The course of true love never did run smooth and TSN reporter Farhan Lalji is feeling plenty of Shakespearian angst when it comes to the battle for the Calgary Stampeders backup quarterback job in 2021.
“Quite frankly, I feel like I could be the agent for both Michael O’Connor and Dakota Prukop,” he told The SportsCage. “I’ve actually gushed to Dave Dickenson about both guys.”
The open competition for the number two spot behind franchise pivot Bo Levi Mitchell is already shaping up to be one of the premier camp battles of the upcoming season. Prukop, a University of Oregon product, may have the edge right now, but all eyes will be on newly acquired Canadian quarterback Michael O’Connor to seize the job.
“It will be a good battle and whoever wins it, in my opinion, will be worthy to backup Bo and play if needed,” Lalji said. “Bo’s had some injuries, so you better make sure you have the right guy and I think Dave Dickenson has got the two right guys battling for that job.”
Both pivots spent the 2019 season in Toronto and showed early promise, but O’Connor carries the weight of a nation on his shoulders. The 20th overall selection in the 2019 CFL Draft is considered by many to be the best homegrown quarterback in recent memory and captured the Vanier Cup in just his first season at the University of British Columbia.
A Penn State University transfer from Orleans, Ontario, O’Connor was 15-of-25 for 173 yards and one touchdown in limited reps during his rookie season. Lalji believes he has the potential to be truly special for the Stampeders.
“Michael O’Connor needs to be in Calgary, he needs to be in a quarterback room with Bo Levi Mitchell and Dave Dickenson with a legitimate competition and a guy who’s not going to be biased against him because he’s a Canadian quarterback,” Lalji says.
“Dave has liked Michael since day one and he will give him a real opportunity to compete for number two.”
That might not be the case everywhere. In Toronto, the addition of Nick Arbuckle and the specter of the potential return of McLeod Bethel-Thompson limited O’Connor’s possibilities and biases elsewhere would have held him back just as much.
“The one thing about Dave is he truly will evaluate him as a quarterback. I’m not convinced anybody else in the Canadian Football League would,” Lalji said frankly.
“I get a lot of people coming up to me or who will hear this when it gets posted and say, ‘What are you talking about? I view Canadian quarterbacks legitimately, look at my background.’ I don’t agree.”
Lalji believes that the biases and limitations placed on Canadian-born passers persist and even homegrown coaches and general managers fall victim. Even the greatest CFL coach in history had this particular fault.
“Wally Buono was the worst when it came to Canadian quarterbacks,” Lalji emphasized. “He had as big a bias as anybody and I’ve got a ton of respect for Wally. We used to argue in his office about this.”
The limitations those biases pose to quarterback opportunities and development have been noticeable. The CFL has lacked a legitimate national star at the sport’s most important position since the retirement of Russ Jackson in 1969 and the rise of such a player could do wonders for the league’s popularity.
“When a guy like Andrew Harris or Jon Cornish steps up and does great things at a skill position, touches the ball and can be a star and can be a Grey Cup MVP, that matters. It really does. People do take hold of those story lines,” Lalji insisted.
“If Michael O’Connor can do it here, at this position, I think it would be a fantastic thing for the Canadian Football League and I think it would be a great thing for grass roots football.”
O’Connor won’t be the first to try and break down that barrier this century, with players like Brandon Bridge and Andrew Buckley leading the way and rookie Nathan Rourke following behind. In Calgary, he finds a perfect situation to achieve what others have not and he’s got all the talent in the world to make it happen.
Is O’Connor the future of the Stampeders and perhaps the CFL? Lalji thinks he just might be.
“I love the kid and I think he works his tail off,” he said. “He’s got such an unbridled enthusiasm, passion, and a real knowledge for football that I think he is going to be able to take that step.”