Alouettes’ Jeshrun Antwi trying to prove there’s a place in the CFL for Canadian tailbacks

Antwi was Montreal’s leading rusher in 2022, but scored his first professional touchdown only last week.

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The role of a non-import tailback in the CFL isn’t always easy. Too many coaches look at passports and believe the player can’t possibly be as talented, dynamic or fast as his American colleague.

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Jeshrun Antwi is in his third season with the Alouettes and, while he’s normally dressed for games, his contributions have occasionally been limited. It took him until last Friday to score his first professional touchdown, against Saskatchewan.

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Antwi’s brilliant 19-yard, off-tackle run late in the third quarter might have seemed superfluous in the grand scheme, providing Montreal with a 31-3 advantage in a game they won 41-12, but it meant everything to the 6-foot, 220 pounder, who had a productive university career at Calgary before being selected in the sixth round (48th overall) by Montreal in 2019.

Antwi, 25, kept the ball as a souvenir.

“Over time, it’s going to mean a lot more to me,” Antwi said following Thursday’s rain-soaked practice at Olympic Park. “Being here three years, having some opportunities, but was never able to get into the end zone. It meant a lot.

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“It was a great job by (head coach Jason) Maas calling that play. It was blocked perfectly. Once I broke through, all I had to do was run to the end zone.”

The Als were finally committed to the run against the Roughriders, mostly because the team was playing without starting quarterback Cody Fajardo and tailback William Stanback. Montreal ran the ball a combined 33 times, gaining 186 yards. Walter Fletcher, replacing Stanback, led the way, gaining 73 yards on 15 carries, while Caleb Evans, replacing Fajardo, added 66 yards on 11 carries, scoring two short-yardage touchdowns.

Antwi had his most productive game this season, with 47 yards off seven carries.

Jeshrun Antwi and William Stanback
Jeshrun Antwi, left, was used extensively last season after William Stanback, right, fractured his ankle. Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal Gazette files

Antwi hasn’t been used this extensively since last season, after Stanback fractured his ankle in the opening game. Antwi started six of the next seven games, gaining 255 yards on 48 carries before relinquishing the position to Americans Tavien Feaster and Fletcher. Nonetheless, Antwi was Montreal’s leading rusher in 2022, with 600 yards off 106 carries. He also caught 30 passes for 200 yards, while being the ultimate team player and never complaining.

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“Every year I come here and do what’s asked of me,” Antwi said. “I always aim to be a better teammate than the year before. Touchdowns and individual accolades, I don’t worry about that. Once you start worrying about that, you’re worrying about the wrong things. If I do what I’m supposed to do, team-wise, things will fall into place.

“This is a very tough environment, being a pro football player,” he added. “And being a pro football player in the CFL. We have the ratio. Everybody here thinks they’re good enough to play. Sometimes the week comes, guys are up, guys are down, not because they didn’t do anything right. It’s because of how the ratio fell, or injuries. Things out of their control.”

There are Canadian tailbacks spread throughout the league who have displayed talent when provided with an opportunity. Winnipeg’s Brady Oliveira — the lone non-import starting at the position — is the CFL rushing leader, with 703 yards on 126 carries. And before Oliveira burst onto the scene, Canadian tailback Andrew Harris, now in Toronto backing up import A.J. Ouellette, was the Blue Bombers’ featured tailback.

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“Not to look in the past, but last year I showed I could be a guy that could play in this league, regardless of my passport,” said the Israeli-born Antwi, who was raised in Calgary. “I’m trying to dispel those myths. Eventually the aim is to get rid of the passport and to say, yes, Jeshrun Antwi, he’s a Canadian running-back (but) he can play.

“Nothing easy is worth having.”

The Als conducted their final practice Thursday before Saturday’s game at Ottawa and, while Maas maintains Fajardo will be another game-time decision this week, Evans is expected to get his second consecutive start, simply because management doesn’t want to risk a long-term injury. Evans is a former Redblack.

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