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Inside the CFL: Learning from the best

By Ted Michaels, CFL Columnist

Hamilton, ON (Sports Network) - It's a question that's always been asked in this country.

Why don't CFL teams employ more Canadian-born quarterbacks?

When you talk to many CFL personnel, the main reason appears to be that, unlike in Canada, players in the U.S. start to get trained at a much earlier age, and their skill-set as a quarterback makes them more advanced when they start high school.

However, a new initiative is trying to make the playing field more level.

This season, all eight CFL teams had a CIS (Canadian University) quarterback, all undergrads, at their training camps to observe and be monitored in a professional environment.

One of those players was from Hamilton's McMaster University, Marshall Ferguson, who spent time in early June at the Calgary Stampeders training camp.

Heading into his fourth season, Ferguson will be the starting pivot for the Marauders in 2013, and to say he soaked up the information he received while at Stampeders camp would be an understatement.

"There were some unique playbook ideas in terms of plays and formations that I talked to coach Behie (McMaster offensive coordinator Jon Behie) about, because coach Dickenson (Calgary offensive coordinator Dave Dickenson) is an innovator. I enjoyed learning from him because his teaching style and the way he coaches I was very receptive to. And I learned a lot about being a pro. The first three of four days of training camp, when you're there 16-18 hours a day, at first you say this is a lot of work and you're tired every day. But by day five, you get in the habit and you're addicted to it. When I came back home, I started looking for meetings to jump into because I knew I wanted to be as prepared as I possibly could because there's no need to be nervous when you're prepared."

Being prepared doesn't come easy at a pro camp, especially when the Stampeder playbook takes up about 350 pages -- much more than the average CIS playbook. At first blush that would seem to be intimidating, but not for the affable native of Kingston, Ontario.

"To be honest, it was fun to pick up," he said. "The way they tag their routes, and some of the different concepts are different. At Mac, we have a lot of different variety in our offense, and we're very multiple in what we do. We've refined our offense so everything makes sense. We don't tag individual routes."

A good example of what Ferguson is referring to is one particular pass play.

"Our play call is Gun Ace Right 91 Big Cut and Calgary's verbiage for the exact same thing is Warrior Right Bumper 64 chip Ottawa Backside cheetah cross sale."

Almost three months later, Ferguson can still recount the assignments as if he learned them yesterday.

"Both plays involve three receivers to the field and two to the boundary if we are on a hash marker. The wide receiver to the weak side or boundary has a mandatory outside release fly while the slot has a 10-yard out. Bumper 64 chip is the protection call. Even number on the end of sixty means were looking right to start. The bumper means the boundary slot needs to help protection and forget his route if he senses pressure. The field receivers are all running crossers. Wide is a post, outside slot is a drag under the numbers and inside slot is a 10-yard in."

Learning a CFL playbook is one thing, but dealing with professional players from different parts of the U.S. is another. In Calgary's case, all three quarterbacks: Kevin Glenn from Illinois State, Drew Tate, an Iowa grad and Bo Levi Mitchell from Eastern Washington would appear to be unapproachable, but Ferguson noted that was the furthest thing from the truth.

"Drew was incredible," Ferguson remarked. "He accepted me right away. Coach Dickenson has an open communication quarterback room and right away, from day one at rookie camp, when the quarterbacks were all there, I got a lot of opportunity and they really accepted me."

And even though the veterans were getting their reps, they were teaching Ferguson a lot by not saying anything at all.

"I learned a lot from the guys there in terms of throwing," explained Ferguson. "For instance, I watched Bo Levi throw, and he has that Texas release we called it. The big wind-up and the ball still comes out powerful, with the way he uses his hips. I didn't pick their mind on throwing mechanics, but I watched and learned and soaked up as much as I could."

Despite the fact Ferguson wasn't going to be at the full training camp, he still was treated as a teammate. And that included what all rookies must endure... singing for their supper, or entertaining the veterans.

"After rookie camp, we had our first team training camp meeting when all the vets showed up," he added. "They had all the positional groups nominate a rookie, and you weren't allowed to go and get your meal until someone sang a song. Thankfully, a lot of groups had gone and the quarterbacks were one of the last groups left. As soon as they said 'quarterbacks/running backs,' Drew Tate said 'Marshall you're up, and you don't have a choice, get up there.' I hopped up and I kind of had it planned out in advance, so I sang 'Let Me Love You,' by Mario. I sang it in a nice high voice for the guys and got about 10 lines in then it got real quiet. John Hufnagel (head coach and GM) was sitting in a corner chuckling to himself and the DB coach said 'alright, go get your food.'"

And what about the reaction of the team?

"I was very happy with the response. I didn't get the applause, I didn't get the booing. I got the finger snaps because I was so soulful with my song."

The Marauders start their training camp August 15, and Ferguson can't wait to put into practice what he learned with the Stampeders.

"Things just make more sense as far as the mental side of the game. When you get a lot thrown at you, it's kind of the same principals as when you're training in the offseason. You overload your body, then you taper off as you get to the end of the program. When I was in Calgary, I was getting more thrown at me than I ever had before. I kind of overloaded my mind and forced myself to learn the playbook as if I was trying to make the team. Now that we're just about to start training camp, I feel so comfortable in this offense and with this team."

Ted Michaels is the host of the Fifth Quarter on AM900 CHML.

Comments? Criticism? Applause?

08/12 12:24:56 ET

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