August 1, 2019

Hogan: Special teams on the up

It’s hard to hide mistakes on a Canadian football field. The size of the playing surface leads to many one-on-one situations, often resulting in plays that bring fans out of their seats.

The Toronto Argonauts have given up more than their fair share of big plays this season on special teams, usually due to one missed assignment, but there are signs that the group is turning things around.

For instance, the punt return unit is the best in the CFL, averaging 12.8 yards a return.

“It’s like installing a new offence or installing a new defence,” Argos Special Teams Coordinator Cory McDiarmid told “They’re picking up techniques that we’re teaching them and using them on the field. There’s other areas that we’d like to improve in faster, but there’s always some growing pains.”

One player who has performed well is second-year linebacker Nelkas Kwemo. He leads the Argos with nine special-teams tackles, which is tied for fourth most in the CFL. He sees a common thread in the breakdowns.

“I think our biggest issue has been the beginning of games, the way we start games,” explained the Queen’s product. “That’s something we addressed this week. I don’t know what it is, I can’t pinpoint it exactly, but we always start with an alert play, it’s like we need that to get our feet under us and then everything is fine.”

Kwemo knows that has to change.

“We have to get out of that and start the game from the jump the way we want to play all game,” said the native of the Montreal borough of LaSalle, “To start the game aggressively, start the game sound and smart with our responsibilities and let that set the tone for the rest of the game.”

McDiarmid has been impressed with what Kwemo has brought to the table.

“He’s been very good for us,” said the coach. “He’s the special teams captain this week. It’s his second time. We roll through the captains and he’s the first guy this year to do it a second time. We like that he’s a big, strong body who can run. We like his effort, we like his attitude, we like his attention to detail.”

In other words, he’s a coach’s dream.

So is Chris Rainey.

The veteran returner was signed as a free agent to help give the Argos good field position, and provide the possibility of a huge return. So far he’s done both. He’s averaged 12.5 yards per punt return, 18.4 yards per kickoff return, and scored a 79-yard touchdown on a punt return against his former club, the B.C. Lions.

One may think that getting an early TD for his new team would be important for Rainey, so the “He hasn’t scored a TD in (fill in the blank) games yet” talk would be eliminated. For the former Florida Gator that was never going to be an issue.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said with a smile. “They already know what kind of returner they have. When you get to a new team you always talk to everybody and get their perspective, and I give them my perspective so we’re all on the same page.”

As the Argos prep for the Blue Bombers Rainey knows special teams have to be ready for one thing above all else.

“Any team that plays Winnipeg,” the Lakeland, Florida native explained, “You always have to be alert for the fakes.”

Kwemo took it a step further.

“You’ve got to be ready for everything,” he told “He (Winnipeg Head Coach Mike O’Shea) has a bunch of tricks in his bag and he’s got lots of experience in this league as a player and as a coach, he knows the game inside and out. As players we trust our coaches to have that mental battle with him, and we just have to pay attention to the schemes and make sure we’re ready to execute that game plan.”

That’s where McDiarmid and Assistant Special Teams Coach Dave Jackson come in. McDiarmid knows O’Shea very well. He has not only coached against O’Shea for several years, but was the Argos Linebackers Coach in 2002 when No. 50 was still playing, and was the Bombers Linebackers Coach under O’Shea in 2014.

He has a simple explanation as to why O’Shea’s special teams are always so good.

“He cares about special teams,” said McDiarmid. “He cared about special teams when I coached him, he cared about special teams when I coached with him. The guy who’s actually running the special teams is Paul Boudreau, the coordinator, and Osh works with him.”

As McDiarmid approaches the three-decade mark as a coach, he understands there’s a reason for O’Shea’s reputation.

“The difference is that Osh has coached special teams and he happens to be a head coach that understands the importance of special teams,” explained McDiarmid. “We’re fortunate that Coach Chamblin understands the importance of special teams and we get a lot of practice time and meeting time, so that’s good. I’ve been in other places where it’s kind of an afterthought.”

The special teams will be front and centre when the Argos and Bombers clash Thursday night at BMO Field (7:00, TSN, TSN 1050). There is no doubt McDiarmid’s groups have been preparing so they are, in Kwemo’s words, “Ready for everything”.