How will the Riders choose a tailback?

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Saskatchewan Roughriders training camp is about halfway done and apart from the miracle performed by head coach Corey Chamblin — the players actually look forward to full-gear practices! — there’s got to be some curiosity growing about the team’s running attack.

To wit: Will anything change?

Being blunt, there hasn’t been a noticeable challenge for the starting tailback position.

While there have been as many as 19 defensive backs and 19 receivers vying for positions, only seven running backs have been active at training camp. One, Spencer Moore, is actually a receiver who has been shifted to fullback while rookie Terrance Cobb has been injured through most of camp.

They recently added another tailback, Sam Ojuri, who joins a group of running backs that also three returnees (Anthony Allen, Jerome Messam, Steve Miller) and two college prospects (Matt Rea and Ron Lee King-Fileen). The Roughriders are still looking to replace Kory Sheets, their starting tailback and Grey Cup-winning MVP in 2013, whose career appears over after shredding an Achilles tendon 10 months ago while trying out for the NFL’s Oakland Raiders.

The Roughriders had the CFL’s third-best running attack last year (2,380 yards, behind Calgary’s 2,590 and Edmonton’s 2,459). Allen was second in the league and led the Roughriders with 930 yards, despite some inane coaching decisions that kept him out of action for parts of the season.

The Roughriders used six different tailbacks in 2014, changing their starter based on fumbles, productivity, blocking, the weather, the color of their eyes, their nationality….

Allen is back at camp, leaner and fitter than in 2014. Yet he might not even be the team’s starting tailback.

Throughout training camp, Jerome Messam has been deployed most often as the first-team tailback. Messam, a National, has played five seasons with four CFL teams. In 2011 he rushed for 1,057 yards with the Edmonton Eskimos and added another 248 receiving yards. A powerful runner at 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, Messam’s also a great pass-catcher and incredibly difficult to tackle. He does lack the breakaway speed he showed earlier in his career.

Steve Miller could provide that speed. A second-year International, Miller averaged 5.7 yards on his 12 carries as a rookie, but at 5-foot-7 and 172 pounds he gets destroyed when called upon to block defensive linemen or linebackers.

Allen is an International. He’s 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, a worthy starter, but he’s not the best pass-catcher coming out of the backfield. With new offensive co-ordinator Jacques Chapdelaine changing Saskatchewan’s offensive philosophy to become more pass-centric, Allen might not be the perfect fit.

A three-man platoon of Messam, Allen and Miller could be the answer, based on productivity, nationality, the color of their eyes, fumbles….

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Darrell Davis
Darrell Davis has reported on the Riders for more than 20 years and was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame media wing in 2006.