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This article was published 3/6/2013 (1392 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Football coaches are loathe to heap praise on a player, mostly for fear his ego might become so swollen he will instantly begin designing his own wing at the Hall of Fame.
Funny, then, to hear both Winnipeg Blue Bombers head coach Tim Burke and defensive co-ordinator Casey Creehan -- with just a teeny-tiny bit of prodding -- rave about middle linebacker Henoc Muamba...
"He has a lot of athleticism, he's a tough kid, he's coachable and he's getting better every day. He'll keep getting better every day. The sky's the limit." -- Creehan.
"Henoc has just barely has scratched the surface of what he can be. He started off like a rookie last year, but as the year went on he turned into a solid football player. Now I want that solid football player to start making plays outside of his responsibility. That's what a great linebacker does." -- Burke.
So we toss out this question for discussion today: On a squad desperately needing defensive heroes to emerge and with some starters under the microscope already -- hello, Bomber secondary -- is Henoc Muamba this team's next big thing?
And, Part II: Can he become dominant enough to earn a spot among the pantheon of Bombers linebacking legends?
Here's the rub: Drawing Muamba into this sort of discussion will make the man squirm. There is a maturity and quiet confidence to the fluently bilingual, deeply religious St. Francis-Xavier product who was born in the Congo, moved to Montreal then Toronto as a kid and arrived in Winnipeg as the first overall pick in the 2011 CFL draft with the nickname 'A-O' -- as in 'All-Over' the field.
"My parents raised me to stay humble in what I do," said Muamba. "One of my beliefs is if you stay humble you will be rewarded for it later on. That's how I am on the field and in life.
"I've learned a lot, but there's a lot I can still do. My hunger for this game is so high right now... it's so deep. I'm going to continue to treat every game, every year, like it's my first. That's the key for me to continue to grow as a football player and as a man."
And so it went during a brief chat on Monday after Day 2 of Bomber training camp. Ask Muamba about how his game has progressed -- he went from a fresh-faced rookie in 2011 to starter last year while doing his A-O thing -- and the first word out of his mouth is "growth."
There is statistical evidence that speaks to that: After grabbing the starting job in mid-August last year, all Muamba did in 13 starts was finish second on the team in tackles, lead the squad in special-teams tackles, register three sacks and finish first in the CFL with five forced fumbles. All that earned him Canadian Player of the Week honours and the nod as the club's top Canuck.
So much for the sophomore jinx.
"I've learned so much over the last two years and have gotten so much more comfortable," said Muamba. "Now it's about playing at a sustained level and being consistent. My goal is to get better week in, week out.
"You know, one of my first coaches in football and my coach in university, coach (Gary) Waterman, always said, 'If you think, you stink.' Now I find I'm thinking less and less on the field. It started last year, where I started thinking less and was reacting more. That's exactly what you want, especially at the linebacker position where you need to be instinctive.
"I know my own assignment now and I've studied enough with coach Creehan and coach Burke that I know the whole defence," added Muamba. "When you do that, you're able to react on your own but to also be able to tell someone if they are misaligned and help somebody else. I feel like I'm at that level right now. When you're that comfortable, then you can step up more as a leader on defence and with the team.
"That's what is next for me."
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