WINNIPEG - If it works out like it's supposed to, the most outstanding Canadian award Henoc Muamba received on Wednesday should be the start of a fall tradition in Winnipeg.
The 23-year-old from Mississauga, Ont., is in just his second CFL season, he has not yet completed a full campaign as the Bombers' middle linebacker, and he is already viewed as Winnipeg's top homegrown talent.
"It's something that I can definitely build upon," Muamba said Wednesday. "I'm really excited for it, and hopefully I can come back next year and duplicate, if not be better than, the season I had this year."
Head coach Tim Burke has been a defensive coach for decades, so he knows middle linebackers. In fact, he knows all about one of the league's best, if not controversial, middle linebackers: Montreal's Shea Emry. Burke was the defensive co-ordinator in Montreal when Emry, also a Canadian, broke into the league.
Burke sees plenty of similarities between Muamba and Emry, who on Wednesday was named Montreal's most outstanding defensive and Canadian player.
"Physically, I would say Henoc is faster," Burke said. "They're both intelligent guys. Shea's obviously got more experience and probably is a heavier hitter than Henoc, but Henoc will hit you pretty stoutly, too. Henoc has a chance to be better than Shea in the long run, just because he's faster."
The Bombers drafted Muamba first overall in 2011 out of St. Francis-Xavier because they knew they would need a ratio breaker to replace defensive tackle Doug Brown. Muamba missed half of his rookie season due to injury and was a special teams demon when he returned. Brown retired in the off-season, but Muamba wasn't ready to take over for Pierre-Luc Labbe when the season began.
It didn't take Muamba long to play himself into the role, however. Labbe and Muamba split the reps in the first few games, and Muamba took control in Week 8. He has racked up 55 tackles good for third on the team five forced fumbles, three tackles for a loss, two sacks and two pass knockdowns. He can't yet be considered a dominant middle linebacker, but the future looks good.
"I feel real comfortable, but the really good thing about it is looking back at the last few games and the season overall, I still feel like there's room for improvement," he said. "And I'm really excited about that. I'm excited about the challenge that it's going to bring to me."
Muamba, whose older brother Cauchy plays safety for the B.C. Lions, made it clear on Wednesday he's not a big fan of labels. He just wants to be known as a good football player.
"I don't really think about the fact that I'm Canadian and most of the team isn't," he said. "Actually, to be honest with you, I challenge myself and I'd rather be looked at as a football player as opposed to a Canadian that's pretty good. That was one of my goals when I came into this league, and that's definitely something that's been pushing me over the whole year."
On Saturday he'll be able to glance out on to the field and see his future if Emry plays for the Alouettes, who have already clinched first place in the East Division.
"Shea really came on in his second year and had a great year," Burke said. "His first year he was basically just a special teams guy, and he really came along and became a really good player for us his second year.
"I would say Shea's probably a little farther along at this point than what Henoc is, but Henoc's upside and potential is greater."