Teams across the CFL are being incredibly cautious with the health of important veterans after an 18-month hiatus and the Calgary Stampeders are no different. Even star quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell is on a pitch count, taking time off practice to ensure longevity.
While the Stamps hope that keeps their franchise quarterback in one piece all season, its part of another strategy as well.
“Here is the flipside of that: I get to see the other quarterbacks,” head coach Dave Dickenson said when asked about Mitchell’s situation.
“I know a lot of other teams are probably not really practicing some of their guys either, but I really have to decide who the backup is going to be without any pre-season. So unfortunately for you guys, you probably aren’t going to see as much of Bo over the next little bit.”
Resting your starter to figure out who is best suited to back him up might seem like a fool’s errand to some, but the CFL has always been a two quarterback league. Calgary’s 2019 season could have been a lost cause had backup Nick Arbuckle not successfully steered the ship for seven games when Mitchell was sidelined. With that proven replacement now set for a starting gig in Toronto, the Stamps need new insurance.
Unfortunately for them, they’ll have to make that decision without the benefit of live game action. The COVID-19 pandemic means no preseason matchups this year and Dickenson is struggling with the impact that will have on the quarterback competition.
“I’m trying my best, but I believe I might not have made the team back in my day without pre-season games. [John Hufnagel] told me that Jeff Garcia may not have made the team without pre-season games,” he said frankly. “What can we do to put these guys in situations and make it game-like without putting our guys at risk?”
Dickenson went on to a Hall of Fame CFL career after proving himself in exhibition, throwing for 22,913 yards and 154 touchdowns with Calgary and B.C. Garcia settled for being a four-time West Division All-Star, before heading south of the line and matching that number with Pro Bowl appearances.
Both first had to prove they could do it with live bullets flying, an opportunity that this year’s crop of talent won’t be afforded. Nevertheless, Dickenson is looking for them to demonstrate many of the same attributes in practice.
“Huddle presence, leadership, we want big plays but the negative plays can sometimes outweigh those,” he said. “So far I don’t think anyone has separated, but I like what I’m seeing from the three younger guys.”
Each candidate comes with their own intriguing resume. The most experienced is Dakota Prukop, signed in 2020 after three years as a backup in Toronto. The Newport, California native ripped up the Big Sky at Montana State, before transferring to Oregon to end his college career and earned his way onto the Argonauts roster not only for his ability as a passer, but his willingness to contribute in kick coverage.
Shouldering the hopes of a nation in the competition, Canadian Michael O’Connor is favoured by many to win the job but will have to prove himself to the Stamps. A more prototypical pocket passer, the Penn State-transfer led the UBC Thunderbirds to a Vanier Cup title in 2015 and was selected 20th overall by the Argos in the 2019 CFL Draft.
Rookie Jake Maier of UC Davis is the dark horse in the three-way race after two stellar years in the Big Sky. A complete unknown to even the most ardent CFL fan, Calgary is extremely high on the talented youngster.
“Certainly each guy has a different skill set, it’s not really like I’m looking at the same quarterback,” Dickenson admitted. “I’m trying to decide what is best for our team and also what will make us a bit more dangerous.”
That tough choice means Bo Levi Mitchell will be getting plenty of rest the next couple days, whether he wants it or not. The Stampeders have what Dickenson describes as a “spirited practice” slated for this weekend and the backup candidates will be commanding most of the reps ahead of their first real test.