Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bison running backs in battle

Christie, LaFrance vie for No. 1 following departure of Coombs

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Let's flash back to 2007, the last time the University of Manitoba Bisons won the Vanier Cup.

During a handful of games (including a playoff game) that season, a young Alex Christie was the Bisons ball boy. A few years later Christie found himself in St. Catharines, Ont., having dinner with head coach Brian Dobie.

Dobie didn't remember him at the time, but did everything he could to make sure the former Winnipegger returned to the Herd, this time as a running back.

The 2013 season marked the end of the Anthony Coombs era. Once the most dynamic player in the CIS, Coombs is now a member of the Toronto Argonauts backfield after going third overall in the 2014 CFL draft.

'Both those guys were men on missions, that's what they were'

-- Bisons coach Brian Dobie

Those are certainly tough shoes to fill, but Christie and veteran running back Kienan LaFrance are proving to be up for the challenge as they compete for the No. 1 job during training camp at Investors Group Field.

"Anthony Coombs is a Toronto Argonaut," Dobie said on Day 3 of camp Monday. "Kienan LaFrance and Alex Christie are University of Manitoba Bisons -- we've got two good ones in those guys, for sure. They've proven their value, they don't have to prove it to everybody else... They are not Anthony Coombs replacements."

Fourth-year LaFrance is the more experienced, more proven back and certainly the front-runner for the starting job at this point, Dobie said.

Christie, on the other hand, is a second-year player who has almost come out of nowhere and is proving he can be a starter. Dobie is confident both players will complement all-Canadian quarterback Jordan Yantz.

Both players have had a lot on their plate since Coombs left for Toronto. They have spent countless hours in the gym and on the field, learning their assignments for this season.

"You could see this coming all winter long, all winter, all spring," Dobie said.

"Both those guys were men on missions, that's what they were. They knew Anthony was gone and they were men on missions to make the most of their opportunity... up their reps and up their place in our offence."

For LaFrance, the pressure to go out and perform well comes with every new season. He said if anything, he misses having his old high school buddy (Coombs) in the lineup.

Of course, running backs need to be explosive, and with the addition of a new strength and conditioning coach, LaFrance is confident with how off-season preparations went.

He said the team feels prepared for something big.

"Ideally, you want to do better than the last season," said LaFrance, who is entering his CFL draft year. "I'm just going to go out there and play my game, I'm not too worried about it. I think as team, the pressure is just to go out and play the best we can every game."

If this year is not Christie's year, then it will be very soon. The 21-year-old has made huge strides in getting stronger and faster, with an extra 10 pounds of muscle packed on over the winter.

Christie said knowing the running back spot was not on lockdown anymore, but was open for competition, made everyone push each other even harder to get better.

"I mean, here's hoping, right?" he said. "I'm really hoping I get the opportunity. I mean our coach is kind of leaning towards running back by committee, which I'm completely okay with, but I still want to be that guy that is on the field first and set my own presence... We have to run the ball to keep them honest, so it can't be all the (Jordan) Yantz show."

kyle.edwards@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 26, 2014 D3

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