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Argos' Lemon unfazed about competing for starting job

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The Canadian Press
6/1/2011 6:38:05 PM
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MISSISSAUGA, Ont. -- He finished last season as the Toronto Argonauts starting quarterback but Cleo Lemon is unfazed about having to return to training camp and reclaim it.

"That's life," Lemon said Wednesday after the first day of rookie camp. "You have to compete.

"I'm a competitor, man . . . it's just part of my DNA. I have something to prove every year, that's what keeps me playing. I like to prove everyone wrong and I've been doing that my whole life so this is no different."

Competing for playing time is nothing new for Lemon. Undrafted following his college career at Arkansas State, Lemon, 31, bounced between five different teams during eight seasons in the NFL before signing with Toronto on March 17, 2010.

Despite being outplayed by backup Dalton Bell during training camp, Lemon secured Toronto's starting job and helped lead the squad to a 9-9 record and its first CFL playoff berth since 2007. After winning just seven games the previous two seasons combined, the Argos reached the East Division final before losing to the Montreal Alouettes, the eventual Grey Cup champions.

However, Lemon's rookie CFL season was a roller-coaster affair.

The six-foot-two, 215-pound Lemon completed a stellar 61.7 per cent of his passes, but had more interceptions (19) than touchdowns (15). And with Lemon, Toronto's offence was last in the CFL in scoring (20.7 points per game), total yards (316.3 per game) and passing yards (221.1 per game).

In March, the Argos acquired veteran quarterback Steven Jyles from Winnipeg for their 2011 first-round selection -- the No. 4 pick -- and a conditional 2012 fourth-round pick. That could become a second-round selection depending on how many games Jyles plays.

Jyles was in uniform Wednesday but participated little. Jyles underwent season-ending shoulder surgery last season and it became tender as a result of aggressive pre-camp conditioning and was held out as a precaution.

So Jyles mostly watched as Lemon, Bell, sophomore Danny Brannagan and rookie B.J. Hall took the snaps.

"It's very disappointing," said Jyles. "It's hard to sit out here and watch these guys play football and not be able to participate.

"But I'd rather be careful with it than come out and make things worse."

Jyles said the setback wasn't a serious one and was hopeful he'd be back under centre late in rookie camp. Veterans are scheduled to report for physicals Saturday, with two-a-days beginning Sunday.

Bell, 28, begins his second full season in Toronto and is grateful to again be in the quarterback mix.

"New year, same story I guess," Bell said. "I'm excited to be back and excited it's a competition.

"It gives me an opportunity to compete, go out there and prove my worth again his year."

Lemon, too, is coming off an injury. He had off-season surgery on his right pinkie finger but threw the ball emphatically Wednesday with no ill effects.

"When you strengthen a part of your body that you need to work on, it comes back a little bit better than it was before and I feel that's what has happened in that situation," Lemon said. "I'm comfortable with everything, feeling a lot more confident."

Not being able to practise will put Jyles behind the other quarterback candidates in terms of getting comfortable with Toronto's offence. However, the six-foot, 207-pound Jyles, entering his sixth CFL season, is confident he'll be able to pick things up quickly.

"I know what I can do and I believe in myself," he said. "Whenever the time comes to showcase what I can do, I'll be ready."

Jyles started 11 games with Winnipeg last year, posting a 3-8 record after signing as a free agent with the CFL club Feb. 23, 2010. He completed 196-of-318 passes (61.6 per cent) in 2010 for 2,804 yards with 19 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

Toronto is the third stop of Jyles' CFL career, having played previously with Edmonton (twice) and Saskatchewan (2008-09).

Bell and Jyles were teammates those two seasons in Saskatchewan and Bell is glad to be reunited.

"It (adding Jyles) raises the bar," Bell said. "Having him here, it's a competition but it also helps because . . . he helps me out a lot.

"He and I have kept in contact since we left Saskatchewan. He's a friend and I'm glad he's on the team. We're competing for the same spot but I do enjoy his company."

The good news for Argos head coach/GM Jim Barker is his quarterback corps has more experience this year than it did in 2010. This group at least has 31 CFL starts under its belt whereas last year's crew entered camp with none.

"Having guys who've been here before who understand the way we do things, who understand the league better makes a world of difference," Barker said.

And for that reason Barker is looking forward to watching the quarterbacks compete in camp.

"I absolutely can't wait," he said. "It's going to be fantastic to watch who steps up.

"For Cleo, last year he won the job and this year he's competing again and watching how he responds to that is all part of his growth as a quarterback. And there's how Dalton battles? Hopefully we get Steven back soon and we'll see what happens."

NOTES - Veteran cornerback Willie Middlebrooks retired Wednesday after sustaining a serious neck injury late last season. Barker said even had Middlebrooks received medical clearance to play, he wouldn't have had the former NFL first-round draft pick back for fear that he'd suffer a potentially life-altering injury on the field. "With the kind of injury he had any hit could've done damage," Barker said. "I wasn't going to put him or me through that . . . it's not worth it." . . . It might've been the first taste of pro football for many of the players in camp Wednesday, but Barker didn't take it easy on those who erred, launching verbal blasts to those making miscues. "They're competing to take jobs away from veteran players and if they want to act as rookies they're going to get cut. So I treat them like they're veteran players, I expect them to know what to do, I expect them to come out and perform perfectly."

Cleo Lemon (Photo: Adam Gagnon/Toronto Argonauts )

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(Photo: Adam Gagnon/Toronto Argonauts )
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