The air apparent

KIRK PENTON -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 12:25 PM ET

Derick Armstrong spent too much time riding horses and not enough tossing bales on his Texas ranch last winter.

Or, as Big Country himself described it yesterday, he "just chilled." So when the wide receiver showed up at Winnipeg Blue Bombers training camp in the spring out of shape, fitness freak and resident slotback emeritus Milt Stegall got on his case immediately.

And he wasn't exactly kidding about it, either.

The 2007 season, after all, was going to be Stegall's farewell tour, and he went into it with high hopes of performing his final show at the Grey Cup. And he would need Armstrong's help to get to Rogers Centre on Nov. 25.

So Stegall was more than a little concerned when Armstrong was having trouble making it through two-a-days in June.

"I told him (he was out of shape), I got on him, and he understood," Stegall said. "It kind of opened up his eyes. And I think more so he felt bad because he was not only letting me down, but letting everybody down.

"He understands he is a big part of this team, not just on offence. They're paying him some good money to go out there and make plays."

Armstrong, who signed with the Bombers last September after three seasons in the NFL, admitted that he didn't do enough in the off-season. Running his ranch provides plenty of exercise, but it's not always the right kind.

"I did a lot of (working on the ranch), but I didn't do a lot of running like I should have," the 28-year-old said. "I did a little bit here and there, but I know if I want to be in shape I should work a little harder."

The 6-foot-2, 209-pound pass catcher learned what football without excellent cardiovascular health can be like over the first six games of the season, when he averaged only 54 receiving yards per game.

He must have busted his tail during the bye week, because he's been virtually unstoppable since, hauling in an average of 107 yards per contest over his last five outings.

Armstrong, in fact, has vaulted from 16th to first in the CFL receiving yards race in the last five weeks alone. Overall, he has 64 catches for 857 yards and five touchdowns.

It's the kind of production the Bombers were hoping to see from the man who will be expected to lead the receiving corps after Stegall.

"Last year when we signed him we knew he was sort of that next complement to Milt," GM Brendan Taman said.

"Whether he's the heir apparent, I don't know if that's necessarily the case, but he's good. I know that much."

Stegall sure is liking what he's seeing now from the man who lines up beside him.

"He's able to run by guys," Stegall said. "Before he couldn't run by his shadow or run by my son. Once you're in shape it helps out, especially later on in the year.

"Your body starts wearing down, and your mind starts wearing down. It helps that you know when it's time to turn it on, you can turn it on."

Perhaps Armstrong's off-season lapse will be a blessing in disguise for the Bombers. If Stegall does in fact shut it down after 13 seasons, you can bet that Big Country will be a little less Big and cover a lot more Country from the start of next season instead of halfway through it.

"The workload gets a little bigger, but I'm always up for a challenge," Armstrong said. "So I'm just going to use that as motivation in the off-season to only get better."


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