Sunday, June 23, 2024

Returning to Gee Gees was instrumental for Redblacks’ Amlicar Polk

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His childhood idol retired 13 years before he was born, but Amlicar Polk watched his highlight clips in awe, read every word of his autobiography Sweetness and now, at Ottawa Redblacks training camp, is wearing the same jersey digits as the great Walter Payton did with the Chicago Bears.

Polk’s goal is to keep that No. 34 into the 2024 season and things appear to be trending in that direction.

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“It’s an honour to be back, a privilege as well,” the 23-year old running back said after Tuesday’s on-field session at training camp. “I’m very excited. I was here last year so I know what to expect … the standards. I’m just trying to fulfill the expectations as best I can.”

Selected late (seventh round) in the 2023 CFL draft, Polk decided to go back to the University of Ottawa for another season when he was trimmed from the Redblacks roster.

It was a good call.

In seven games with the 4-4 Gee Gees, he rushed for 824 yards — an average of 117.7 per game — and scored seven touchdowns.

“I didn’t really have starting experience when I did get drafted, I mostly played on specials,” said the 5-foot-10, 186-pounder, who was born in The Gambia (West Africa) then grew up through his high school days in Hamilton before attending Ottawa U and making his full-time home in the nation’s capital.

“Going back gave me the opportunity to start, to be in the backfield for a whole season, understand pass protection more and just how to be an all-round back, an all-down back,” he added.

“(Taking a step backwards) was definitely tough at first, but with the support of my family and friends I realized it was an opportunity I had to take. I just dived straight in. Off-season prep, I focused more than I ever had in my life. Taking everything they taught me at Redblacks camp to U Ottawa.

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“It sucks the way our record went the way it did. I did have a good season personally, but that’s probably because of my teammates too. Us getting together and just going all in on a process.

“I’m truly grateful for the experience. It helped me a lot. Now I understand what it takes to be a running back. I know I can do it because I did already.”

The Redblacks are almost counting on it.

After Jackson Bennett announced his retirement last month and with the release of former Queen’s star Jared Chisari on Tuesday, Polk is the lone Canadian running back in camp.

That doesn’t guarantee him a spot on the opening day roster — Chisari was cut so they could add Cooper Hamilton, a 6-foot-7, 310-pound former star with the Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks — but it is a sign that Bob Dyce and his staff like what they see from Polk.

“Sometimes when we make roster moves, it’s to supplement other areas on the roster,” Dyce said. “Chisari did an outstanding job. As I talked to talk to him today, I said it’s a really tough decision, that he performed well. He did get a little dinged up, but we had to supplement anther position and regrettably Chisari had to go.

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“That’s not taking them away from Amlicar. He has done a fantastic job, whether it be both on special teams or offence. The thing is, a lot of our backs have been a little bit nicked up, and Amlicar has gotten the benefit of getting extra reps.

“The one thing about Amlicar is in everything that he does, he does it with great intent. He’s progressed well. Very happy that he went back to school and he’s come back here with a real true focus and mindset that he’s going to make this team.”

While the picture should become a little clearer if they are healthy enough to suit up for Saturday’s first pre-season game in Hamilton, Americans Ryquell Armstead and Kylin Hill are the top candidates for the job of starting running back, with former Tampa Bay Buccaneer outcast Ronnie Brown also trying to provide a push.

But, as a special teams player, Polk has to be capable as ball carrier if needed.

Over the course of the past year, he has learned that there’s more to being a good ball carrier than just carrying the ball.

“Understanding what the O-line is doing, I have to know what the receivers are doing, what the quarterback is doing … everybody. That’s the knowledge I gained from the Redblacks training camp. That everything works together,” Polk said. “To run the ball effectively, I have to know exactly what my left guard is doing, exactly what my centre is doing … who they’re getting .. and then read off that, instead of just running to a gap. It helped me tremendously as a ball carrier, and my football IQ as well.

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“Having the training camp last year and then my full season as a Gee Gee as well and it going so well, it really improved my confidence. I know I can do it. I know I can bring that same ferocity, same intensity to the Redblacks in any way they need me, whether it’s on specials, on offence … I know I can do it.”

As someone who coached him at Ottawa U and now works with him as the Redblacks running back coach, Nate Taylor knows Polk has great character.

“He’s always been incredibly hardworking, dedicated, no nonsense … he takes care of his body, eats well, and you see kind of see it in the fruits of his labor now,” Taylor said. “Last year, in the pre-season against Toronto, he had a great fourth quarter. Couldn’t exactly see it in his numbers, but he just he looked the part in all situations. So it’s really nice to see that and he came back here and he’s the same guy, working hard and doing what he’s supposed to be doing.

“I wouldn’t put any limitations on him just based on the way he is as a person and how he operates. I can’t predict or extrapolate as to where it’ll end up. But absolutely he’s doing everything in his power to make sure that it goes the way he wants it to go.”

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At the moment, that’s familiar territory.

“I’m very excited to go back to Hamilton and hopefully put on a show for my friends and family to see,” Polk said. “I have not been back there in many years. It’s definitely going to be an exciting time.”

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GOING DEEP

OL Cyrille Hogan-Saindon and DB Deandre Lamont are the latest Redblacks to suffer injuries.”Nothing too serious there, but we’re going to give him time to heal it, more soft-tissue stuff,” Dyce said of Hogan-Saindon. “Similar type thing (with Lamont). We’ll wait for some tests on him and see how we advance from there.” … Upon looking at the film from Saturday’s mock game, Dyce saw subtle qualities he liked from QB Dru Brown. “Simple things like Dru talking to the guys that came off the field, making sure they’re on the same level of communication, which is extremely important. The fact that they work together as a unit and it’s two-way conversation, and they were working out possible challenges or looking for ways to do things better. The communication was back and forth, and things like that.”

dbrennan@postmedia.com

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