It was a busy afternoon at Argos practice on Monday, as Scott Milanovich led team walkthroughs in preparation for the team’s upcoming trip to Calgary without one of their usual mainstays.
Cory Boyd was released on Sunday, and after verbally agreeing to a contract with the Eskimos later in the evening, the starting running back job was handed off to 25-year-old Chad Kackert on Monday.
Kackert said he was in Collingwood on Sunday winding down his bye week, when he found out the news that he’s the new starting running back.
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“I was up at Wakestock just getting ready to head out, and I had a missed call and I thought maybe there was a surprise meeting I missed. But I called (Milanovich) back and he told me the news, and I was as shocked as everybody else,” Kackert recalled.
“I had a smile on my face most of the day, unfortunately it came at the cost of another player, but he’s a good player and I think he’ll land somewhere.”
Kackert first joined the Argos in training camp over a year ago, when he beat out second-year import running back Dwayne Wright for a spot on the roster. Since then he’s barely played though, with the team dressing just one import running back through most of its games.
That opening obviously belonged to Boyd, and now that he’s out of the picture, Kackert’s getting the chance he’s been waiting for.
“This is what everybody works for – the opportunity to play. Opportunities do come, but they don’t last long, so I feel very blessed,” said Kackert.
With a new opportunity also comes pressure – the same kind of pressure that’s inherent with being a starter of any position in football. Kackert’s now expected to fill an important role moving forward for an offence that’s struggled over the last 90 minutes of football.
Coach Milanovich said that while his new starting running back certainly won’t fix every issue with his team, he expects it’ll make them stronger in one area.
“Chad’s not somebody that’s going to come in and be the answer to all the problems, we don’t expect that,” said the rookie head coach. “We think we’re going to get a little better at tailback, I don’t know that you need to make any more of it than that.”
Kackert, a native of Simi Valley, California, has always been an intriguing option at running back for coaches and fans alike, but with Boyd being one of the league’s most dominant running backs in recent years, number 44 hasn’t been getting too much attention.
He showed glimpses of what he might be capable of a year ago, rushing for 349 yards on 57 carries for a healthy average of 6.1 yards per carry. His best performance came at the end of July in 2011, when he rushed for 139 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries against the Eskimos in relief of Boyd, who was injured at the time.
But he also fumbled once in that game, and with three fumbles in limited action a season ago, that’s been one of the few issues raised by fans. It’s something he said has been addressed, though. “First thing was I had to figure out how I was holding the ball and how I could improve on that,” said Kackert, who admitted part of the challenge is that he has shorter arms than the average running back. “And then you address the strength of the hands and if that was an issue, so I did a lot of pull-ups holding the towel or anything that can increase the hand or forearm strength.”
The biggest part of locking down the starting job for Kackert won’t entirely come down to how he runs the ball, but also how he does in pass protection. He understands he’ll be judged just as much on how he performs when the ball isn’t in his hands.
“We’ve got a great quarterback in the backfield, but if he doesn’t have time to throw the ball, then we don’t have a great quarterback in the backfield,” said Kackert. “I mean every running back’s run the ball since they were 10 years old, so that’s not an issue, and if it is, then you won’t see me here for a long time.”
And while ahead of him lays the daunting task of not only trying to jump-start a struggling ground game, but having to replace a guy with close to 3,000 yards in barely over two season, Kackert doesn’t quite look at his situation that way.
“I don’t feel like I’m filling shoes, I feel like I’m getting my chance to do what I can do,” said Kackert.
“The coach is making his call for his reasons. If he believes I can do something different then this is my chance to prove him right.”
Gerald Riggs Jr. back in Double Blue
With Kackert moving to the top of the depth chart at running back, the Argos didn’t take long to find an import running back to replace him. They turned to a familiar face on Monday, bringing back 28-year-old Gerald Riggs Jr. for a second stint with the team.
The Atlanta, Georgia native was let go following pre-season, with the Boatmen having room on the roster for only two import running backs, but looked impressive during his time with the team.
Now, he’ll get a chance to push Kackert, and possibly compete for that number-one job. Milanovich said it’s nice to have someone whose skill-set the coaches are familiar with back in the fold at the position.
“He’s a good football player, he deserved that. We never really wanted to get rid of him, we just get into a numbers issue, but we’ve always had faith that Riggs can do the job as well,” he said.
Riggs Jr., who spent time in the NFL with Miami and Chicago, brings a more physical style than Kackert along with a much bigger frame, measuring in at six feet, 230 lbs.
“There are a lot of things I can do,” the second-year Argo said when asked to describe his running style. “My mentality is very physical, but at the same time I have different abilities as far as my speed and my size and my ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, so just being well-rounded is the best way I can describe my game.”
The son of Gerald Riggs, a three-time Pro Bowl running back for the Atlanta Falcons and Washington Redskins, said he did get to learn quite a bit from Boyd when they were in camp together – things he still applies to his game today.
“One thing I learned from him sometimes is just patience,” said Riggs Jr. “There are a lot of times when you can get a little too wound up, and he always did a good job of just kind of managing his emotions, managing his energy, and just keeping himself to an even keel.”
“The way I play is I’m more of an emotional guy,” he added. “So for me I kind of pick and choose my spots to do certain things and I take a lot of different advice from a lot of people.”
Riggs Jr. won’t be expected to dress on Saturday in Calgary, as Kackert figures to get his first start of 2012. While Coach Milanovich said Kackert will certainly have some time to properly grow into his new role, his new starting back will still be evaluated just like any other player.
“We’re not looking to pull anybody in a quick period of time – we’re just going to evaluate Chad like we do anyone else,” said Milanovich. “It’s game-to-game in how he plays, how his effort level is, and how productive he is.”
The Argos leave for Calgary on Thursday, and will play the Stamps at McMahon Stadium on Saturday evening at 7 P.M. ET.
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