Around the CFL: Nick Arbuckle making most of long-awaited shot with Redblacks

Ottawa Redblacks quarterback Nick Arbuckle (19) makes the throw against the Edmonton Elks during first half CFL action in Edmonton, Alta., on Saturday August 27, 2022. (Jason Franson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

For anyone who has felt like the world is against them at one point or another, Nick Arbuckle’s story should be inspiring.

After spending the 2019 CFL season as a promising backup to Calgary Stampeders star Bo Levi Mitchell, Arbuckle was on the brink of taking the reins of his own team when he signed with the Ottawa Redblacks.

In March 2020, of course, the world as we know it stopped — and so too did Arbuckle’s ascent up the QB ranks. The pandemic was the start of a bumpy journey.

“I would say challenging would be one word for it,” the personable southern Californian said over the phone this week when asked to describe his career since the start of 2020.

“And, you know, testing. Testing of patience, of belief and just having faith in myself and my abilities and things I can do.

“I think when people trade you or they pass you over or you’re not in someone’s plans the way you want to be, you can have a tendency to maybe start questioning yourself and, you know, (it’s) just (about) fighting through that and kind of believing in who you are and what you bring to the table.

“Through this whole journey, just understanding I just needed the opportunity and to keep working at it. Even if it doesn’t happen in the time I want it to happen, eventually when it does, it will be right and it will go well as long as I keep continuing to take every day as an opportunity to get better and improve myself.”

Now, Arbuckle is looking to go 3-0 as a starter for the Redblacks on Saturday in a huge game against the visiting Toronto Argonauts. Life has come full circle for Arbuckle, who never even suited up for Ottawa after signing with the Redblacks the first time around.

Arbuckle, 28, and his wife, Zakiyyah, had their first child (daughter Aaliyah) in the capital in 2020 before the CFL season was cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

When the league got off the ground the following year, many teams were trying to restructure contracts. The Redblacks and Arbuckle couldn’t come to terms and he was released before taking a snap with Ottawa, eventually signing with the Argos for the 2021 season.

In Toronto, Arbuckle dealt with a lingering hamstring issue and his play wasn’t great. The Argos went with McLeod Bethel-Thompson as their starter for the stretch run and traded Arbuckle to the last-place Edmonton Elks at the trade deadline.

This year, Arbuckle beat out a host of challengers for the Elks’ starting job, but new GM/coach Chris Jones turned to rookie Tre Ford after the team started 0-3. Three days after Redblacks QB Jeremiah Masoli suffered a long-term leg injury in July, new Ottawa GM Shawn Burke traded a fourth-round pick to Edmonton for Arbuckle.

“My daughter is just under 2 ½ now and this is her sixth home in five different cities,” chuckled Arbuckle, who also has spent some time back home in California. “It’s been a little bit of a journey the past two years. This is my fourth different offence in the past 12 months or so. It’s been a wild ride here, recently. But it’s been fun. This is the most fun I’ve had playing football in a while. I’m really happy with everything that’s going on and just being here right now.”

In two games as starter since replacing Caleb Evans, wins in Edmonton and Montreal, Arbuckle has completed 41 of 63 passes (65.1 per cent) for 532 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions.

They are not spectacular stats, but they are winning numbers — and suddenly the Redblacks (3-8) are in the mix for a playoff spot in the weak East heading into two home games in a row against Bethel-Thompson and the division-leading Argos (6-5).

The Georgia State and Los Angeles Pierce College product has provided some hope for a franchise that has lost 19 of its past 20 home games — “Our fanbase is incredible. This is a great place to play and they deserve a win,” Arbuckle said.

On Saturday, Arbuckle has a chance to send a message to one of his old employers — just like he did by beating Edmonton in his first start for Ottawa last month.

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“I think it always means a little more when I get a chance to play (against) a team that traded me or moved on from me,” Arbuckle said. “My very first real opportunity in this league came when Bo got hurt in 2019 and I came in and led a couple drives for touchdowns and we overcame an 11-point deficit in about two minutes to beat the B.C. Lions (he completed all nine passes for 93 yards and a touchdown in a 36-32 win).

“That was kind of a special moment for me too because in 2018 I thought my last opportunity to play football was in B.C. mini-camp. They decided to pass over me and not invite me to (the main) training camp. From there, I kind of retired from football for a week and thought I wasn’t going to get another chance before Calgary called me right before training camp.

“To get an opportunity to be on a field against a team that overlooked you or passed you over, it’s always kind of been a part of my career. It’s something that I do cherish when I’m on the field — to be able to play with that chip on my shoulder.”

That chip probably has been there in some form since high school. Arbuckle was only the backup quarterback in his senior year — so he started at tight end before beginning to thrive as a QB the following season at junior college.

But junior college and university success doesn’t guarantee anything in the pro ranks — for proof, look up how Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks Johnny Manziel, Eric Crouch and Troy Smith did in the CFL. Tim Baines of Ottawa Postmedia reported Arbuckle sent in an application to be an Uber driver after his failed mini-camp shot with the Lions in 2018.

Four years and many twists and turns later, Arbuckle’s career seems to be back on track. Living in the moment has paid off. His mindset, perhaps, can be best summed up in his pinned tweet, below.

“Everything has been very positive in a great place,” Arbuckle said. “It worked out in the timing it was supposed to and I’m just happy I’m here now.”

What we liked in (and after) Week 13

• The Saskatchewan Roughriders cutting Garrett Marino. His late hit on Winnipeg Blue Bombers star quarterback Zach Collaros was the latest in a long line of bad moves by the defensive lineman.

• Argos receiver Brandon Banks rushing for one touchdown and catching another against his old team in the annual Labour Day game in Hamilton. The 2019 CFL most outstanding player may not be the threat he once was, but he showed he’s still got something left in the tank with his young son, Brandon Jr., on the sideline to enjoy the moment in a marquee game on the schedule.

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• Blue Bombers kicker Marc Liegghio nailing a 55-yard field goal for the winning points in a 20-18 victory on Labour Day eve in Saskatchewan. A few weeks earlier, he missed a short field goal to win on the final play of regulation and then missed again in overtime against the Montreal Alouettes, handing Winnipeg its first and only loss.

What we didn’t like in Week 13

• Roughriders receiver Duke Williams, who was not dressed, taking an objectionable conduct penalty for his actions on the sideline. Bad look by the former Buffalo Bill. The Roughriders have discipline issues.

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• The Tiger-Cats’ quarterback play. With their top two pivots hurt (Dane Evans and Matthew Shiltz), Jamie Newman started on Labour Day. The rookie was in over his head and the result — a 28-8 loss with Hamilton’s lone touchdown on a pick-six — was the low point of a very disappointing season for the two-time reigning East champs.

Week 14 picks

B.C. Lions (-3) at Montreal Alouettes, Friday, 7:30 p.m. ET / 4:30 p.m. PT

Former Alouette Antonio Pipkin is listed as the Lions’ starter at quarterback, though Vernon Adams Jr. should get some time in his debut with his new team after getting traded to B.C. by Montreal on Aug. 31. PICK: Montreal

Toronto Argonauts (-1) at Ottawa Redblacks, Saturday, 2 p.m. ET / 11 a.m. PT

Another game where a quarterback will play his old team with Arbuckle going against the Argos. Both teams have won two in a row. PICK: Toronto

Saskatchewan Roughriders at Winnipeg Blue Bombers (-7.5), Saturday, 5 p.m. ET / 2 p.m. PT

Roughriders quarterback Cody Fajardo has started and lost badly (combined score of 68-19) in the previous two Banjo Bowls against the Blue Bombers, who will be backed by a sellout crowd here. PICK: Saskatchewan

Calgary Stampeders (-9.5) at Edmonton Elks, Saturday, 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT

Another Labour Day weekend rematch in the West after the Stamps won 26-18 at home last week. The Elks haven’t won a game in Edmonton since, gasp, 2019. PICK: Calgary

2022 record: 27-24

(Odds from FanDuel as of Thursday afternoon)

Power rankings

1. Winnipeg Blue Bombers (11-1, Last week: 1): Fought back from a 14-0 deficit in a hostile environment to clinch a playoff spot last week in Saskatchewan

2. Calgary Stampeders (7-4, Last week: 2): QB Jake Maier makes his third start in a row ahead of Mitchell this week.

3. B.C. Lions (8-2, Last week: 3): Going with third starting quarterback (and first American) in as many games after injuries to star Nathan Rourke and Michael O’Connor.

4. Toronto Argonauts (6-5, Last week: 4): Bethel-Thompson is one of only two quarterbacks (Collaros is the other) to start every game for his team this year.

5. Saskatchewan Roughriders (6-6, Last week: 5): Pressure will ratchet up in Regina if the Grey Cup hosts get swept in home-and-home against the rival Blue Bombers.

6. Ottawa Redblacks (3-8, Last week: 9): Made the East playoff race very interesting with a win in Montreal last week.

7. Montreal Alouettes (4-7, Last week: 6): Will be interesting if Adams Jr. gets a chance to play against Alouettes GM/coach Danny Maciocia, who has opted for Trevor Harris as his starter.

8. Hamilton Tiger-Cats (3-9, Last week: 7): You can argue they should be last after a putrid performance on Labour Day, but their playoff hopes are far better than Edmonton’s.

9. Edmonton Elks (3-9, Last week: 8): Sit three games out of a playoff spot with six to go. Season on the line this week against Calgary and week versus Saskatchewan.

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