The one guy is aw-shucks humble, a throwback to the early 1960s when brushcuts were cool and trash talk was actually about garbage. The other is a fun-loving free thinker who likes to tweak on Twitter: “Now whenever I need to look up the mass of a stellar body, I need only to look up my own tweet.”
They have rarely lined up opposite one another, but now the Canadian Football League’s top tackler and leading rusher are on a full-scale collision course. On one side is Edmonton Eskimos middle linebacker J.C. Sherritt, the buzz saw in a buzz cut. On the other is Calgary Stampeders running back Jon Cornish. Both are on the cusp of greatness. Both have been the talk of the 2012 season. On Monday, in the 47th Labour Day meeting between Alberta’s pro football foes, Sherritt vs. Cornish could be the start of a beautiful, combative relationship.
It has all the makings.
Sherritt, the league’s defensive player of the week and month of August, is pure mobility and pursuit. If someone stole your wallet and was fleeing at top speed, you’d want Sherritt giving chase because the bad guy would never know what hit him.
Cornish, the top Canadian player for August, is about versatility. As he admitted after practice, he’s not a speed-ball scat back; he’s not a one-dimensional “downhill runner.”
“I’m a little bit of everything,” Cornish said.
Sherritt added: “With the speed to break one loose. In this league, I think he’s his own unique guy.”
Sherritt’s uniqueness has been on display since last season when he cracked the Eskimos’ defence as the 5-foot-9 rookie every opponent was looking to take advantage of. Offences believed they could grind Sherritt into submission, only they couldn’t get to him. With Edmonton’s defensive front applying the pressure, Sherritt used his tenacity and instincts to make tackles all over the field. It’s that feel for the game that has caught the eye of his budding rival.
“He’s more than just a good player, he’s a playmaker,” Cornish said. “What I mean by that is he puts himself in position to make plays. He’s hard to block. He makes guys miss [their blocking assignments]. … He wasn’t big enough for the NFL, but he’s making a name for himself up here.”
In many ways, Sherritt was raised to do his job. His father was a linebacker for three seasons at the University of Nevada in Reno and proved an excellent teacher. So, too, was Sherritt’s high-school coach in Pullman, Wash., where the 15-year-old linebacker was shown how to read offensive linemen and anticipate plays. By the time Sherritt graduated Eastern Washington University, he was a national champion and the best defensive player in NCAA Division 1 Football Championship Subdivision.
The NFL saw him as too short. What the Eskimos saw was an undersized linebacker who played big. In his first CFL game, Sherritt made 11 tackles and Edmonton won.
Unlike Sherritt, who started immediately, Cornish had to wait for his break. At first he was Joffrey Reynolds’ backup, then he was Reynolds’ equal, sharing time in the backfield. Then last September, the Stampeders benched Reynolds and opted to use Cornish as their feature back. In seven regular-season games, Cornish finished with 612 yards rushing and scored seven touchdowns. He had hoped to hit the ground running this season but struggled before calling out his offensive line after a heavy loss to the B.C. Lions.
He later apologized.
“I need to mentally prepare myself [for a game],” Cornish said. “I ask a lot of questions. I know it drives the coaches crazy, but that’s how I am.”
Asked how he’d defend against Cornish, Calgary teammate Juwan Simpson, a middle linebacker like Sherritt, declined to give away secrets, but did offer some advice.
“In my old age I play my assignments and trust my eyes, trust what I’ve watched on film and trust my instincts,” Simpson explained. “If I was going against Cornish, based what I’ve seen on film, I’d just do my job and hope the other 11 guys do theirs as well.”
Sherritt was injured and didn’t play in last November’s West Division semi-final when Edmonton surrendered 127 rushing yards to Cornish yet still won by 14 points. Since then, both teams have revamped their lineups and head into Labour Day eager to see how the ace linebacker vs. primo running back plays out. No one is more curious than the two principals.
“It’ll be a challenge,” Sherritt said of facing Cornish. “When he gets rolling it’s pretty tough to stop him.”
“There’s a line from a movie, The Matrix Reloaded,” Cornish said. “‘You don’t truly know someone until you fight them.’ That’s what we’re going to find out.”
Middle linebacker, Edmonton Eskimos
Position Running back, Calgary Stampeders
CFL’s leading tackler this season with 70 in eight games
CFL’s leading rusher this season with 571 yards in eight games
5 foot 9, 218 pounds
Six feet, 220 pounds
New Westminster, B.C.
Eastern Washington University
University of Kansas
Last three games
29 tackles, three interceptions, one forced fumble. He was the West Division’s most outstanding rookie last year and is on pace to set a single-season CFL record for tackles.
Last three games
372 yards rushing, 75 yards receiving, one touchdown. In 15 regular-season games as a starter, dating back to Sept. 25, Cornish has run 187 times for 1,183 yards and 11 touchdowns.