MISSISSAUGA – After a week spent healing, the Argonauts are not totally out of the woods on the injury front following their first day of practice for the Eastern Semi-Final on Sunday. The most glaring absence in the starting lineup was CB Willie Middlebrooks who has been shut down for the remainder of the season with a neck injury.
Middlebrooks, who occupies the boundry side cornerback spot in the Argos’ defence suffered the injury in the first quarter of the Argos’ Week 17 matchup with the Alouettes.
There are three primary candidates best suited to replace the three-year veteran including rookie defensive backs Josh Abrams, Michael Grant and Sean Smalls. All have had at least a brief period of time playing corner throughout the year.
Smalls got his first taste of CFL action last week in Montreal and although he feels getting into the game was a good tune-up should he be pressed into action on Sunday, the Massachusetts product believes that his success begins and ends with his preparation beforehand.
“It all starts in practice – seeing different looks and studying film,” he told argonauts.ca on Wednesday. “I haven’t been here that long but Willie has been a great teammate since day one. [Middlebrooks has been] helping me out and coaching me. I have a good group of guys around me that want to help me succeed as a pro as well as help this team win a playoff game.”
Getting acclimated to the defence as well as catching up on three games against Hamilton is a daunting task for any player that comes midway through the season. Smalls, who has only been in Toronto for five weeks, has impressed his teammates with his talent and his ability to quickly learn the game.
Veteran CB Byron Parker, who often patrols the other side of the field and may still move into Middlebrooks’ role, has noticed Smalls’ quick development and has done everything he can to aid it.
“Throughout the week we were just trying to prepare him for what we thought he was going to see. He is a very good football player and so we were just trying to prepare him based on the things we have seen all year. He had a great game against Montreal so we’re fine if he comes in and plays next week.”
Parker’s confidence in the rookie’s ability is something that goes far beyond just a boost of confidence for the 23-year-old DB. In fact, the faith shown by all of his teammates and coaches is something that Smalls says you can’t put a price on.
“I tip my hat to all of the veteran guys on the defence who have obviously believed enough in me to come in and get the job done,” Smalls said. “Especially with the coaches – it is such a trust factor, throwing me in the fire and knowing that I would get the job done [last week].”
Other injury notes: Outside of Middlebrooks, the Boatmen seemed to have their entire arsenal on defence back and practicing Wednesday afternoon including DT Kevin Huntley who has missed the last two games with a shoulder injury…RB Bryan Crawford lightly participated in practice and head coach Jim Barker stated that the special teams captain was “very questionable” for Sunday.