There was an opportunity for Janarion Grant to emphatically thump his chest and truly bask in the moment. He’s more than earned it, after all.
But there was the Winnipeg Blue Bombers receiver/returner holding court with the media after practice Monday – and in the wake of his game-changing punt return touchdown in last week’s win over the Montreal Alouettes – essentially dodging every accolade as if he was slipping a tackle in the open field.
“I still feel like I have a lot more to work on, a lot more to prove,” said Grant, who regularly speaks in the hushed tones of a man giving confession. “I’m just taking it day by day, week by week – that’s the type of guy I am.”
Asked what he still has to prove, Grant grinned and added: “Everything. Just catch it more, secure the ball more, just my speed, because speed kills. You have to have that in your arsenal.”
Here’s the thing about what Grant might have yet to prove – with his two kick return touchdowns this year he now has six in just 26 games as a Blue Bomber spread out over three seasons. That number is significant because it ties him with Keith Stokes for the most in franchise history. Stokes, FYI, had his six scores in 37 games as a Blue Bomber.
As we mentioned in this week’s Upon Further Review, Grant’s return touchdown totals are impressive on their own, but the rate at which they have come is even that much more impressive.
His Blue Bombers debut, if you recall, was sensational, as he returned two punts for a score and set a club record for punt return yards in a single game with 222 on August 8th, 2019 – that total ranking as the third highest in CFL history. And in the win over Montreal, Grant was especially busy, returning six punts for 125, two kickoffs for 33 yards, catching one pass for six yards and rushing three times for 43 yards. He even added three tackles, bringing down Montreal defenders after Blue Bomber turnovers.
“I’m used to it,” said Grant of the workload. “I’ve been doing it all my life. Up here I know I’ve just been mainly kick returner/punt returner, but I still have it in my mind that I’m a receiver. That’s my primary thing. I do it all.”
Blue Bombers head coach Mike O’Shea has played with and coached some of the greatest returners in CFL history, from Mike ‘Pinball’ Clemons to Bashir Levingston as teammates, to Chad Owens during his days as the special teams coordinator with the Toronto Argonauts. He also played against the greatest returner in CFL history in Henry ‘Gizmo’ Williams.
Question, then: what separates the average returners from the great ones?
“The simple answers are just those athletic attributes – some are more blessed than others,” said O’Shea. “You’d say they all have some of that. Vision is important. But I think the really good ones, they have zero fear.
“It doesn’t even dawn on them that they’ve got the ball and they’re running as hard and as fast as they can into a storm of a mass of humanity. It doesn’t even register for those guys. The best ones are absolutely fearless, that’s why not everybody can do it – not even the most talented, athletically inclined guys. Those guys can’t do it all the time, either. You have to have that intangible of being fearless.”
Grant is one of many on the Blue Bombers roster early to the practice field and one of the last to leave, saying “Just working on my craft. Every day coming out here and making sure I have eyes on the ball, make sure I’ve got it in the right catch point and let my legs do the rest.”
He is part of a collection of just a dozen returners in Blue Bombers history (dating back to 1952) to have two or more return TDs in a season, with Stokes holding the club record of five, set in 2004.
And like all the great returners, he has that fearlessness O’Shea referenced coupled with a belief that with the help of the blockers in front of him, he is a threat to score on every touch.
“I don’t do that. I just play,” said Grant when asked if he had a TD total in mind when the season began. “But that’s my goal every play – get touchdowns every chance I get. I don’t have a set number. The sky’s the limit. I’m trying to be the best.”
WR Greg Ellingson was back at practice on Monday working with the No. 1 offence. He’s missed the last three games after leading the CFL in receiving with 34 receptions for 518 yards and three TDs in the first six weeks. WR Rasheed Bailey was at practice doing some light running, but not in his full gear and ditto for QB Dakota Prukop and DE Thiadric Hansen.
SHORT AND SWEET:
The Blue Bombers will finally get their first bye week after Thursday’s rematch at IG Field against the Montreal Alouettes. O’Shea said he didn’t belabour that point in the club’s meetings Monday morning.
“The extent of what I said was ‘Lock in’ – two words – and then that was the end of the meeting. Not a long discussion,” he said. “We’ve got a group of guys who have been learning from great experiences for a number of years together. So, you don’t have to waste their time with a lot of verbiage.”
Blue Bombers RB Brady Oliveira, who has 264 yards rushing in the last three games, has been very open over the past few weeks about the support he’s received from teammates and coaches as the ground game struggled to find traction. He expanded on that further on Monday.
“I’ve definitely had some great talks with the O-line,” he said. “They know my style of football; they know who I am as a runner. But I would say it really started off with Coach Bourgs (Kevin Bourgoin). He was my running backs coach in ’19 and he started coaching me when I came to the Bombers and now he’s coaching receivers. He made a great comment on the sidelines during that Calgary home game (in which Oliveira had eight yards rushing). He just said, ‘Be yourself. We know the type of runner you are. You’re a big back, just hit it. Just hit it.’ I really needed to hear that.
“And then after the game I probably had one of the best conversations with Coach Jason (Hogan) my new running backs coach this year. It was such a real conversation, obviously about football but also not about football. It was just a great conversation and there were a lot of things I needed to hear, a lot of things he needed to hear.
“It allowed me to think about who I am as a player, and I still can do this.”