Even in ideal circumstances, a steep learning curve is required to play football at a high level.
It's a complex game requiring military precision and an affinity for physical contact.
Studying to become a quarterback, the most important position on the field, stretches players to their limits. Aside from athletic talent, the job requires an ability to grasp an intricate playbook while also absorbing the nuances of different defensive systems.
This was the task Jackson Tachinski accepted in 2019 when he agreed to attend the University of Manitoba and play for head coach Brian Dobie. Oh, and by the way, he was also planning to play point guard for the Bisons men's basketball team while going to school full time.
Two-and-a-half years later, the 6-4, 215-pounder's workload is bigger than ever.
Elevated to No. 1 quarterback when fifth-year senior Des Catellier's season ended with a devastating knee injury in the season opener against the Regina Rams, Tachinski will make his second career start Saturday against the defending Vanier Cup champion Calgary Dinos.
His coaches and teammates call him poised and ready.
"Throughout this whole quarantine, me and the receivers and Des, we've really been working together and we've been going through our plays and our concepts and I think that really prepared me for the season," said Tachinski earlier this week. "Des did a really good job coaching me and getting me ready. He was using all his experience and I was really soaking it all in. He was a great mentor for me… It's not often you see a guy that's willing to help like that. But, you know, he's a special guy."
Catellier, who is awaiting surgery to repair a torn ACL, MCL and meniscus in his right knee, never doubted Tachinski's ability to run the offence. The 19-year-old Vincent Massey grad helped the Bisons rally past the Rams, 21-17, in the home opener Sept. 25 and then looked sharp in a 31-17 road win Oct. 1 over the Alberta Golden Bears.
"That's something I've always been able to do is kind of pass along knowledge and experience that I've had," said Catellier. "It wasn't necessarily the easiest thing to do after the injury but I knew it was something I had to do. Me and Jackson are really close and I want success for him as much as anything, so I wanted to be there throughout the preparation process and kind of show him the ropes a little bit."
Tachinski wasn't content to bide his time during the pandemic shutdown.
When the Bisons took a month-long break from workouts in July, he decided to enroll in a series of off-season quarterback camps at NCAA Division 1 schools. He travelled south and in a span of three weeks, tested himself against four- and five-star recruits at events staged by Florida State, Alabama, LSU, Penn State, Marshall and Temple.
"I just signed up and I wanted to compete," explained Tachinski. "It's been two years since I actually played real football so I just wanted to get better. I wanted to kind of push myself. I want to like grow in a new environment because this whole time I was training during COVID doing field sessions with my receivers, it was very good, but I just wanted to push myself. So I went down south where I thought the best competition was."
Was he intimidated? Hardly.
"Honestly I felt pretty comfortable," said Tachinski, adding he was able to learn directly from the likes of Alabama offensive co-ordinator Bill O'Brien and LSU head coach Ed Orgeron. "I'm always like a poised confident guy, so I walked into those camps thinking I was the best player. I went in with that mindset. And I just had a really good time and I got to play with a lot of good players and they pushed me."
Although Dobie had a nagging fear Tachinski might generate Division 1 interest and leave the U of M, no solid offers were immediately forthcoming. Tachinski, whose sister Victoria is a standout 800-metre runner at Penn State, believes he is capable of playing at that level.
The upgrades in Tachinski's game are rooted in the details. His footwork has improved ever so slightly and he may have a little more zip on his throws but the biggest improvement is his level of confidence.
"We encourage our guys to go and get as much experience and coaching from other places as you can, in addition to what we're doing because I think that only helps you as an athlete and as a learner to expand your repertoire," said Bisons quarterbacks coach Cory Waldbauer. "When I heard Jackson was going down there my first thought was, 'That's fantastic. That's going to be great experience for him. He's going to be so much better when he gets back.' "
Adds Catellier: "You can see the progression. He's a grinder and he's working hard and getting a lot better. You can definitely see it now in his confidence level — throughout camp it was really high."
Curiously, the trip south made the multi-tasker hungry for more.
"I just saw the commitment that it takes to be the best," said Tachinski. "The eight-hour camps — they're going three hours on, an hour off, three hours back on me all and then an hour in the weight room. They're crazy-committed down there and you can see that's why they were the best players and it kind of just taught me the commitment it takes to be a be a full, elite football player."
Waldbauer said dedication is one of Tachinski's hallmarks.
"The growth we've seen in Jackson over the last three years has been exceptional," said Waldbauer. "He came in as kind of a really big, athletic smart kid… It sounds counterintuitive, but it was really nice to have a year last year where we didn't have any competition, right?
"As strange as that might be, it was really great for the growth of guys like Jackson, where he was able to take a lot more reps in low-pressure situations and just learn and make mistakes. He was really ready to go. As heartbreaking as it was when Des went down, we were confident."
For now, basketball will take a back seat. U of M men's basketball coach Kirby Schepp called Dobie immediately after the Catellier injury, anticipating an adjustment to Tachinski's workload.
"It's really challenging," said Schepp. "He's the first quarterback I know that's ever done it. I've seen (two-sport athletes) occasionally at other schools. We had a guy, Braedon Speer, a number of years ago who played both. He was defensive end on the football team. The reason why (the quarterback position) is so difficult is there's so much more film work and study and preparation involved. So that's sort of the other piece that's been tougher.
CANADA WEST SHOWDOWN
THE MATCHUP: No. 4-ranked Calgary Dinos (1-1) vs. No. 6-ranked Manitoba Bisons (2-0), at IG Field, Saturday, 1 p.m.
THE HISTORY: In their last meeting on Nov. 2, 2019, the visiting Bisons lost a 47-46 decision in the Hardy Cup semifinals. The Dinos went on to win the national championship. Calgary has a lifetime 25-15 head-to-head record with Manitoba.
STAR PERFORMER: Receiver Gavin Cobb sparked the Herd with three TDs against the Alberta Golden Bears Oct. 1, including a 91-yard punt return major.
PAYING TRIBUTE: Prior to the game the Bisons will honour assistant coach Scott Naujoks, who died last month after a lengthy battle with cancer. Naujok, 29, coached the team's receiving corps.
"Since he's been thrust into the starting quarterback role — Jackson and myself — we have sort of re-evaluated his position. He's still with us but we're not gonna play him just because of an injury there would be pretty catastrophic to the football team."
And so, Tachinski won't play for the basketball team until after the football season. He estimated he was spending 25 hours per week with football-related activities and eight hours with the basketball team, practising only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays when it didn't conflict with football practice.
"I think for any student athlete, the level of time management is really what separates success and failure," said Schepp. "The kids that do two sports, they're freaks of nature to be able to go to everything possible and bounce from one practice to another, managing your body and your training and preparations for competition as well as do school. And he's no slouch in the classroom either."
Tachinski, who's enrolled in the first year of a BSc. program in agribusiness, was an academic all-Canadian last year. A 3.5 GPA is required to qualify for the honour.
"My schedule has been pretty full but you've just got to manage your time well and you can get it done," said Tachinski. "That's what I realized — if you try hard enough and you work hard for it, you can you can get anything done."
Tachinski plans to build on his starting debut against Alberta in which he went 16-for-24 and 180 yards passing with three touchdowns and one interception. He also led the squad with 75 yards rushing on 10 carries.
"The problem for defences is that you're not going to be able to defend both," said Waldbauer. "You can't put a pile of guys back in coverage and wait for him to throw bad balls — because he won't. He's smart, he takes care of the ball and he uses his legs and that's one of his best weapons."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.