September 18, 2017

Hogan: Running Wilder with an opportunity

James Wilder Jr. (32) of the Toronto Argonauts and Forrest Hightower (35), Adam Konar (38) of the Edmonton Eskimos during the game at BMO Field in Toronto, ON, Saturday, September 16, 2017. (Photo: Johany Jutras)

He led the Toronto Argonauts with seven receptions and 67 receiving yards against Edmonton on Saturday, hardly numbers that would turn your head.

But James Wilder Jr. also rushed for 190 yards that day, the fourth highest single-game rushing total in Argos history. He astonishingly did it on just 11 carries, or a ridiculous 17.3 yards per rush.

Not all running backs are created equal. Some are able to get into the flow of a game from the first carry, while others say it takes a few touches for them to get going. Wilder knew at which point he felt good against the Eskimos.

“Really from the get-go,” said Wilder. “We came in with a game plan saying we’re going to run the ball. Coach said he was going to put it on my shoulders and I took it as a challenge, so I just knew it was going to be a good day from the get-go.”

Holy understatement Batman.

Wilder had lengthy runs of 18, 21 and 46 yards, but the pièce de résistance was a 76-yard gallop for a memorable first CFL touchdown. He was sprung thanks to a textbook job by the entire offensive line, including a lead kick-out block by right guard J’Micheal Deane. It wasn’t the only great block thrown by what has been a much-maligned offensive line. How big were the holes on Saturday?


“Coach Trestman could run through those holes,” joked Wilder.

The Florida State product was all smiles while recalling Saturday’s game, but how did the coaching staff feel about it? His running and catching skills were on full display, but if a back can’t block, he’s a detriment to the offence.

Marc Trestman says Wilder passed the test in that department as well.

“He did a good job,” said the head coach. “He continues to grow in that area, but he understands our pass-protection system. I thought he did a very good job in that regard.”

Football can be a cruel business. While everyone is thrilled about Wilder’s performance, and deservedly so, there is a sad side to the story. One of the most popular players on the team didn’t dress Saturday in order to make room on the roster.

Before the game Trestman stressed that bumping Brandon Whitaker had absolutely nothing to do with performance, he just had to see what Wilder could do when given an opportunity.

Some athletes would sulk, pout or throw a tantrum. Not unexpectedly Whitaker handled it with class, something not lost on his head coach.

“If you watch our sidelines during the course of a game I think you can see the selflessness and leadership qualities of Brandon Whitaker,” explained Trestman. “It was very evident during the game.”

That doesn’t mean it was easy for the veteran.

“It’s always tough not being able to play,” Whitaker confessed to “But James, man, he’s a stud. For me, I had to look back on my path and how I got to be in the position I was in and it’s all about opportunity. An opportunity came for him and as you could see, he took full advantage of it.”

“I’ve kind of taken him under my wing,” continued Whitaker. “I’m excited for him. He’s like a little brother to me, so I’m excited to see him succeed and I’m going to do whatever I can to help him keep succeeding.”

“He’s like a little brother to me, so I’m excited to see him succeed and I’m going to do whatever I can to help him keep succeeding.”

When Wilder broke his long run, the biggest smile on the sidelines belonged to Whitaker.

“He just told me keep it going, you’re not done yet”, said a broadly smiling Wilder. “Keep it going, you’ve got a lot more left in the tank.”

“I don’t even get to the sideline, he meets me before I make it to the sideline,” continued Wilder. “That shows what type of family bond we have here. Easily he could be a guy that’s like ‘Aw man, that’s supposed to be my role,’ and he’s not that guy, he’s been a leader. He’s been helping me every step of the way.”

During the game, however, Whitaker maintained an arm’s length and didn’t talk to Wilder often.

“Not a lot,” said Whitaker, “Because as a running back you don’t want to think too much, but I told him before the game if he has a question or if he needs my advice on something, always come to me and ask. So when he came to me and asked me ‘What did you see on this? What could I have done better on that?’ I’m there to help him out.”

Pure class.

Wilder checked into training camp at 232 pounds, but he’s shed some weight because he needed to be lighter with all of the running he was doing on special teams. If he continues running the ball like he did on Saturday, it may be a while before he finds himself exclusively on special teams again.

Either way, Brandon Whitaker will be there cheering him on.