, especially the first hit happens, and everything gets rolling, it's just going to be football."

In Arbuckle's last start, he threw for 370 yards and four touchdowns in a 40-34 overtime loss to Calgary. It was Aug. 17, 2019. His wife Zakiyyah was pregnant. Their daughter Aaliyah is now 15 months old.

In between, the global pandemic erased the 2020 season. Arbuckle was traded to Ottawa but never played there. He was released and signed with Toronto as a free agent earlier this year.

The Argos (1-1) and Bombers (2-0) are meeting for the second time in as many weeks. In Toronto's 20-7 loss last week, Arbuckle relieved veteran McLeod Bethel-Thompson in the second half and led the Argos to their lone touchdown. He finished 10-of-19 passing for 96 yards with an interception in what he said was an important reminder of "what it was like to play a football game."

"Feeling what the game action and the game speed was like when I first got on the field and adjusting to that as the fourth quarter went on . . . that was the fun experience," he said.

"It was fun being reminded of how fast the game plays but also how slow it plays, like from you know, snap to whistle is really fast. But you the process between the plays . . . you get to talk to your offence more than you probably do during practice when you're trying to rush to get as many reps in, you know, four and a half hours of time we’re allowed a day.

"It was a fun thing to experience, and something I was glad I got to do a little bit of last week."

Argos rookie head coach Ryan Dinwiddie was pleased with his defence last week, but expects the offence and special teams to step up Saturday at BMO Field.

There's familiarity between Arbuckle and Dinwiddie, who was the Stampeders' quarterbacks coach during Arbuckle's time there, that has made for a relatively painless learning curve.

"They're both hard workers, they both study hard, (Bethel-Thompson) picked up the offence in a hurry, which is very hard to do. This isn’t an easy offence," Dinwiddie said. "But Nick's comfortable in it, he's been in it forever, should be second nature to him. I just feel like that's the best option right now, gives us a chance to stay on the field a little bit more."

Bombers tackle Stanley Bryant is prepared for a tough test in Toronto in the rematch.

"Playing a team back-to-back is always difficult," said Bryant, who helped pave the way for Andrew Harris to lead the league in rushing in 2019. "They're a good front, a good defensive wall and Glen (Young, the Argos defensive co-ordinator and a former Winnipeg assistant) is doing a great job. It's going to be a challenge for us going into Toronto, their home opener, so we expect a lot. We're just going to continue to go in there and find a way to win."

With Harris starting this season injured, Brady Oliveira ran for 126 yards in Winnipeg's 19-6 win over Hamilton. He ran for just 29 yards on 13 carries last week against Toronto however, as the Argos outrushed Winnipeg by a 123-53 margin.

"(The run game) is very important," Bryant said. "Over the last three, four years that's something we've dialed into and been good at.

"It keeps a defence off-balance just from the simple fact that you just end up punishing guys," he added. "You're running the ball getting five, 10 yards and then, boom, you come with a pass. Defence has a choice to try and stop the run or try to stop the pass. If you get that run game going, the game gets easier for us."

Arbuckle, meanwhile, was speculated as Toronto's starter out of the gates but was sidelined by an injury — which has become an early-season theme for numerous teams.

"It's different in that it's happened this early," Arbuckle said of the injuries across the league. "And you got to be ready. And that's why you've heard Dinwiddie, he talked about it leading up to our training camp and training camp, you need two quarterbacks to win a lot of games in this league, you need two good quarterbacks, it's not often you're going to have one guy stay healthy all year round.

"I don't think it's because (players) aren't durable. It's not like any of us were just sitting at home two years, not trying to get better."

Asked if he's reflected on the roller-coaster couple of years since he last started, Arbuckle said he will after Saturday's game, "when I have that opportunity to sit down and not worry about game-planning, or trying to prepare and get ready for the game.

"But yeah, it has been a really long journey to get here. But I'm really happy to still be able to start, and be able to play football again."

Asked if his young family will be in attendance, Arbuckle said his wife definitely will, but his daughter will depend on "what kind of morning she has," he said. "It'll be our first game as parents, so we don't know how that's going to work, especially with COVID. We're hoping though."

Because of the pandemic, the CFL didn't have a pre-season and is playing a 14-game campaign.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 20, 2021.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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