Argonauts have Major possibilities

Argonauts hopeful Jermaine Gabriel is confident he can be

Argonauts hopeful Jermaine Gabriel is confident he can be "a great player in this league." (QMI Agency)

FRANK ZICARELLI, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:49 AM ET

TORONTO - Major Culbert finds himself on the cusp of a major breakthrough.

More work awaits, more plays need to be made and more time in his playbook are each required for Culbert to finally call a team his football home.

Unless something dramatically happens in the new few days and at next Thursday’s pre-season finale, Culbert appears to have given himself a chance at making a team, no minor feat given the path he’s been forced to travel, the different positions and schemes he’s been asked to learn.

“I just want to be a major (contributor) on this team,’’ Culbert said following Saturday’s workout by the Argos. “I’m very thankful for this opportunity.

“I came from pretty much nothing to get here. To go from nothing to back to something is definitely a blessing.”

If Culbert makes the grade with the Argos, which is very much within reach, it’ll represent the culmination of many years of perseverance and dogged determination.

Culbert, who grew up in Los Angeles, left high school as a highly touted running back prospect. He would receive a full scholarship at Nebraska, be converted into a safety and would return to the backfield. After three seasons in Nebraska, Culbert transferred to Abilene Christian, where Argos quarterback prospect Mitchell Gale was in his freshman year.

Culbert would then sit out a year, tried to kick-start his football career by playing in Italy. Following numerous tryouts, Culbert twice looked at the UFL as a potential landing spot. Arena Football then beckoned, a tryout with the Utah Blaze arranged that would lead to a training-camp invite.

Culbert would get cut, but he refused to call it quits.

He got wind of a tryout in L.A. supervised by Argos assistant GM and defensive co-ordinator Chris Jones, triggering a set of events that landed Culbert a deal with Toronto.

“It’s a blessing to be here,’’ he said. “There have been a lot of pros and cons, trials and tribulations. I remember working out when nothing was upon me, but I still kept that faith, determination and perseverance, I still continued to strive to be great.

“It (journey) takes a lot out of you, but if it’s (dream of playing pro football) in your heart, it’s in your heart for a reason. After I was released, not once did I hang my head. You never know how far you can go unless you give up.”

Twice Culbert auditioned for the Argos at tryout camps until an invitation to the team’s mini-camp in Florida was confirmed.

He did well and Culbert suddenly found himself at training camp.

Culbert’s story would add a further layer of drama when he was asked to play at weak side linebacker (WIL), a position he’s never played.

“At first I was iffy,’’ he said. “It was mind-boggling. As a safety your eyes are on the quarterback. When you play running back, you rely on instincts.

“At WIL, you’re close to the box and you read runs. I embraced it because this is an opportunity of a lifetime.”

Toronto’s incumbent at WIL is Marcus Ball, an emerging defensive player who has the ability to dominate much like he did late last season when Ball had a sublime stretch in the post-season.

Culbert isn’t as accomplished, but he has the necessary athleticism and versatility Jones covets.

Many first-year players made an impression last week in Winnipeg, including Culbert.

“I’m very hard on myself,’’ said Culbert, who was asked for a self-evaluation. “I give myself a B-minus, C. My mind-set is to keep learning, soak up everything. I have a general understanding of what I need to do, but in this system you need to know what everyone does.”

GABRIEL HAS THE RIGHT STUFF

From couch potato to quarterbacking a defensive secondary, Jermaine Gabriel has never lost sight of his journey. Two years ago, Gabriel was sitting at home, watching CIS football and basically watching his football dream fade. Each time he would tune in, Gabriel quickly realized he needed to get back on the football horse.

“I kept seeing these guys get better and it motivated me to get better,’’ said Gabriel. “Every time I’d watch a game, I’d do 100 pushups and 100 situps.”

Gabriel, 5-foot-10 and 193 pounds, would eventually play junior football in Calgary, playing at a high level that ultimately led to the Argonauts drafting Gabriel 17th overall in this year’s CFL draft.

He got plenty of reps during the exhibition game in Winnipeg last week and more than held his own.

“I proved to myself that I can play at this level,’’ said Gabriel. “With a lot of hard work I can be a great player in this league. I want to see where it can take me.”

The kid has a chance because Gabriel has speed and athleticism. Refining technique and footwork and not being hesitant represent his next challenges.

Prior to their pre-season opener, the Argonauts held an intra-squad game in Oakville.

“My mom and sister attended, the first time they’ve seen me in a few months,’’ said Gabriel, who went to Scarborough Cedarbrae Collegiate. “They’ve been very supportive. I stayed with it after all these years. I never gave up and they love my drive and my work ethic.”


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