Changing of the Guard: Kickers and punters fight for survival in CFL
VANCOUVER - Paul McCallum is wondering where the years went.
"I never thought that I'd be standing here going into my 20th season," the 40-year-old B.C. Lions kicker said recently. "But it comes quick."
Long-serving kickers like McCallum, the CFL's oldest player, are becoming increasingly difficult to find in the CFL. As the 2012 season gets underway, four of the league's eight clubs have new punters or placekickers.
And in many cases, incumbents had to win training camp battles to stay.
"Now, the leash is a little bit shorter, because the expectation to kick at a high level is so much higher now," said McCallum, who connected on 50-of-53 field-goal attempts, including a record 30 in a row, last season.
He chalks up the competition to increased parity. Last season, there was a three-way tie for first place in the CFL's West Division and a two-way tie in the East.
"When I first came in, it was really hard," said McCallum, who launched his career with the Lions in 1993, moved on to Ottawa and Saskatchewan and returned to B.C. in 2006.
"Everybody was set and had been there for a while. But now, there seems to be a changing of the guard, I guess, when all the younger guys are coming in and the older guys are going out. I guess they're just trying to figure out where all the kickers are going to be situated."
The Surrey, B.C., native figures everything will get sorted out in a year or so as new arrivals secure their positions. Until then, it seems all bets are off as Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatchewan and Hamilton have all made changes to their kicking corps.
"I remember when I came in," said McCallum. "There was Mark McLoughlin (in Calgary), Paul Osbaldiston (in Hamilton), Lui (Passaglia in B.C.), (Saskatchewan's Dave) Ridgway. They had all been playing for six, seven years and then there was another flow that came in. Sean Fleming was in for a while. (Toronto's Noel) Prefontaine's still around. Now, maybe it's another group.
"In football, there's turnover in every group. Just the kicker position, it takes a little while longer."
However, Toronto general manager Jim Barker offers a slightly different view.
"Kickers are like coaches," he said. "You can just get rid of them."
With the CFL a gate-driven league, teams are responding to pressure to show their fans they are doing something to improve their fortunes on the field.
"It's a matter of what have you done for us lately — or in the last two hours," said Barker.
Like the Lions, the Argos are an exception in that they have one kicker — Prefontaine — who handles punting, field goals and kick-offs.
"I wouldn't trade our kicking situation for anybody," said Barker.
Montreal's Sean Whyte, a former McCallum understudy with B.C., also boots alone with the Alouettes. But specialists are the rule rather the exception elsewhere.
In Calgary, Rob Maver takes over the punting duties after Burke Dales signed as a free agent with the Edmonton Eskimos. Rene Paredes returns as placekicker after filling in for Maver while he was injured and then becoming his permanent replacement.
In Edmonton, Dales takes over punting duties, while Rob Schiavone resumes field goal chores after winning a fight for his job in the pre-season from Grant Shaw, who was part of the trade that sent quarterback Ricky Ray to Toronto.
In Saskatchewan, Chris Milo takes over the placekicking duties after Eddie Johnson was released in the off-season. Chris Bodnar drew the punting assignment.
The Hamilton Tiger-Cats will have both a new placekicker and a new punter following Justin Medlock's departure to Carolina of the NFL. New Ticats coach George Cortez is handing placekicking duties to former Saskatchewan kicker Luca Congi, who has not kicked for almost two years following a leg injury suffered.
"Luca has proven that he knows what it takes to be a very consistent kicker in this league," said Cortez.
The new Hamilton field boss gambled by giving the punting job to Josh Bartel, a 27-year-old Australian rookie, who learned to punt while playing Aussie Rules Football with an oblong ball. Bartel prevailed over fellow rookie Josh Maveety, who was hoping to boot field goals as well as punts.
Ideally, said Cortez, clubs would like to have "tri-purpose" kickers that can handle kick-offs as well. But such opportunities are rare.
In Winnipeg, the Bombers will again have a placekicker and punter. Justin Palardy returns to attempt three-pointers while Mike Renaud resumes punting responsibilities. Both preserved their jobs after Eric Wilbur was cut in the pre-season while attempting to convince Bombers brass that he could handle both duties.
"It's over," said Palardy about the battle. "I feel good, I guess, and I'm ready to get this ball going."
"Competition brings out the best in you," said Renaud. "That's how I approached it."
Which is a good strategy — because there is no shortage of it in the CFL these days.