Toronto Argonauts’ running back Brandon Whitaker (left) tries to elude Calgary Stampeders’ Charleston Hughes during first half CFL action in Toronto, Monday, October 10, 2016. Records are made to be broken but Whitaker doesn’t see Mike Pringle’s CFL rushing marks being eclipsed any time soon.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Versatility key element for CFL running backs

Records are made to be broken but Brandon Whitaker doesn’t see Mike Pringle’s CFL rushing marks being eclipsed any time soon.

Pringle led the CFL in rushing six times over his Hall of Fame career, including in 1998 when he became the only player to surpass the 2,000-yard plateau (2,065). The 49-year-old is the league’s all-time leading runner (16,245 yards) and remains tied with the legendary George Reed for most career rushing TDs (137).

“You look at those records and you’re just in awe of them,” Whitaker said. “But you have to face reality there’s a 99.9 per cent chance those records are going to stay for pretty much forever … and you move on.

“The CFL was already a passing league (when Pringle played) but it’s even moreso now. For me, this is all I’ve known as far as professional football is concerned and we ran a spread offence (at Baylor) for the most part so it was a little easier for me … but for many guys the biggest adjustment (in Canada) is not getting to run the ball as much as they did down south.”

In the four-down game, running backs have many more opportunites to carry the football than they do in the CFL. Here, American-born players must also be solid receivers and adept at blocking in certain passing situations.

Whitaker said the biggest adjustment American ball-carriers must make in Canada is understanding they’ll get their touches, just not by conventional means.

“Once you wrap your head around that, it makes things a lot easier,” Whitaker said. “There’ve been times I’ve had two carries in the whole game because we’ve fallen behind and had to fight our way back but I also might have 12 or 13 receptions.

“For the most part, a running back gets more touches than anybody else on the field, it’s just how you get them. Sometimes it might be 15, 16 carries with two catches or two carries with 10 catches.”

Pringle was certainly the exception, registering over 300 carries each time he led the league in rushing. When Pringle retired following the ‘04 season, he had 2,962 rushing attempts, second only to Reed (3,243).

Since 2000, only two running backs have had over 300 regular-season carries.

Hamilton’s Troy Davis had 324 when he amassed a CFL-leading 1,628 yards in 2004. Two years later, Hall of Famer Charles Roberts ran 303 times for 1,609 yards.

Last year, Canadian Jerome Messam led the CFL in rushing (1,109 yards) and carries (206). Whitaker was the only other 1,000-yard rusher (1,009 on 186 carries) but also had 81 catches — tops among running backs — for 549 yards.

No CFL running back has ever reached the 1,000-yard plateau rushing and receiving in the same season but Robert Drummond came close twice with Toronto.

Pringle’s fullback in Baltimore in 1995, Drummond ran for 935 yards and registered 72 catches for 798 yards the next year with the Argos. He topped that with 1,134 yards rushing and 85 catches for 840 yards the following season.

Whitaker was the CFL’s rushing leader in 2011 with Montreal, rushing for 1,381 yards on 226 carries in then-head coach Marc Trestman’s offence. But Whitaker also had 72 catches for 638 yards and with Trestman now Whitaker’s head coach in Toronto, Whitaker fully understands what his role will be this season.

“For sure, it definitely takes some stress off your shoulders knowing what your job is, knowing your role,” Whitaker said. “That’s one thing coach Trestman is big on, letting everyone know their role and taking the elephant out of the room.

“Earlier in my career, I wanted to lead the league in rushing, I wanted to do this, I wanted to do that. At this point for me, it’s moreso just staying healthy, protecting my quarterback and winning a championship. I know what the expectations are (in Trestman’s offence), they’re very high and I’m ready to live up to them.”

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