Aim now is picking off battles

RANDY SPORTAK -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:46 AM ET

Ryan Thelwell remembers the first time Markus Howell lined up at defensive back in the CFL.

"He got an interception and almost returned it for a touchdown. That shows you what kind of athlete he is," Thelwell, then with the B.C. Lions, recalled.

It was early in the 2004 campaign, and Howell's Winnipeg Blue Bombers lost one DB after another due to injury. Howell, a receiver and returner, was turned to in the pinch.

The highlight was picking off a Casey Printers throw in a goal-line stand and taking the ball more than 90 yards the other way. Unfortunately, the interception went for naught due to a roughing-the-passer infraction.

Probably worse now for Howell is the fact Thelwell, his Calgary Stampeders teammate and buddy, burned him for a touchdown of his own.

"I remember that," Howell said. "He ran a shallow under route. Busted coverage."

Rest assured, he's been reminded since as Thelwell and Howell sit beside each other in the locker room.

Back then, Howell's conversion to the defensive side of the ball was a case of necessity being the mother of invention. ("They threw me out there, and eleven weeks later, I was still out there," he said).

At Stampeders camp this season, though, it's by design.

Howell has been moved to defensive back on a full-time basis. The speedster from Winnipeg may as well have returner listed first on his job description, but with the club's wealth of non-import receivers, his ability to play defence will help the club's ratio.

"It's the CFL. The more you can do, the better," said Howell, in his ninth CFL season. "We don't have any Canadian cover guys, they're at safety, so we have a need there."

A Canadian cornerback will pay big dividends. It's a matter of Howell adjusting well enough.

With the wide CFL field, covering speedy receivers is a tall order at the best of times, even for players who've spent their whole lives in that job. Being a converted receiver makes it one tough task.

"The learning curve is pretty steep right now," said Howell, 33, who practised as a defensive back for a couple of weeks late last season and saw some time in that position for the regular-season finale. "I've been punishing DBs for years, running by them, and now the tables have been turned.

"It's been fun. Early in practice, when it's one-on-ones (drills), it's challenging. When we get into the group stuff and you know where your help is and where the safety is, you feel more comfortable. And I've played in that situation before, too."

Thelwell is keeping an eye on Howell's progress.

"We pick on him now, 'Is 88 out there?' We're looking for him," he said with a laugh. "I feel sorry for him because I know I couldn't do it. It's tough."

How tough? During yesterday's session, Howell was burned mightily by the super-fast Eddie Montgomery in one-one-one drills. "Eddie's quick. You learn you have to get your hands on guys because if you don't touch them, that's exactly what they're gonna do," he said.

"At the end, we were working on getting our hands on the receiver.

"Coach (secondary coach Corey Chamblin) is patient working me, and we'll meet the challenge head-on."

RANDY.SPORTAK@SUNMEDIA.CA


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