The COVID-19 pandemic may’ve cost Nick Arbuckle an entire football season but he feels it made him a better quarterback.
Like all other CFL teams, the Toronto Argonauts opened their training camp Saturday. The Argos workout in Guelph, Ont., marked Arbuckle’s first since 2019 when he was with the Calgary Stampeders.
The CFL didn’t play football in 2020 due to the global pandemic. It will open a 14-game campaign Aug. 5.
“I’ve been in a full-go off-season for a year and a half and so I’m just, I feel, that much more physically and mentally better as a quarterback than I would’ve been in 2020 if we had a season and training camp,” Arbuckle said during a video conference. “I’m athletically in the best shape of my life.
“I’ve been able to dunk a basketball for the first time in my life about two weeks ago and I’m stronger now at 207 pounds than I was at 225 pounds. I’m feeling mobile and I can throw all day without my arm getting tired, so from an athletic standpoint I’m a different quarterback … than I was the last time I stepped on the field.”
That’s certainly good news for Toronto, which signed Arbuckle to a one-year deal in February. He became available upon being released by the Ottawa Redblacks when they signed veteran Matt Nichols shortly after he’d been let go by the Argos.
The six-foot-one, 207-pound Arbuckle impressed in 2019 when he won four-of-seven games he started in place of injured Calgary starter Bo Levi Mitchell. Arbuckle completed 174-of-238 passes (73.1 per cent) for 2,103 yards and 11 touchdowns with just five interceptions. He also ran for 76 yards and four TDs.
Calgary won the Grey Cup in 2018, Arbuckle’s first CFL season.
The 2019 performance prompted Ottawa to acquire Arbuckle’s rights and sign him to an extension. But the 27-year-old Californian never played with the Redblacks due to the pandemic.
There’s certainly the weight of expectation firmly upon Arbuckle’s shoulders given Toronto mustered consecutive four-win seasons (2018-19) after beating Calgary 27-24 in the ‘17 Grey Cup. But there are plenty of familiar faces for Arbuckle with the Argos as receivers Juwan Brescacin, DaVaris Daniels and Eric Rogers are all former Stampeders and rookie head coach Ryan Dinwiddie previously served as the West Division club’s quarterbacks coach (2016-19).
John Murphy, Toronto’s vice-president of player personnel, also spent time in Calgary’s front office.
“(Familiarity) is huge and I think it’s going to be one of the big reasons why we’re going to be successful,” Arbuckle said. “We did carry some of the stuff over from Calgary but even the new stuff that (coach) Dinwiddie is creating as far as his own offence, it’s easy for me to pick up because he and I worked together in 2018-19.
“My familiarity with Eric, DaVaris, Bresc, all guys I played with before … we understand the offence. But we also understand each other’s families, we have that understanding, friendship and camaraderie with each other that makes it a pleasure to come to the locker room every day and dive into football.”
Rogers had 217 catches for 3,176 yards with 27 TDs over four seasons with Calgary before Toronto acquired his rights following the ‘19 season. He commended Arbuckle’s work ethic.
“I think he got up at 4:30 a.m. (Saturday morning) and did a workout around 5 a.m. on the field by himself,” Rogers said. “He’s one of those guys who puts a lot of work in and you can tell how he’s prepared and understands the offence and what’s going.”
Arbuckle is one of five quarterbacks in camp. The others include veterans McLeod Bethel-Thompson and Antonio Pipkin, and rookies Kenji Bahar and Nick Tiano.
Pipkin began the ‘19 season as Montreal’s starter before suffering an injury and relinquishing the No. 1 job to Vernon Adams Jr. Bethel-Thompson started 13 games for Toronto in 2019 and led the CFL in TD passes (26) while finishing third in passing yards (4,024).
“It let me sleep a little bit better at night knowing I have two guys that I feel we can win football games with,” said Dinwiddie, himself a former CFL quarterback. “We feel we can win with Pipkin as well.
“Those guys had good days (Saturday), McLeod and Nick. You could tell they’re veterans, they know what they’re doing getting the ball out of their hand and throwing the ball with some zip. Sometimes it’s tough to have two really good quarterbacks competing and sometimes those guys don’t see eye to eye and it can cause some conflict in the room but that’s not the case with these two. They’re being great leaders, they’re helping the receivers … they both deserve the right to talk and teach.”
Although it’s only been one day, Arbuckle said he already likes Toronto’s quarterback room and can see himself and Bethel-Thompson working well together.
“I think he and I are going to mesh really well,” Arbuckle said. “He’s one of those super-hard workers who’s going to be early in the building, late out of the building.
“A cerebral guy who understands offences and defences, he’s had a ton of success as a starter in this league. He’s a great person and not just a quarterback to learn from and compete with and bounce ideas off.”
Toronto opens the ‘21 season in Calgary on Aug. 7 so Arbuckle will begin his Argos’ tenure against Mitchell.
“Hopefully it becomes like that Brady-vs-Manning kind of thing,” Arbuckle said. “We’re good friends, our families are close and I wish nothing but the best for him and success for him and his family.
“Just not on Aug. 7. I hope he has a bad game.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 10, 2021.
Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press