Another first for Ken-Yon Rambo.
On Monday, the veteran receiver made his debut with the Toronto Argonauts. On Saturday, Rambo will make his first start with the CFL club, lining up at slotback when the Argos (5-4) host the Hamilton Tiger-Cats (3-6) in a Labour Day rematch.
“I’m feeling really good about the offence and learning the schemes,” Rambo said following Friday’s walkthrough. “My body felt great last week, it feels good now and I’m heading in the right direction.”
Rambo’s return as a CFL starter is significant considering in June he was released by the Calgary Stampeders while recovering from tendinitis in his Achilles tendon. It was a bitter pill for a player who was very productive in Alberta, registering 406 catches for 5,995 yards and 39 touchdowns over seven seasons, including a Grey Cup-winning campaign in 2008.
Rambo arrived in Toronto shortly after being released and spent more than two months watching the Argos practise and attending team meetings while receiving treatment, all without pay. Rambo’s sacrifice and patience were rewarded Monday when he made his first appearance of the season as a backup, registering two catches for 16 yards in the club’s 33-30 win over Hamilton at Ivor Wynne Stadium.
Rambo said he never once doubted that he’d resume his CFL career.
“Never a doubt,” he said emphatically. “Everyone had their doubts because they weren’t in my body, they don’t know who I am.
“I know what my body can do, I know what I can do mentally.”
And in Rambo’s mind, that means still having the ability to beat a defender downfield and haul in a long pass from Argos starter Ricky Ray.
“It’s going to come, man, it’s going to come,” he said with a chuckle. “I don’t have to whisper nothing to Ricky, Ricky knows what to do.
“He loves throwing that deep ball.”
Ray enters action as the CFL’s second-leading passer with 2,699 yards and having completed an impressive 69.2 per cent of his attempts — tops among the league’s starters. But he has thrown nearly as many interceptions (nine) as touchdown passes (11).
Ray figures Rambo will need a little time to get in sync but expects the six-foot-one, 207-pound receiver to be in top form in time for the pivotal late-season contests.
“It’s tough,” he said. “We’re already halfway through the season and this is his second week getting out there and getting into the offence.
“He’s not going to be as sharp as the other guys but what he gives is physically he’s a pretty good player. He’s big, he’s fast, he can run good routes, he gives us a lot at that position. It’s just that over these next few weeks he’s going to continue to get better.”
Argos head coach Scott Milanovich has been pleased with how quickly Rambo has picked up the offence.
“He’s a smart guy, he’s picking up the offence very, very quickly,” Milanovich said. “He’s playing a position that’s one of the easier receiver positions but we’re still moving him around quite a bit and I think he’s getting his legs back.
“He seems to be sharp in and out of his breaks. For him, it’s a matter of making sure that Achilles stays healthy and we won’t know that until we get to the end of the season.”
Saturday’s game is important for both teams.
Toronto enters action second in the East Division, two points behind the Montreal Alouettes (6-3) who visit the West Division-leading B.C. Lions (6-3) on Saturday. If the Argos can sweep the home-and-home with Hamilton and get some help from the defending Grey Cup champions, they’ll find themselves in a tie for tops in the Eastern conference.
Toronto would also gain a 2-1 lead on Hamilton in the season series with the two teams poised to square off at Rogers Centre on Nov. 1. The head-to-head record is the first tie-breaker when two teams end the year tied in the standings.
But of more importance to Hamilton is snapping an ugly four-game losing streak.
“We’re getting to the point where we’re almost a desperate team and we need this win,” said Ticats quarterback Henry Burris. “Of course, we’ve had four weeks of a slump but it’s good to be coming off this game (Monday’s loss) in that the thoughts are still fresh in our mind.”
Linebacker Renauld Williams said while the Ticats are frustrated, their confidence remains high.
“It’s not like we’re out there getting whipped the whole game,” he said. “It’s one quarter that’s really killing us.
“I think we’re pretty dominant . . . it’s just a matter of finishing games.”
Defensively, Hamilton is seventh in the CFL in points allowed (32.7 per game) and last in total yards allowed (429.5 per game) and sacks (10). Williams says he’d like defensive co-ordinator Casey Creehan to send him and fellow linebacker Jamall Johnson on more blitzes in order to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
“Me and JJ, that’s one of our strengths that we haven’t utilized,” Williams said. “When we blitz big plays happen.”
Hamilton will be minus centre Marwan Hage (upper-body injury) and rushing leader Chevon Walker (lower-body injury), meaning veteran Avon Cobourne will start at tailback for just the second time this season. Cobourne ran for 50 yards on eight carries and had five catches for 44 yards in a 31-29 loss to Montreal on Aug. 23.
“Avon, we expect to do very well,” said Ticats head coach George Cortez. “He has a high level experience within the league.
“You can talk to him on the sidelines about doing things different and he can make the adjustment because he has an experience level that he knows what you’re talking about.”