TORONTO — It’s been a season to forget for the Toronto Argonauts and James Wilder Jr.
There won’t be a playoff spot to play for Friday night when Toronto (2-14) hosts the Ottawa Redblacks (3-11) at BMO Field. The Argos were eliminated from post-season contention with last weekend’s lopsided 55-8 road loss to the B.C. Lions.
Wilder’s campaign has mirrored Toronto’s as the six-foot-three 221-pound running back has rushed for just 323 yards and one TD this season. The former Florida State star ran for 872 yards — averaging a stellar 7.1 yards per carry — and was named the CFL’s top rookie in ’17 as the Argos went on to win the Grey Cup.
Wilder had 691 yards rushing last season in four fewer games but still registered a career-best 69 receptions for 539 yards as Toronto missed the playoffs with a 4-14 record. However, nothing could have prepared Wilder for a ’19 campaign that’s seen him carry the ball just 67 times over 11 regular-season contests.
"As a competitor it’s definitely difficult … the ultimate goal is to win the Grey Cup and at least give yourself an opportunity to get to the playoffs," said Wilder, whose father is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ career rushing leader. "We’re four weeks out of the playoffs and we obviously can’t get in.
"But I think (the final three games) will show what type of character is on this team moving forward. Are we going to be lackadaisical in practice or are we going to be men and professional athletes and go out there and perform each week as if there were still playoff games."
One reason for Toronto’s lack of rushing success — a league-low 72.1 yards per game — is the club having to play catchup in most of its games. That’s often forced the Argos to abandon the run for the pass in order to remain close.
But Wilder, a member of Florida State’s 2014 BCS Championship squad, was also a healthy scratch for a game in August. That prompted talk the Argos were entertaining offers for him.
The lack of touches on a weekly basis made Wilder’s football life very challenging.
"It’s tough, I’m not going to lie," he said. "You’re running back and you’re getting three, four carries a game or averaging four carries a game.
"You just have to make the best of every carry you get to where you can persuade your team and coaches we can run the ball."
Wilder was a key figure in Toronto’s last victory, a 46-17 road decision against Ottawa on Sept. 7. He ran for 42 yards and a TD on eight carries while adding three catches for 45 yards and two touchdowns.
"It (Ottawa win) was a big confidence booster," he said. "I haven’t been having the season I wanted but that game, I felt like, opened up some eyes that, ‘We can lean on James in the offence if we need to.’
"It worked the last time so I hope we can keep the same gameplan (on Friday). It would definitely (make) me happy for sure."
On Tuesday, the Argos fired GM Jim Popp and replaced him with former player/head coach Mike (Pinball) Clemons. The move hit home for Wilder, 27, as Popp was instrumental in bringing him to Toronto after NFL stints with Cincinnati (2014-16) and Buffalo (2016).
"Popp is a great guy," Wilder said. "He rejuvenated my career … but at the same you know it’s just business.
"We have a new GM here. We have to have his back, we have to keep moving forward and start the new journey."
And starting Friday, the auditions for 2020 have started.
"I think it is for everybody," he said. "You’re putting your best foot forward to see who’s going to be here next year."
That’s especially true for Wilder, who’s in the final year of his CFL contract.
"I wouldn’t say pressure but I know I’ve got to ball," he said. "I’m behind the eight-ball.
"My rushing yards are very sad, my touchdowns are sad. I know every play, every game is an audition, whether it’s for this team or another. Every play you put on film, it’s an audition. The plays you put out there show the player you are."