As an Argonauts fan, I find it hard not to get agitated as the rest of the league continues to make stars of quarterbacks who were once on Toronto’s practice roster.
Cody Fajardo didn’t get a start in two seasons with the Argonauts before going off to lead Saskatchewan to a 13-5 record, earning the team’s Most Outstanding Player award in the process.
Trevor Harris started only one game in his first three seasons in Toronto. In his fourth season, a contract year, he started 16 games, but found himself back on the bench at the end of the season and in Toronto’s first-round playoff loss. He signed with Ottawa in the offseason and led them to the Grey Cup twice over the next three years, once as their Most Outstanding Player. In 2019 he took Edmonton to the playoffs, winning yet another Most Outstanding Player award.
Zach Collaros started eight games over three seasons in two stints with the Argos. In between, he led Hamilton to the playoffs three times (once as their Most Outstanding Player), and Saskatchewan to the playoffs once. He was traded back to Toronto in 2019, but didn’t throw a pass before being traded to Winnipeg where he’d lead the Bombers to a Grey Cup victory.
The optics aren’t good, but it’s hard to blame the Argonauts. They didn’t necessarily miss on any of these guys, it's just that they had Ricky Ray. Collaros, Harris, and Fajardo would have had to look other-worldly for the Argos to have benched their all-time leading passer and future Hall of Famer. There’s not a team in the league that would have done it differently. In fact, every team not named the Stampeders has missed out on future star quarterbacks at some point over the past decade.
None of BC, Montreal, Saskatchewan, and Hamilton knew what to do with Vernon Adams Jr as he bounced around the league before returning to Montreal as Johnny Manziel’s backup. Hamilton had him playing wide receiver at one point! This isn’t an isolated incident either.
The “glass half full” side of me chalks this curse up as simply Toronto’s scouting department being that much better than everyone else's at finding quarterbacks out of college. They were the ones who found Collaros, Harris, and Fajardo and introduced them to the CFL. Unfortunately for Toronto fans, the table is set for history to repeat itself, and as before, there’s probably no way the Argos could have avoided it.
In 2017, Toronto signed undrafted free agent QB Dakota Prukop out of Oregon. I found this intriguing at the time due to my fascination with the Ducks and their tendency to produce good CFL quarterbacks. Because of his outstanding athleticism, Prukop ended up being an immediate contributor on specials teams, making six tackles as the third string quarterback, waiting patiently for an opportunity behind Ricky Ray and McLeod Bethel-Thompson. That opportunity wouldn’t come in either 2017 or 2018.
Prukop finally got a chance to showcase his skill in Week 7 of 2019, relieving a struggling Bethel-Thompson in the second half of a defensive battle against Edmonton. It didn’t go very well. Prukop went 8/13 for 68 yards with two picks, but there were flashes. He looked comfortable in the pocket, using his speed only when he had to, and the ball came out of his hand with remarkable accuracy. But he also failed to locate the free safety on several occasions and got the ball out late.
A much more confident and better-prepared Dakota Prukop took the field in Week 20 against Ottawa, but was only given a quarter of play. He went 6 /8 for 98 yards and 2 touchdowns, and one of those incompletions was a perfect ball that Chandler Worthy dropped for what would likely have been a third touchdown pass. Prukop looked outstanding.
I came away from this game very impressed with the young quarterback and decided to break down his play. You can watch that film session here.
His decision-making was good, his accuracy was elite, and he used his legs to get out of trouble and extend broken plays. He read his RPOs perfectly, pulling it on one occasion to find Llevi Noel for a 26-yard gain. Prukop made the correct read on each of his pass attempts. There was one read you could take issue with where he had Edwards wide open on a deep corner route, but he still threw a completion to convert an important first down. He throws a very catchable ball, only firing it in there if the situation dictates, hitting receivers in the hands if possible, or in the case of his touchdown pass to Smith, up high where only the tall Florida State product could get it. Unlike a lot of fast young quarterbacks, he didn’t tuck and run at the first sign of trouble. He ran when that was the best option, but otherwise used his legs as the best play-makers do. On his second touchdown pass, he avoided trouble twice, tucked and scrambled towards the sticks, but then flipped the ball to A.J. Ouellette right before reaching the line of scrimmage as the coverage started to close. If this were Patrick Mahomes, you’d have seen that play 1000 times by now on ESPN and the NFL Network.
When his contract expired in the offseason, Calgary came knocking and he signed a one-year deal with the Stampeders. Can you blame the Argonauts for not bringing him back? It’s hard to. They signed Matt Nichols, a proven winner in the CFL, and McLeod Bethel Thompson, the CFL touchdown leader who played some of the best football of his life in the late stages of the season. So here the Argos are once again in a position where they have to let a potential star get away. How do you fix this frustrating occurrence? I decided there was no one better to ask than Dakota Prukop himself.
I was somewhat surprised to find that Prukop wasn’t bitter or upset with Toronto. On the contrary, he enjoyed his time with the Argonauts and appreciates what he was able to learn in a crowded and talented quarterback room.
Grant: Why do so many great young quarterbacks get away? In other words, why does it often take a second or third team to truly discover how talented they are?
Prukop: I think the surface level answer is that it needs be the right opportunity at the right time for a quarterback to get exposure in the CFL.
The quarterback position is different from every other in that there is such limited opportunity for development. That being practice reps or game reps.
I think it is easy for a QB to slip through the cracks for a few years just because of the basic supply and demand of the position.
There are only 9 starting jobs, and I’d imagine there are at least 36+ QBs in the league vying for those jobs at any given time. That surplus supply of QBs might cause Management/Coaches to let a talented QB leave for another team if they can keep costs low and go with a younger guy.
The current state of how QB room contracts are structured from a ‘macro’ perspective is also attributing to guys changing teams often.
The money scenario as is usually looks one of two ways. A team will pay one veteran star and supplement with a few cheap backups or a team might divy up salary amongst two mid-priced ‘competing’ QBs.
Grant: How long does it take an American quarterback to truly acclimate themselves to the CFL game?
Prukop: In my opinion it will depend on each quarterback’s developmental style, and the opportunity or “push” to cater to their development too. Obviously, reps are “gold” at the Quarterback position. Practice and game reps are irreplaceable, and if management or the coaches want to speed up that process, allocating more reps to a specific QB will certainly do that.
For me personally, the way I’ve seen the CFL game has drastically changed each year I’ve been in the league so far, and I don’t plan on allowing that to stop.
To put a number on it I would assume that most QBs start feeling really comfortable around year three, after that it’s more so of a waiting game for your shot. That process can definitely be sped up with adequate reps though.
Grant: How did being around McLeod Bethel-Thompson, and Ricky Ray help prepare you to take that next step?
Prukop: Being around Ricky Ray and coach Calvillo really showed me how to take the ‘next step’ mentally at the QB position. I believe the ‘secret’ to their success was their mental preparedness going into each game week in and week out.
Seeing the level of detail and structure in their weekly preparations for a game allowed them to enter each game with a consistent reassurance and confidence that they had done all they could do that week to prepare for the game. This confidence in preparation translated into consistent performance year after year.
McLeod is an absolute grinder. Being in the same room with him for the past few years was really important for my development as well. McLeod brought an element of competitiveness to every aspect of a QBs duties to his team.
Not only would you compete on the field at practice, but you would compete in preparation and study each week. This element of healthy competition really elevated the whole QB room. But back to its core I think a lot of Ricky and Calvillio’s habits rubbed off on us initially, and Mac and I really continued to run with it after their departure.
Grant: Having been through this as a player, if you were a CFL general manager, what might you do differently so that guys like Cody Fajardo, Trevor Harris and Zach Collaros get an opportunity with your organization instead of another one?
Prukop: That’s tough. I can’t imagine the position the GM’s are constantly in thinking about their QB rooms.
Now a days if you want to keep your top QB around you’re going to have to pay him a healthy salary, this doesn’t leave too much money left over to keep a “potential rising star” backup around for too many years.
All I can really speak to is that I would create an environment that keeps my #2 QB ready. I wouldn’t want a situation where I’m putting my #2 QB in the game without him having any prior reps with the first team. I’d like to keep my backups somewhat familiar with throwing to my starters.
That way, when they do finally get their shot, I get a more true evaluation of them and am not watching them spending valuable game reps “knocking off the rust” so to say.
From what I’ve heard Calgary does a really good job at this. They are known for producing QBs, just as we saw recently with Nick [Arbuckle].
A final thought if I were in the shoes if a GM. This push for development of my #2 would also create more “competition” in the QB room, even with an established starter in the room. I’d want my starter to still compete for his job every day, I believe competition keeps everyone at their best. Great players thrive in competition. That is what makes preseason so fun and important -Internal Competition!
With the 2020 season cancelled, what happens with Dakota Prukop and his contract in Calgary remains to be seen. McLeod Bethel-Thompson has opted out of his contract in Toronto to pursue NFL opportunities, and the Argos have a decision to make with Canadian QB Michael O’Connor. I believe Matt Nichols is one of the best quarterbacks in the league, and he’s signed through 2022, but he might be the only one in the QB room soon. As impossible as this might have seemed a few months ago, maybe the stage is perfectly set for Prukop to return to Toronto as the sole backup to Nichols. If not, having seen what Nick Arbuckle just went through, he’s in a great situation in Calgary as he waits for his chance to become the next great former Toronto Argonauts quarterback.