The Crop Of Current Middle Linebackers Is Really Good
Tuesday October 24th, 2017
Back in the early ‘70s I was a teenager working as a parking attendant in downtown Toronto when I was approached by an individual who was about to pay me.
“Are you Sam Cvijanovich?” I asked.
“Yeah, how did you know?”
“I’m a big fan of the Argos and you’re the middle linebacker. Everybody knows the middle linebacker.”
I have always enjoyed watching the play of middle linebackers in the Canadian Football League. Some of the greatest stars in CFL history played middle linebacker, including Willie Pless, Dan Kepley, Danny Bass, Wayne Harris and current Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ head coach Mike O’Shea.
The middle linebacker is like the quarterback of the defence, and it is always fascinating to watch them in action. They are not always big and burly. Cvijanovich stood only a shade over 6-foot, but to a teenager at the time he seemed like a giant.
CFL historian Steve Daniel pointed out that Harris, nicknamed Thumper, set the standard for middle linebackers, although during his career from 1961-72 tackles were not recorded. Harris, a Canadian Football Hall of Famer, stood an even 6-foot and weighed under 200 pounds. He was voted the Most Valuable Player in the 1971 Grey Cup, famous (or infamous if you’re an old Toronto Argonauts’ fan) for the fumble in the rain near the goal line by running back Leon (X-Ray) McQuay, and the decision by returner Harry Abofs to boot a ball out of bounds and cost his team any hope of tying or winning the game.
But I digress.
I can think of no better example of a middle linebacker who defines what the CFL is all about than Edmonton’s J.C. Sherritt, who is currently sidelined for the balance of the season after rupturing an Achilles tendon in the Eskimos’ season opener. Standing a mere 5-foot-9, he surely has to be one of the smallest middle linebackers in CFL history, but from the moment he first started playing for the Eskimos he has proven that heart can overcome size. When Sherritt was voted the CFL’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player in 2012, it was a testament to his desire and passion to play the game and take on bigger players using technique, form and smarts. I remember when I saw him at the CFL Awards: I couldn’t believe this was the guy who was blowing up guys far bigger than him.
This year happens to feature one of the best crops of middle linebackers in recent memory. I’m particularly interested in Saskatchewan’s Henoc Muamba, who I have known for quite some time as an athlete who grew up in Mississauga, where I live. I think he is really growing into the position and developing the ability that made him the first overall pick in the 2011 CFL Draft. He stands 6-foot, but is built like a tank and looks as if he has found a home in his first full season with the Roughriders. He is making some incredible plays. Am I biased? Yes.
Another player I have enjoyed watching for several years is B.C.’s Solomon Elimimian, the CFL’s Most Outstanding Rookie in 2010 and voted the Most Outstanding Player and Most Outstanding Defensive Player in 2014. He won the top Defensive Player Award again in 2016 and has a solid shot to claim it for the third time.
He is also only slightly taller than 6-foot, but similar to others who play the position he hits hard. He has been voted the CFL’s hardest hitter multiple times in a TSN poll of players. I’d put Montreal middle linebacker Kyries Hebert right up there in terms of sheer physicality.
Elimimian has the record for most defensive tackles in a season, totaling 143 in 2014. He currently has 128, and with two games to go it is not out of the realm of possibility that he will eclipse his own mark.
Alex Singleton intrigues me because of his speed (and his long hair). He has to be one of the fastest middle linebackers in CFL history, and unlike Muamba and Elimimian he has a taller frame at 6-foot-2. He displays so much enthusiasm the way he plays, which is fun to watch.
He is only 23 and is asserting himself in his first full season playing middle linebacker for the Stamps. Though he was born in the U.S. and played football there, he qualifies as a National because his mother was born in Canada. Selected sixth overall in the 2016 CFL Draft, he has become a ratio breaker at a position often played by an American.
It’s good to see Canadians receiving a chance to play middle linebacker. O’Shea, inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame this year, is one of the top middle linebackers in CFL history. He may have set the standard for Canadians seeking to play middle linebacker.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Winnipeg is employing a Canadian middle linebacker, Sam Hurl, who is another example of a player who has worked his way into a starting role.
“If I were to go back and look at it – I don’t often go back and talk about these things – Sam would be more productive than I would have been, playing the same spot in the ‘90s or whatever that was for me,” O’Shea told the Winnipeg Sun’s Ted Wyman in a recent interview. “We’ve got him up, pretty tight, doing a lot of things, taking on a lot of heavy people and he does very well at it.”
O’Shea never liked talking about himself as a player – trust me, I covered him long enough to know that firsthand – but he was more than happy to praise teammates or talk about the team.
Toronto’s Bear Woods and Hamilton’s Larry Dean are two of the more intriguing middle linebackers. Woods is probably the prototype of a middle linebacker because of his personality and demeanour. He also has a name befitting of a middle linebacker. As for Dean, he has become a significant part of the Ticats’ turnaround.
If you have any thoughts on the current crop of CFL middle linebackers, let me know.
And if you’re a fan of Muamba, good. I subscribe to the theory it’s okay to have favourite players.