The man whose job James Wilder Jr. took is playing a big role in helping the first-year Argonaut keep his spot as Toronto’s feature running back.
Wilder has recorded consecutive 100-yard rushing games, running for 331 yards over that span. He feels a big reason for his success is having learned to let plays develop in front of him first before reacting.
And he credits veteran Brandon Whitaker, Toronto’s former starting running back, with teaching him that valuable lesson.
“I wasn’t running patient and he’s the one who taught me this patience thing,” Wilder said following Thursday’s practice. “He’s the one who’s helping me mentally, he’s been helping me physically, he’s been helping me even in the treatment room.
“I don’t let his advice go through one ear and out the other because he’s been in this league, he’s done it all and been successful. That’s something I want to take from him and put on the field.”
All too often running backs are taught to hit an open hole immediately before it closes. But the patient runner is one who waits a split second for blocking help, then reacts accordingly.
“Instead of just hitting the hole at full speed, you can press right behind the guard and let him get up to his linebacker then react accordingly,” Wilder said. “The hole could be there and you try to hit it at full speed but then it’s not there because you didn’t wait for the guard to make the block.”
Whitaker, in his ninth CFL season, has run for 5,339 career yards on 1,008 carries (solid 5.3-yard average) with 20 TDs. The five-foot-10, 200-pound Whitaker is also an accomplished blocker and has registered 355 career catches for 2,868 yards with 20 touchdowns.
And he helped the Montreal Alouettes – then led by current Argos head coach Marc Trestman – earn consecutive Grey Cup titles in 2009 and 2010.
Whitaker ran for 318 yards (4.5-yard average) and had 27 catches for 220 yards in eight games this season. But the 32-year-old hadn’t found the end zone.
The six-foot-two, 232-pound Wilder has become a home-run threat for Toronto. He’s averaging a whopping 15.8 yards per carry over the last two games with TD runs of 76 and 85 yards in being named a CFL top performer the last two weeks.
“We started the season with Brandon, somebody we could rely on protection-wise and to be a solid football player and then we just did an evaluation,” Trestman said. “It wasn’t that Brandon wasn’t playing well, it’s just we felt we wanted to change the chemistry.
“Things just happen during a season, we don’t want to over-think it . . . we wanted to see what James could bring to the table, that’s all.”
Wilder will chase a third straight 100-yard rushing performance Saturday night when Toronto (6-7) visits the Hamilton Tiger-Cats (3-9).
With Wilder in the backfield, Toronto has run for 385 yards its last two games. And that’s taken much of the load off Ricky Ray’s shoulders as the Argos quarterback has thrown 56 passes – completing 40 for 406 yards with two TDs and an interception – over that span.
“The more things you can do well offensively, it’s just harder to defend,” Ray said. “When you can be explosive as well in the run game it’s pretty scary I’d imagine for a defence knowing if we give our running back a crease we know we can go the distance with it and change field position or get a touchdown.
“I think we’re more confident in establishing the run and getting out there and having it be a big part of our offence.”
Wilder has certainly made the most of his chances. He’s only carried the ball 21 times since becoming the starter but has added 13 catches for 144 yards.
Wilder comes by his football prowess honestly. His father, James Wilder Sr., played running back for 10 NFL seasons with Tampa Bay and Washington and remains the Buccaneer’s all-time leading rusher.
Wilder Jr., who played collegiately at Florida State, admits he’s had to adjust to the concept of touches (rushing attempts and catches combined) in the CFL over the traditional approach in American football that sees running backs get 25-30 carries per game.
“As a running back you want carries, for sure,” he said. “But we have too much talent to just hand the ball off 25 times a game.
“We have a legend at quarterback, we have a legend at receiver (S.J. Green) so we’ve got to pass. Touches, period, having the ball in my hands feels great.”
Especially on the longer, wider Canadian field.
“The field spreads out the defence, for sure,” Wilder said. “If all the blocks go as they should, it leaves me one-on-one either with a safety or linebacker.
“If I make that one person miss I have a lot of space (especially) in the passing game.”