TORONTO - Kevin Eiben led the Argos in tackles last season with 101.
If Eiben is going to do that again, he’s going to have to hold off Ejiro Kuale in training camp.
Kuale spent his rookie season in the CFL doing whatever and playing wherever he was asked. He moved from his natural linebacker spot to defensive end where he backed up. He was a demon on special teams and late in the year joined the offence as a sort of hybrid blocking fullback/tight end.
So while Jim Barker could not remember another instance in his career where a player requested a position change, he really had no reason to deny him the opportunity given how versatile and valuable Kuale had become in just one season.
“He came to me and said: ‘Just give me a chance. If I’m not it, I’ll go play full or do whatever I have to do for this team, but just give me a chance to play my natural position,’” Barker said.
Kuale rushed the passer on third and fourth downs at LSU so the defensive line wasn’t completely foreign to him, but he just feels he can be more help to his team playing the position he grew up playing.
“I just felt that I could be more beneficial to the team as a linebacker,” Kuale said. “They knew I played linebacker but they weren’t familiar with me playing the position so I asked to be moved. I told them if I was not successful I would do whatever they asked me to do, but it’s my natural position and I will be successful at it.”
Confidence is not lacking with Kuale and he certainly has been given a fair shot at supplanting Eiben as he has seen as much time with the starting unit the past week as the veteran Eiben has.
In another situation Eiben’s non-import status might give him at leg up, but Barker says he has made it clear to everyone involved that the best player, whether he’s Canadian, American or anything else will get the job.
The battle is still very much undecided.
“There’s no doubt,” Barker said when asked if Kuale is pushing Eiben. “Kevin is playing better because Kuale is there. When Kevin plays, it’s going to be because he is the best player there, not because he is a Canadian player. That position is wide open for anyone and Kevin knew that at the end of last season. He came into camp in great shape. Competition brings out the best in people and Kevin’s level of play in that pre-season game (Saturday against Hamilton) was higher than it was all last year. It’s a battle to see who is going to play between Kevin and EJ and now Anthony Cannon is back too.”
Kuale, who was already a physical specimen a year ago somehow found a way to trim 10 more pounds off an already fat-free 6-foot-2, 240-pound frame.
“I just did what I had to do to play the position,” he said.
Kuale said he came into camp expecting to be handed nothing regardless of what he did a year ago.
“I came in just wanting to learn the system and get comfortable so my talent can take off from there,” Kuale said. “I really wasn’t worried about being the starter. I figured once I learned the playbook, my talent would take over and the coaches could decide from there.”
And while he’s happy with his play so far in camp, he’s far from satisfied.
“It’s progressed,” he said of his return to the linebacker position. “I’m never complacent. I’ve always been a humble guy. We’re still in training camp so there is no declared starter. I don’t even care who starts as long as we’re winning and we get that Grey Cup and I’m helping this team, that’s all that matters.”
Barker and the Argos are in a no-lose situation here. Kuale comes in and either wins the job outright because he outperforms Eiben or he pushes Eiben to be even better than he was a year ago. The Argos get an improved Eiben and still have the opportunity to plug Kuale in wherever else he can help them.
Based on his rookie year, that could be anywhere on the field, but Eiben and everyone else in camp knows Kuale will do everything he can to win that linebacker job first.