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Repetition, protection key to QB's improvement

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You don't have to know very much about football to realize protection and experience are two things that go a long way in showcasing the measure of a young quarterback.

In one week, Alex Brink went from a 26 per cent completion percentage to 70 per cent against an arguably better defence. Eight days after throwing for only 185 yards in Toronto, he threw for almost 300 against the evil empire of Edmonton. Even his rushing yardage, something he will never be known for in the CFL, improved from just over four yards a scramble to more than nine yards a rush, resulting in a number of first downs.

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It's fair to say from start one to start two this season, the only thing Brink had in common with himself were the two interceptions he tossed in successive weeks and the unflappable poise and confidence he showed in the pocket.

Can mere days of additional experience and time spent on game plans, along with more time and protection in the pocket, be responsible for all of these improvements against the self-proclaimed "best defence in the CFL?"

You better believe it can.

In the Edmonton game, Brink had a full week of practice to prepare and took all the starter reps. When travelling to Toronto last week, he had about 1.25 days as the first-string pivot.

"The biggest thing was it allowed me to work with the coaches on the game plan and bounce things off of them that I would be comfortable with," he said. "The second thing is a full week of practice allowed me to work on timing with the starting receivers. As a second-string QB, you get very few reps with the starting group."

Of course, the other factor we can't ignore when comparing Brink's last two starts is how much more time he had in the pocket in the second one, and how much better of a pivot he is when he isn't constantly pressed with saving his own skin, a point that didn't go unnoticed with him either. "I think the offensive line play improved a lot against Edmonton. In the second half, I had all the time in the world that I needed to throw."

When speaking with the veteran leader of the five-man O-line gang, Glenn January, a man who at all times is protective and defensive of his linemates and their performances, admitted that "as a whole, the blockers and blocking skilled players did a better job of protecting Alex. His jersey was definitely cleaner after playing the Eskimos than against Toronto."

Good thing, too. For if there is one hindrance that shows up with a quarterback making his fifth start in the pros, it is situational awareness and experience while under heavy fire.

Both of Brink's interceptions last week came as he tried to throw the ball while being hit, and when I asked him about decision-making while under duress, he didn't hesitate to identify a mistake that cost his team.

"The biggest thing is I took a sack in the red zone, which took us out of field-goal position. Every day is a learning process, and every day I'm picking up things that will help my pocket awareness along."

The first step to being proficient at what you do is the capacity for reflection and ability to honestly identify your own weaknesses, something Brink is already comfortable with and therefore ahead of the curve.

Starting repetitions and solid protection are two factors that will obviously help out any quarterback. But when it's a pivot starting his fifth game in a young career and he's not a natural scrambler, these components become essential.

Whereas a Henry Burris is sometimes most dangerous when pressured and flushed from the pocket and in improvisational mode, and an Anthony Calvillo could miss a week of first-string repetitions with his offence because he knows his arsenal so well, these are required necessities for a newbie QB to have a proper chance to compete and succeed.

The critics will tell you Winnipeg was lucky to beat Edmonton last Friday night, regardless of the gradient of improvement from Brink. They have a point; Winnipeg played well enough to win against Edmonton, but in the final analysis, they were lucky to do so.

Yet it says here the more time Brink gets under centre surrounded by all the players he will actually be playing with, and the more comfortable the offensive line makes him feel in the pocket in his early goings -- so he can focus on running an offence and not running for the hills -- we may not end up recognizing anything about him at all in the weeks to come.

Doug Brown, once a hard-hitting defensive lineman and frequently a hard-hitting columnist, appears Tuesdays and game days in the Free Press.

Twitter: @DougBrown97

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 31, 2012 D2

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