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This article was published 23/8/2018 (364 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Anthony Coombs, a former high school rival and ex-University of Manitoba teammate, loves what his old buddy Nic Demski is doing for the Blue Bombers and what Winnipeg — and offensive co-ordinator Paul LaPolice in particular — is doing for Demski.
More specifically, Coombs is enamoured with how the 25-year-old slotback's versatile skill set is being exploited.
"We used to run camps with LaPo — me, Nic and LaPo — and he really knows Nic Demski's skill set," said Coombs, a veteran slotback with the Toronto Argonauts. "He's starting to use Nic the way he's supposed to be used, bringing him around with the fly sweep, using him as a receiver. It was good to see him get that opportunity because I feel like when he was in (Saskatchewan), for whatever reason, they just went a different way."
Demski, the Roughriders' sixth-overall pick in the 2015 CFL Draft, is in the midst of a breakout year while playing for his hometown team.
The multi-dimensional Oak Park grad is poised to establish a career high for receiving yards (he has 326 on 33 catches so far) while already putting up a career-best 126 rushing yards in 18 carries. All this in only nine regular-season games heading into Saturday's tilt between the visiting Blue Bombers (5-4, third in West) and the Calgary Stampeders (7-1, first in West).
"He knew exactly how he wanted to use me," said Demski, recalling his off-season meetings with LaPolice. "I didn't have a personalized plan for me (in Saskatchewan) I'll say," said Demski. "They knew what I could do, they knew what I was capable of but they didn't scheme it out that way."
Coombs, meanwhile, has shown flashes of brilliance since the Argos made him the No. 3-overall pick in 2015. But injuries have derailed his career at crucial times. In 2017, the 25-year-old was playing at an all-star level but a broken collarbone limited him to 10 games and 49 catches for 457 yards, which was still a career best.
In 2018, he missed Toronto's first seven games with a wonky ankle before a sneaky good season debut in Week 10, catching the ball three times for 56 yards in a 24-23 win over the B.C. Lions. The Argonauts (3-5, second in East) face the Montreal Alouettes Friday night.
Coombs will be crucial to Toronto's hopes for a resurgence in the back half of 2018.
"The last few years have been up and down," said Coombs, who suited up in Toronto's Grey Cup win last season. "When I've been in, I've been doing really good and when I'm out, I'm out and that's the problem. I've missed two extended periods (with injury). Last year it was six or eight games and this year it's been six or seven. That's kind of the story — I haven't been able to stay on the field."
With their professional success firmly established, it's remarkable to think that Demski, Coombs and Kienan LaFrance, Winnipeg's current backup tailback, started the 2012 Canada West season battling for work in the Bisons backfield.
Coombs, who redshirted in 2010 and was joined by Demski and LaFrance at the U of M a year later, was considered for a move to defensive back as Brian Dobie's coaching staff pondered how they would get all three players on the field.
"We have these discussions all the time," said current Bisons' O-line consultant Vaughan Mitchell, the squad's offensive co-ordinator at the time. "We don't just move a kid and say, 'You're no longer this.'"
"Then during the course of winter practices, (we realized), 'No, this guy is going to be something special.'"
Demski, a rare starter as a 17-year-old true freshmen a year earlier, came up with a helpful suggestion — he had played some receiver in high school and was willing to do the same in college. Coombs and LaFrance would stay in the Manitoba backfield.
"I didn't want to be on the bench, so why not put... all three of us on the field at the same time?" said Demski, who signed a one-year deal with the Bombers and will be an attractive free agent in the coming off-season.
That creative solution is something all three players are benefiting from to this day. Coombs, a Sturgeon Heights grad who stands five-foot-nine, also made the move to slotback as a pro to avoid the pounding running backs endure.
"They still have me at running back on certain packages, but primarily my role in the offence is to catch the ball," said Coombs, whose two-year contract extension with the Argos expires following the 2018 season. "That transition happened pretty much my first year and it's been growing pretty much ever since.
"My skill set is better on the perimeter. I just started focusing more on running routes because the CFL is a passing league and receivers get a lot more attention. I figured if I have an opportunity to be a starter at receiver I'm going to take that."
Mitchell remembers being completely impressed by Demski's unselfish act.
"He said, 'I'll do anything to help the team,'" said Mitchell. "We almost didn't believe it."
"I've never been around a player who's been more happy when a teammates have success. Maybe there are guys who have been a backup or a very junior starter that loved it when their teammates scored, but this guy, he's the top of the food chain. I've never seen anybody like him.
"About Anthony, he's simply the best football player I've ever been around. The things we could do with him, the problems he created for defences, his versatility at the college level was the best I've ever been around. What I'll say about Kienan is, his character is what carried him forward. He played the waiting game, he was patient, he went about his work, he didn't complain.... He had a singular focus and he knew he was going to be great and he was able to fulfil that."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.
Updated on Friday, August 24, 2018 at 1:00 PM CDT: Corrects title of Vaughan Mitchell