It’s been a forgettable season for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, but one to remember for Henoc Muamba.
On Wednesday, the third-year linebacker was unanimously named Winnipeg’s nominee for the CFL’s outstanding player, defensive player and top Canadian awards. Voting was conducted by the Football Reporters of Canada and CFL head coaches.
“It’s just a testament to the hard work I’ve put in since I got drafted,” Muamba said. “More than that, it’s a testament to the guys around me as well.
“I really feel like I’ve been playing with some guys who’ve been helping me out a lot . . . I’m just happy and grateful to be in the position I’m in right now. It’s definitely something I’ll remember for a long time and I’m just looking to build on it and continue on from here.”
The other outstanding player nominees are quarterbacks Ricky Ray (Toronto) and Henry Burris (Hamilton), running backs Jon Cornish (Calgary) and Kory Sheets (Saskatchewan) — the league’s top two rushers — linebackers Chip Cox (Montreal) and Adam Bighill (B.C.) and slotback Fred Stamps (Edmonton), the CFL’s leading receiver.
The six-foot, 230-pound Muamba, taken first overall in the 2011 CFL draft, has been a bright spot this season for Winnipeg (3-14). The former St. Francis Xavier star has 97 tackles, 18 special-teams tackles, a sack and interception.
Muamba, 24, secured the most selections but wasn’t the only multiple nominee. The others included: Cox and Bighill (both top player, defensive player), Cornish (top player, Canadian), Montreal safety Mike Edem (Canadian, rookie), Edmonton linebacker Eric Samuels (rookie, special teams) and Hamilton defensive lineman Brian Bulke (Canadian, defensive player).
Division finalists will be announced next week with the award winners being honoured Nov. 21 in Regina.
Despite his outstanding campaign, Muamba faces stiff competition getting the East Division nod in any of his three categories. However, the timing couldn’t be better as Muamba, a native of Zaire who grew up in Mississauga, Ont., will become a free agent this off-season.
“I’m letting negotiations take care of themselves, I’ve got an agent and I hired him for that specific reason,” Muamba said. “I trust him and believe he’ll do what’s best for me.
“I love this city, it has really welcomed me with open arms since I came here. I love the place I’m in, I love the people I work with, I love this organization . . . that’s definitely a plus and a huge thing going forward.”
Winnipeg head coach Tim Burke, for one, feels Muamba will opt to remain Manitoba.
“I do because I think he likes it here,” Burke said. “He’s probably going to test the waters.
“You can’t blame any free agents this year for doing it with the ninth team (Ottawa) coming into the league. The salary cap is probably going to go up so they’re going to wait and see what’s out there for everybody but I know we’re going to be as competitive or more competitive than anybody else.”
Ray, 34, won’t play in Toronto’s regular-season finale Friday versus Montreal, meaning he’ll set a CFL record with a 77.2 per cent completion average over 11 games. Burris, 38, is the CFL passing leader with 4,792 yards and this year became just the fifth player ever to surpass 50,000 career passing yards.
And then there’s Cox, who has a CFL-leading 110 tackles to go with 10 sacks and four interceptions spearheading one of the league’s top defences. But the 30-year-old downplayed his impressive numbers.
“Just because you’re making a lot of plays doesn’t mean you’re being efficient,” Cox said. “I’m having a good year, I can’t lie about it . . . but I don’t know if it’s my best year.
“Whatever (defensive co-ordinator Noel Thorpe) asks me to do I try to do it to the best of my ability. He’s recognized what I’m good at and he’s allowed me to do those things. He trusts me and I trust him.”
Cox, a two-time CFL all-star, was stunned about his outstanding player nomination.
“I never thought I’d get nominated, especially in Montreal because we’ve always had a high-powered offence,” he said. “I’ve been here eight years and probably for six of those years we had the best offence in the league so you don’t think you can get MOP with an offence that’s had the history ours has.”
The overwhelming favourite for the CFL’s outstanding player honour is Cornish. After leading the league in rushing last year, the native of New Westminster, B.C., is tops heading into the final week of the regular season with 1,799 yards, the most ever in a season by a Canadian.
The 28-year-old Cornish, averaging 7.1 yards per carry, is considered a lock as the top Canadian for the second straight year. Cornish has also scored a league-leading 14 TDs for Calgary, which has league-best 14-3 record and clinched top spot in the West Division.
The Stampeders could have as many as five individual finalists with defensive end Charleston Hughes (top defensive player, league-high 18 sacks), kicker Rene Paredes (special-teams, 52-of-55 field goals and CFL-record 39 straight) and centre Brett Jones (rookie) all serious contenders.
Tackle Jovan Oliafoye is B.C.’s top lineman nominee for the third straight year. The Detroit native hasn’t missed a game in four seasons and won the award in 2012 after being a finalist the year before.
Bighill, whose 89 tackles lead the West Division, earned his second straight defensive player nomination but first as B.C.’s outstanding performer.
Montreal selected Edem, 24, a resident of Brampton, Ont., third overall in this year’s CFL draft. The six-foot-one, 200-pound Edem moved from linebacker to safety and registered 46 tackles, five sacks, three interceptions and four fumble recoveries.
“It’s my first year in the league so I wasn’t expecting anything,” Edem said. “I was coming here blind so I’ve been surprised more than anything.
“I’m still working at it.”
Another impressive rookie has been Jones, a native of Weyburn, Sask. The six-foot-two, 319 former Regina Ram, a 2013 second-round pick, is Calgary’s only offensive lineman to play every snap this season. Despite injuries up front, the Stampeders lead the CFL in rushing (144.1 yards per game) and fewest sacks (34).