Laurier alum Chris Ackie represents the new breed of CFL linebackers


Dan Barnes
National Post

EDMONTON — Chris Ackie was the athlete of the year, every year, at Preston High School.

He played it all — basketball, track and field, rugby, football — in part because he was so easily bored when not doing something active.

One sport bled immediately into another and he sharpened a new skill set during every season. And in chasing away boredom, he developed a versatility that serves him well in his current vocation. The 26-year-old from Cambridge, Ont. plays weakside linebacker, which has evolved into a hybrid position on the massive CFL field.

“Playing Will (weakside) linebacker in the CFL, you’re a big DB (defensive back), a strong safety, because you’re in coverage a lot,” the fourth-year Montreal Alouette said earlier this week. “I spend a lot of time with the DBs still. And you’ve got to be strong enough and smart enough to play in the box and make plays on the run game.”

WATCH: Chris Ackie reflects on his first CFL touchdown

Ackie is a relative youngster, and while he ranks second in the league with 48 defensive tackles, and just returned his first CFL interception for a touchdown against the Ottawa Redblacks, he might not be one of the linebackers casual fans know by name. His profile doesn’t match that of Calgary’s Alex Singleton, J.C. Sherritt of Edmonton, Winnipeg’s Adam Bighill, B.C.’s Solomon Elimimian, or even Ackie’s teammate in Montreal, Henoc Muamba. Of that group, only Singleton is younger than Ackie.

They’re all middle linebackers, field generals, the men making defensive calls and big plays. But they didn’t all start their careers under the spotlight that shines on the middle.

“I remember my first year in the league I was a Will and that was a shell shock for me,” Sherritt said. “You’re coming up from the states — where you’re playing in the box, you’re playing heavy run, you’re playing against tight ends — and that’s a big change. You’ve got to learn to adapt your game.

“I think if you have that DB skill set and you know how to tackle, you can transition very well to the Will position, compared to being an old school linebacker coming up here, trying to play Will.”

Ackie has transitioned into the Will well, as it were. He was a halfback for the Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks, moved into safety for the Alouettes to fill a hole and has transitioned again to the weak side.

“I like his aggression toward the football,” Sherritt said of Ackie. “My biggest indicator of a good linebacker is lack of hesitation. You see people who hesitate — maybe they run a 4.3 or 4.4 (40-yard dash) — but they’re hesitaters and they’re just not great football players, compared to somebody who reacts and is ready to go make a play. That’s what I see in his game and to see that in a young guy, he’s got a bright future.”

He might well be part of the next wave. Elimimian said the game has changed even in the past handful of years, as offences mirror what has been successful, and it requires even more versatility from linebackers.

“Gone are the days when you have run, run, run. A lot of offences have gone quick passes. No huddle. It’s a pain in the ass. The days of being 6-3, 240, that’s over. You have to be able to go sideline to sideline. You have to be quick thinking and really understand football.”

Sherritt seconded that notion.

“If you don’t have the side-to-side quickness, you can’t play in the CFL, period. You’ll be dead in the water. The field is so big, the athletes are so quick up here. And you do get tested enough that you have to bang and tackle in the box and these aren’t small offensive linemen out here. You have to have your full tool set ready to go.”

And in the case of the Alouettes this season, the defence has had to be ready to play more than half the game, every game. They’re on the field for an average of 36 minutes, so it stands to reason Alouettes defenders would be among the league leaders in tackles. But somebody still has to make them and Ackie leads the squad, just ahead of Muamba.

“People say it’s a breakout season,” Ackie said. “For me, last year was about to be my breakout season because I was doing really well the first six games, then I tore my tricep. For me, the entire mindset the whole off-season was get back healthy. I knew what position I was going to be playing so I could focus on that. And now I’m just learning the linebacker position.”

Where there is a will, there is a way.

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