TORONTO - He's just two games into his CFL career but halfback Anthony Coombs is no longer a rookie in Scott Milanovich's eyes.
The former University of Manitoba star will make his first CFL start Saturday night when Toronto hosts the Calgary Stampeders. Coombs, the Argonauts' 2014 first-round draft pick, replaces veteran slotback Andre Durie, who suffered a broken clavicle in last weekend's 48-15 home win over the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
Coombs, 21, was impressive in his first extended CFL action. The five-foot-nine 190-pound Winnipeg native ran for 52 yards on six carries, added a 17-yard reception and blocked effectively in pass protection against the Riders.
"Essentially he was the starter last week so it shouldn't be a real shock for him," said Milanovich, the Argos' head coach. "He's going to kind of be in a new spot but he played some of that in the pre-season.
"We expect him to play well. He's been here a couple of weeks, he's no longer a rookie. We expect him to do his job."
Toronto had high expectations for Coombs when they selected him third overall in the CFL draft. Coombs ran for 2,218 yards and 17 touchdowns at Manitoba while adding 51 receptions for 840 yards and 11 TDs.
Milanovich wanted to bring Coombs along slowly but injuries forced the coach's hand.
"Last week wasn't enough time ideally but I guess it's all relative to the player and last week you would have never known he was a rookie by the way he performed," Milanovich said. "You just kind of keep giving them more, giving them more, giving them more until you find out they can't handle it and then you've got to scale back.
"So far he hasn't shown that he can't handle it."
Predictably, Coombs is excited about making his first CFL start but understands Milanovich's comments regarding his rookie status.
"I think he's trying to take me away from the term because I feel like if you're a rookie you're allowed to make mistakes," Coombs said. "I think he's trying to hold all of us first-year players to a higher standard.
"We've played two games in the CFL and I think there's no more time for mistakes. You've got to know what you're doing."
Milanovich said it's unlikely veteran receiver Jason Barnes (knee) will play Saturday but he expects linebacker Shea Emry and defensive back Dwight Anderson to suit up. Emry practised for a second straight day after sustaining a concussion versus Saskatchewan while Anderson continued becoming familiar with Toronto's defence after being acquired Monday from the Riders.
Calgary will also be shorthanded as running back Jon Cornish — the CFL's outstanding player last year — and slotback Nik Lewis won't play due to concussion symptoms.
Coombs said his field time against Saskatchewan was definitely a learning experience.
"I just found out the higher level of focus you need when you're in the game," he said. "There was a couple of times where I maybe lost focus for a split second in the huddle and forgot what the call was or I didn't run the play I was supposed to.
"This week I understand the level of focus I'll need to perform Saturday."
Coombs said while most CFL players are bigger and faster than those in the CIS, the biggest adjustment he's faced in the pro ranks is the mental aspect of the game.
"You need to know and understand a lot more about how everything works and that goes hand in hand with the speed of the game," he said. "If you have to think then you start to slow down.
"Everyone on this field is bigger and faster than college so if you can understand the concepts and schemes of the entire playbook, then you can allow yourself to play fast."
And playing fast is essential for success in an offence spearheaded by veteran quarterback Ricky Ray. The 12-year veteran, who completed a CFL-record 77.2 per cent of his passes last season, has the uncanny ability to get the football to his receivers in full stride and allow them to quickly get upfield.
Ray threw for 407 yards and three TDs against Saskatchewan, the defending Grey Cup champion. However, Coombs said that puts the onus on the receiver to ensure he's where Ray expects him to be each play.
"That's the thing that's great when you know your stuff because if you run the route that you're supposed to, he'll put it right between the numbers and you don't really have to do much after that," Coombs said. "That's Ricky Ray, man, best in the league."
Coombs has no problem switching to slotback, especially with a full week of practice under his belt.
"I think it (slotback) suits me well, especially in this offence because there's a lot of motion, a lot of moving around," he said. "The great thing about playing running back or slot is you get to play in space which is one of the things I love to do.
"(Practising with starting offence) you get more reps, more of a sense of direction but I treated each day as if I had to earn that spot. If you show up and don't know your stuff, they're not going to take the chance on you in the game, especially as a young player so I showed up every day trying to earn that."
Coombs fully expects to be battling nerves Saturday, that is, until shortly after the opening kickoff.
"Once you get that first hit or that first carry, the nerves go away and you start playing," he said. "All I know is last week I made some mistakes, I made some plays.
"This week I'm striving for perfection, like every week."
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