There’s an old football adage that offence sells tickets and defence wins championships. True football fans know that special teams can do both.
As the season has progressed, the special teams have become just that; special. They’ve statistically improved each week in both returns and coverage. The $100 question is how have they done it?
“By keeping the group pretty much the same from last season,” special teams coordinator Mickey Donovan explained to Argonauts.ca. “To be able to continue to build off what we were doing near the end of the season and through the Grey Cup, I think the guys have taken off from there.”
Continuity is a word used often as a key to success in the sport. While usually associated with specific groups; offensive line, the secondary, or a quarterback and his receivers, that uninterrupted flow is huge for Donovan’s group as well.
“They understand how to play together,” said the coach. “You look at teams who have been successful throughout the years, they keep their personnel very similar. I think that, as a coach, there’s something to be said for that.”
Nobody has benefitted from the unit’s experience more than Javon Leake. When he returned a punt 79 yards for a touchdown in the Argos last game against Ottawa, he set a club record for punt return touchdowns in a season. He finds himself two TDs shy of tying the CFL record of five, co-held by two players named Williams; “Gizmo” and Chris. Four punt return TDs in a season has been done just five times.
In Leake’s mind the reason for the success is pretty simple.
“I just think, that as a unit, we’re all dialed in,” said the Maryland product. “We’re understanding the blocking scheme that Coach Mickey is drawing up. Everybody just believes in the return; and believes that we’re going to score when we get it. When you’ve got a whole group that has that mindset, it’s dangerous.”
The Boatmen have been blessed with an incredible list of most exciting returners over the last 30 years; “Pinball” Clemons, “Rocket” Ismail, Jimmy “The Jet” Cunningham, Bashir Levingston, Adrion Smith, Dominique Dorsey and Chad Owens have all brought Argo fans out of their seats with dramatic returns.
Leake is now doing that, mainly on punt returns. What makes this feat even more incredible is that in his days at Maryland, where he was named the Big-10 Special Teams Player of the Year, there’s one thing he didn’t do: return punts.
“At first, you just have to be comfortable with catching the ball. I feel like one you catch it, because of the halo, I know nobody is going to hit me (as the ball arrives). It took a while for me to understand that. Once I understood the halo and to catch the ball first, I got used to it.”
The question beckons: With his tremendous ability as a kickoff returner, why didn’t he return punts in college?
“My coach asked me one time and I told him that I didn’t feel comfortable,” Leake admitted. “I liked kick return way more, there was more space for me. I absolutely feel comfortable now; with the size of the field there’s a lot more space. It’s way more fun in the CFL for sure (laughs).”
While Leake is the man gaining national attention, it’s not just him that is producing. Argonauts.ca asked Donovan to provide some names of the players who are unsung heroes; the norm for even the best special teams contributors.
The coach replied with multiple names, but the first one out of his mouth was that of Trevor Hoyte. The Gatineau, Quebec native says the main reason for the team’s success is twofold.
“It’s really the coaches and the players together,” said Hoyte. “We work well together. The coaches choose what will work the best and we just execute it. The game plan usually works pretty flawlessly and we’re able to play to our strengths.”
Hoyte thinks the game well, not surprising for someone who majored in astrophysics at Carleton. He knows how important his group is and takes pride in one specific aspect of what it does.
“I like how we can change the game,” he said. “If we’re down a score and can score a touchdown on a punt return it can completely change the outcome of the game and it changes the momentum. I love that we can energize, fuel our whole defence and offence at the same time with just one play.”
The Argos are hoping all three aspects of the game; offence, defence and special teams, are ready to contribute when the teams hosts Calgary Friday night at 7:30. A ticket to the game gets fans free admission to the CNE all day Friday.