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Rookie embraces dual role

McCrae steps up in air, ground attack with Demski injured

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The Winnipeg Blue Bombers have had their eye on running back Greg McCrae ever since he arrived for training camp in May.

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The Winnipeg Blue Bombers have had their eye on running back Greg McCrae ever since he arrived for training camp in May.

Considered to be among the most promising newcomers, it wasn’t until an injury to receiver Nic Demski in Week 3 that the 24-year-old Miami native would get his opportunity to crack the lineup.

“When the guys identified him and brought him in, they do a great job of letting us know as coaches. So, (assistant GMs) Ted (Goveia) and Danny (McManus) will let us know where they think he fits, positionally, and then the coaches take that and they move pieces around and they validate what they see and what they believe,” Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea said after a workout Tuesday. “When he came in, they saw him as a guy that could play a dual role, running from the slot and also, possibly, from the backfield and returning. All sorts of things. He is very versatile and that’s proved out, for sure.”

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Winnipeg Blue Bombers’ Greg McCrae hangs onto a pass as Demerio Houston defends during practice. McCrae cracked the Bombers starting lineup after an injury to receiver Nic Demski.

When Demski suffered an injured ankle and was assigned to the six-game injured list, it seemed a difficult task trying to replace arguably the most versatile piece of the Bombers offence. Demski, a Canadian, is predominantly a receiver but is often utilized as a running back on designed plays.

Meanwhile, McCrae is a natural running back. He played four seasons at the University of Central Florida, where his 2,620 rushing yards ranks fourth-most in program history and his 6.45 yards-per-carry average is first.

The Bombers, however, have used him in a dual role, contributing to the air and ground attack. He’s lined up in the backfield and, on other plays, has been a slotback receiver.

Through two games, McCrae has run the ball six times for 45 yards — an average of 7.5 yards per run — and has reeled in six of seven targets for an additional 27 receiving yards.

“I just embraced my role, for whatever they needed me to be, whether it was practice roster or coming in the game during the week or scout team — it didn’t really matter,” McCrae said. “I just want to embrace my role and continue to grow and learn from the players in there. And just try to take those lessons and be the best player I can be. And when the opportunity comes, just be ready for it.”

Asked what he preferred to play, running back or receiver, McCrae remained humble, grateful for whatever opportunity the Bombers would give him. He’s not completely foreign to catching balls; at UCF, he had 33 receptions for 291 yards and a touchdown.

Like every U.S.-born player that comes to Canada, McCrae has had to adjust to the three-down game, though he feels it has been mostly seamless. The last two games are his first in the CFL, though he spent some time with the Toronto Argonauts last season before getting released in training camp.

Knowing Winnipeg has a busy backfield, made even harder to crack since the Bombers employ a Canadian at the position, he’s done whatever he can to stick out and be seen as a reliable option. Wherever that may be on the offence, he said he’s up for the challenge.

“I’m studying all the plays, every position every week, just making sure I’m ready for whenever my number’s called,” he said. “Whatever happens, I just want to be able to have the trust of the coaches and the players, that I’m going to be ready.”

While new to the CFL, McCrae said he used to watch it when he was younger.

Being from Miami, he was a big fan of Ricky Williams, a star NFL running back for the Miami Dolphins who played a season with the Toronto Argonauts, in 2006, after he was suspended from the NFL for one year after failing the league’s drug policy a fourth time, all for marijuana. A former coach from college, Marcellus Bowman, also played five seasons in the CFL, split between Winnipeg and Hamilton.

As for Winnipeg, with all the support he’s received from the entire Bombers organization, McCrae has settled in nicely. He’ll have another chance to prove his worth this week as the Bombers (5-0) get ready to battle for top spot in the West Division against the Calgary Stampeders (4-0) at IG Field Friday night.

“Oh man, I love it here. Just from the coaching staff to the players, it’s a real love, family environment here,” McCrae said. “They really care about you. They really want to see you do well. They really speak words of wisdom and empowerment into you. And that’s really rare. And it’s good to have that. Especially coming, it goes from the head man, down. When you surround younger players like me and the whole team with love and a family environment like that, it helps you play for the guy that’s next to you.”

Jeff.Hamilton@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Hamilton
Multimedia producer

After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.

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