Two years ago, Jim Barker came in as coach of the Argonauts and began transitioning him into a possession-style receiver. Someone who would still run the ball occassionally, but whose biggest threat would come in the passing game.
Just one problem. Toronto never had anyone who could pass the ball.
In his first five seasons, while nobody really complained and people loved his upside, he never had more than 54 catches in any one year. He came into this season with 124 career receptions.
The way things are going, he could get close to that many this year alone. While nobody is predicting such lofty heights, with 14 catches in the first two games this year, he’s on pace for 112 That’s go-to receiver territory.
“In our exit meetings (after the 2010 season) Jim (Barker) and I talked about the role he wanted to have me in, to have me a bit more versatile as a pass receiver. But I had to go through a lot of transition. Learning how to run routes, learning how to read defences. Pretty sure at the beginning he was a little wary of that decision,” said Durie, laughing.
There were equal doses of frustration and, with every step forward, there seemed another that went, if not exactly backward, then at least sideways.
For Durie, the final indication that he has made the transition will likely be when people forget that he ever was just a running back. Sometimes he marvels at how long, and how rutted and difficult, that journey has been.
“Playing the running back positon and receiver position, there are contrasts in how you read things.
“That was the biggest hurdle. The skill part you can always tweak. The most difficult part, the most important part, is the education part of football. It has taken a lot of hard work, a lot of good coaching, for me to learn to be a receiver.”
Now 30, Durie spent more time in the gym this winter, did some power-lifting, stayed away from the fast-food takeout window.
“I’m more explosive,” he said. “I can get going quicker. It isn’t so much strength but I’ve gotten my side-to-side lateral movements back to where they were before I got injured.”
For seven years, he has worked and worried to get that burst back.
“It’s always been soemthing that’s hindered me,” he said.
What hasn’t hindered is having Ricky Ray pitching the ball. What hasn’t hindered, either, is the emergence of Chad Owens as a receiver — with 13 catches just one behind Durie this year.
Then there is running back Cory Boyd. All of which has helped open the field for Durie.
“Chad is a firecracker when he has the ball and we have (Jason Barnes) and now (Dontrelle) Inman is stepping up. There’s so many different weapons its been a pick your poison kind of thing,” said Durie.
“If you pay attention to one person, it sort of frees up another and that’s sort of what has been happening.”
So it is, that many have pointed to this as Durie’s watershed season — his moment to step into the limelight ... or become the phenom that never really happened.
Milanovich referred to him earlier this year as his “secret weapon” and he believes Ray and Durie are just beginning to find a comfort zone. In the win over Calgary last weekend, Durie’s biggest catch was a 36-yard reception in the dying seconds. It put Noel Prefontaine in position to kick a game-winning 28-yard field goal.
“He caught a ball over the middle and extended on a big second-and-10 that you don’t do when you are a running back. He’s a receiver now who can also run with the ball,” Milanovich said.
In his first five seasons, Durie had 1,516 receiving yards. He’s on a pace to get close to equalling that this season. Not that he wants to talk about numbers.
Statistics, he says, don’t bother him. An empty ring finger does. All he wants, after just missing in 2007 and ’10, is a Grey Cup.
“Its something I’ve been so close to getting and had it taken from my hands,” Durie said. “Coach Milanovich has been there a couple times. I’ve seen J.J.’s (teammate Jeff Johnson’s) ring. You get a little jealous sometimes.”