At beginning of the season the talk was omnipresent. James Wilder Jr. would flirt with 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving.
Through the first two games of the season the Toronto Argonauts offence is attempting to right the ship, as is the mercurial back, who is looking for a game where the results are as big as his personality.
The start to this season has not lived up to the hype. Five carries for 16 yards in Saskatchewan, though he did have a 46-yard reception in that game. A week later a more respectable 60 yards on 10 carries, though it’s a far cry from the way he exploded onto the scene a year ago.
It was in a game against Edmonton at BMO Field – a scenario that will be repeated this Saturday at 5:30 – that Wilder had one of the best afternoons in CFL history. He rushed for 190 yards in his debut as a full-time starter, adding 67 more through the air in a 34-26 win.
He knows the offence is close to kick starting the ground game and is pretty sure he knows the reason why they’ve struggled so far.
“A lot of mental mistakes,” admitted Wilder. “Not really getting beat physically, just a lot of mental mistakes, shooting ourselves in the foot. Once we get over that mental hump I think we’ll be in very good shape.”
Wilder ran his way to the CFL’s Most Outstanding Rookie award last year, despite not becoming the true starter until mid-September. He did so by amassing yards in large chunks. One in every 4.5 carries was for 10 yards or more. He led the CFL with seven rushes for 20 or more yards despite only carrying the ball 122 times.
That explosive run hasn’t happened yet this season. Wilder’s longest carry is 15 yards. By his standards, he’s overdue to tear off a big run.
He knows it.
“I’m ready for it, I smell it, I’m just ready for it to hit,” said Wilder, who started squirming when talking to Argonauts.ca about getting that first long run, looking like he wanted to carry the ball at that instant. “Once it hits and once I get that feeling it will keep rolling and rolling and rolling from there.”
It’s a cliché, but it’s also a reality in the sport. A team’s ability to move the football starts up front with the offensive line. With the Argos, the man in the middle of that line is Sean McEwen.
The third-year centre is coming off a memorable 2017. He was named the East’s Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman in a year he also celebrated his first Grey Cup win.
He can’t wait for Wilder to break out.
“We love watching him run the ball,” said the former Calgary Dinosaur of Wilder. “It inspires us to block harder. I think it would be great for our entire offence, keeping us on the field, running some clock, getting close to the first down (yardage) on first down, keeping us out of those second-and-long situations where teams can pin their ears back and come after us.”
Even in his rookie season coaches raved about McEwen’s football IQ. He looks at the game in a cerebral manner and didn’t shy away from sharing the reasons he thinks the running game hasn’t clicked yet.
“I think everyone is partially to blame,” McEwen told Argonauts.ca. “We’re taking full accountability in our room for it. We’ve got to play better. We’ve got to schematically do some things better, we’ve got to make some better calls, we’ve got to be more physical, we’ve got to be more technically sound, but we’re all committed to the task and I think we’re going to get after it.”
Head coach Marc Trestman says the lack of success running the football is not due to a lack of effort. He pointed to several other factors as needing some fine tuning.
“I think it starts with our preparation,” said the coach. “Are we doing everything we can? We feel we are, but at the end of the day we haven’t executed, that’s really been the bottom line.”
The most obvious change with the Argos offence this week will be the man running it. James Franklin takes over from the injured Ricky Ray. Physically, Franklin is a physical upgrade over Ray. His arm is stronger and he’s much faster than his predecessor.
What he doesn’t have is Ray’s 16 years of CFL experience.
Many believe that it’s imperative to establish a running game to help out a young quarterback. Coach Trestman is not necessarily in that camp.
“I don’t know that that’s the case,” explained the coach. “We have to play continuity football. We’ve got a great offence (Edmonton) that we’re up against, so the better we can run the ball, the more opportunity we have to use clock and keep them off the field, so it’s a combination of a lot of things.”
Trestman admitted that while the number of rushing attempts may not be important, the ability to succeed in that aspect of the game is vital.
“I think that with any offence,” continued the coach, “Regardless of how many times you throw it, it still starts with the attitude and the advantage of being able to run the football and run the clock, keep the ball away from their offence – and that’s the case with every offence in our league – and continue drives.”
The Argos face a tough opponent on Saturday. Having Wilder return to his form of a year ago would help them go a long way to getting their first win of the season.