May 13, 2011

Trestman tabs Whitaker to replace Cobourne in backfield


MONTREAL – There will be several battles for jobs at the Montreal Alouettes’ training camp, but Brandon Whitaker has already been given first crack at being the new starting tailback.

Whitaker will be looking to replace the departed Avon Cobourne when the two-time defending Grey Cup champion Alouettes open training camp June 4 in Sherbrooke, Que.

Coach Marc Trestman said that Whitaker’s status as a third-year Alouette and his past performances earned him the shot ahead of some high-profile competition, including former Green Bay Packer Ahman Green and ex-Hamilton Tiger-Cat DeAndra Cobb.

“There’s a lot of guys in the mix, we’re excited to a have all of them, but Brandon’s been there for us when we’ve needed him,” Trestman said Thursday on a conference call. “He’s performed at a high level.

Whitaker’s status as a third-year Alouette and his past performances earned him the shot ahead of some high-profile competition.

“He’s shown an ability to protect the quarterback and he’s been part of our football team. I told Brandon he’s got the job. It’s his job to lose, but there certainly will be opportunities within the course of training camp for us to give these (other) guys a chance. But I’m focused on Brandon right now. I’m hoping once we give him the ball that first day of camp that he won’t give it up.”

Cobourne, the MVP of the Grey Cup game in 2009, signed as a free agent with Hamilton, creating the backfield vacancy. In addition to Cobb and the 34-year-old Green, free agent Yvenson Bernard and returnee Emmanuel Marc are also in the mix.

The five-foot-10, 200-pound Whitaker was a backup last season. He rushed 20 times for 111 yards and had 11 catches for 96 yards.

His toughest task may be to match Cobourne’s strong pass-blocking. Whitaker started the game Aug. 19 against Winnipeg in which quarterback Anthony Calvillo suffered a bruised sternum from a crushing hit and missed the next two games.

Green got his first look at the CFL club at a no-contact camp in Orlando, Fla. in April.

“We didn’t do running or blocking or anything else, just walking through, but what I can say is he was extremely business-like, very focused, took very detailed notes and was completely into what we were trying to do and teach,” said Trestman, who returns for a fourth season in Montreal.

Signing Green may have been a long shot for general manager Jim Popp.

“Ahman has a tremendous amount of experience playing in a one-back set, spread offence like we run,” said Popp. “And all the years he blocked for Brett Favre, and how many games in a row did he play? He set a record. It should be quite a battle.”

Another NFL oldie in camp will be receiver Jerry Porter, who participated in the Super Bowl with Oakland in 2002 when Trestman was the Raiders’ offensive co-ordinator. He hasn’t played since 2008 with Jacksonville.

A receiving job opened up with the retirement of slotback Ben Cahoon, almost certain to make the Hall of Fame as the league’s all-time leader in receptions by a Canadian.

S.J. Green, who is expected to move to slotback, Kerry Watkins and Jamel Richardson will all be back, along with versatile Brian Bratton and longtime backups Eric Deslauriers and Danny Desriveaux. The Alouettes also picked up former Saskatchewan Roughrider Preachae Rodriguez.

Also retiring were centre-guard Paul Lambert and safety Matthieu Proulx, although the club is deep in offensive linemen and has the experienced Etienne Boulay and newcomer Tad Crawford to take over at safety.

They also chose not to keep import kicker Damon Duval, but traded for Sean Whyte from British Columbia and selected Brody McKnight, who has a year of university eligibility remaining, with their first pick in the draft on Saturday.

“We’ve lost three starters and a kicker,” said Popp. “We also had people who were on the team last year retire – (linebackers) Jon Banks and Ray Fontaine, (offensive lineman) Skip Seagraves, (defensive linemen) Nick Morin-Soucy and Pat McDonald.

“But the majority of free agents re-signed. If you take the starting 12 on both sides, they’re all there except three. Big names, no question.”

Another who left was third-string quarterback Chris Leak, but the starting job still belongs to veteran Anthony Calvillo, who has pronounced himself fully fit after having off-season thyroid surgery.

Calvillo is short only 4,220 yards – less than an average season’s output for the 14th-year Alouette – of Damon Allen’s all-time record of 72,381 passing yards.

There should also be movement in the defensive backfield after the signing of all-star cornerback Dwight Anderson from the Calgary Stampeders. Anderson is known as a volatile player on and off the field, but a top talent who could threaten De’Audra Dix’s job.

Trestman said Anderson fit in well with his new teammates at their Orlando camp.

“We really respect his ability and passion for the game,” said Trestman. “He’s got a bunch of guys around him who will be very clear to him how he has to handle himself.

“Our locker-room will take care of any issues, or what are perceived to be issues, I don’t know if they are. I’m excited to have him on our team.”

As he did last year, Trestman insisted that his team cannot repeat as champion because it is not the same group as last season, so the 2011 team will have to start from scratch.

“The players are going to have to earn it on their own merit,” he said. “We’re not going to turn the page until the ring ceremony on June 3, because we’re going to enjoy that and celebrate.

“But when we get on the bus to training camp, that’s over.”