When a CFL team changes the way it dispatches its seven starting Canadians the first matter to address is that of positional depth. Having a Canadian who is capable of starting at a new position is great, but unless the team in question has an adequate national back-up (or better yet, back-ups), coaches can be faced with major logistical challenges should the starter in question suffer a mid-game injury.
The Winnipeg Blue Bombers find themselves in this exact position following the signing of star running back Andrew Harris in free agency last month. Harris, a Winnipeg native, signed with the Bombers to become the club’s new starting running back, a position at which the blue and gold have not started a Canadian player in almost twenty years. And while the Bombers have used a handful of draft picks on running backs in recent memory (Daryl Stephenson, 2008; Anthony Woodson, 2010; Carl Volny, 2011), none were given serious opportunities to earn a significant role with the team and all have since been released or traded.
As such, the Bombers turned to free agency to add to their Canadian running back depth with the acquisition of Pascal Lochard. Lochard, who spent the past two seasons with Harris in BC, was selected fourteenth overall by the Lions in the 2014 CFL draft out of Laval.
His career offensive stat line: three carries for 11 yards.
With all due respect to Lochard — it’s entirely possible that he will be capable in starting a handful of games should Harris suffer an injury — his professional experience as a rusher fails to inspire confidence.
Unfortunately, Lochard’s pre-draft history is also somewhat unimpressive. Lochard ran for just 493 yards on 86 carries (5.7 YPC) in his senior season with the Rouge et Or, while his 4.88 second 40-yard dash time at the 2014 CFL combine left much to be desired. For reference, Concordia’s Quinn Smith, albeit on performance enhancing drugs at the time, ran a 4.82 second 40-yard dash at 305 pounds that same year.
Clearly, there are reasons to question if Lochard is ready to be the Bombers’ sole back-up option for running back.
Fortunately for Winnipeg, there are two other prominent players to possibly serve as Harris’ back-up in 2016: veteran Matt Walter and rookie Mercer Timmis.
Walter, cut by the Stampeders last week, would bring four years of experience to Winnipeg and a career yard per carry average of 5.3. The issue with signing Walter is that he may be an expensive addition (Postmedia’s Scott Mitchell indicated Walter was set to make roughly $100,000 in 2016) and, even with the recent cuts of Zach Anderson, Greg Peach, and Paris Cotton, Walter’s services may prove to be a luxury the Bombers simply cannot afford.
Timmis, currently a student at the University of Calgary, would also make for a fine addition to the club. Unfortunately for Winnipeg, it has been speculated that one of the reasons Walter was released by the Stamps was to open a roster space for Calgary to add Timmis with the 6th overall pick in May’s CFL draft. With the Bombers not picking until 9th overall, selecting Timmis may prove impossible depending on the willingness of other teams to trade a top-5 selection.
Should Walter and Timmis prove unattainable for the Bombers, there is one other depth option at running back the club would be wise to consider: Christophe Normand.
For those who may not have heard of Normand, don’t feel bad — he’s a hard man to learn about. Normand does not have a Wikipedia page, nor does he have a head shot on the CFL or Blue Bomber webpages (seriously). But he just might be the answer to the Bombers’ depth needs at running back.
Normand was selected by Winnipeg in the fourth round of last year’s CFL draft. Stuck behind incumbent fullback (and fellow Laval alum) Michel-Pierre Pontbriand on the team’s depth chart after training camp, Normand spent much of his rookie season on Bombers’ practice roster.
So what makes Normand, a fullback by trade, a viable candidate to back-up a star like Andrew Harris?
Consider these numbers: despite receiving just 52 carries in his time at Laval, Normand was able to rush for more than 9 yards per carry. For reference, Jesse Lumsden — arguably the best rusher in CIS history — posted a yard per carry average of 9.6 over his junior and senior seasons from 2003-2004.
Normand shows impressive speed and strength for a 6’2, 240 pound man as best exemplified by his 2015 scouting video. Normand backed up his on-field production with excellent testing numbers at the 2015 CFL combine last March, posting 29 bench press reps to go along with a 4.76 40-yard dash time. For reference, this would have been the second-best 40-time at the 2014 CFL combine behind only the University of Manitoba’s Anthony Coombs. This also brings into question how much Normand’s straight-line speed would improve if he shed some weight from his 240 pound frame to better represent a more prototypical running back frame.
It would be foolish to suggest that Normand is a lock to succeed as a CFL running back, but, for the reasons outlined above, it would be equally foolish to dismiss his abilities outright. The Bombers will need as much competition in training camp as possible to get the most out of their Canadian running backs.
Expect Normand to be a serious part of that competition.