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Alouettes Fletcher is seizing his opportunity as the starter with Stanback gone

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MONTREAL — Head coach Jason Maas had a message for Walter Fletcher after the running back signed a one-year extension with the Montreal Alouettes in February.

The Alouettes' No. 1 running back spot was going to be up for grabs with William Stanback leaving, but Fletcher wouldn’t be handed the position on a platter.

“You have to work for it,” Fletcher said of Maas’s phone call Monday after Alouettes practice at Stade Hébert. “Come in and work and we'll see what happens."

So far, Fletcher is seizing the opportunity.

The fourth-year American tailback took the starting role out of training camp, beating out Canadians Jeshrun Antwi and Sean Thomas-Erlington, and American Stevie Scott III. Now he's trying to run away with the position.

Fletcher scored two dynamic touchdowns in last Friday’s 23-20 win over the Edmonton Elks, helping the defending-champion Alouettes improve to 2-0 before their home opener Thursday against the Ottawa Redblacks.

The 27-year-old finished with 82 rushing yards on 12 carries and hauled in three receptions for 61 yards against the team that traded him to Montreal for a sixth-round draft pick in 2022. And that wasn’t all that Maas noticed.

“The things that everyone doesn't notice is the blocking that he does every week, very solid. And then the hard yards he got — there was no negative yardage runs, everything was positive,” Maas said. “There's a reason we were giving him a chance coming out of training camp. He's earned that.”

Knowing the starting job might be up for grabs, Fletcher changed his training regimen during the off-season.

For four days a week he woke up at 4 a.m. before driving 45 minutes from Bowie, Md., to the Under Armour headquarters in Baltimore to train with performance coach London Fitzhugh.

Fletcher’s main goal? To build up his strength and become a better pass blocker. After finishing last season weighing 197 pounds, the five-foot-nine running back entered training camp in May at around 208.

“Running the ball is great but if you can't protect the quarterback, which is Cody (Fajardo), then you won't play,” Fletcher said. “I've always had speed but being able to withstand a full season and being able to protect was key.”

Alouettes running back coach Dave Jackson said Fletcher’s increased strength and commitment to blocking were crucial factors in him getting the starting role to start the season.

"To take that spot he was able to flash that explosiveness … (but) the No. 1 thing is he earned the trust of everyone around him by him being able to protect the quarterback and protect the football,” Jackson said. “Fletch has been on point with his protection, he's been on point with his ball security, with his studying and preparation, and now it's just his talents that are able to shine."

Jackson said Fletcher adds a different element to the Alouettes’ offence than the six-foot, 233-pound Stanback.

“Fletch brings a little bit of twitch,” he said. “He's going to be able to put a shake on somebody and make them miss.”

Fletcher arrived in Montreal to fill in for Stanback after he broke his ankle at the beginning of the 2022 season, totalling 486 yards on 85 carries. Stanback, however, returned as the starter later in the campaign and carried it for all of last year as Fletcher played just seven games.

Stanback, appearing to be the odd man out in the Alouettes’ salary cap crunch, requested to be released by Montreal and signed with the B.C. Lions in February.

The move opened the door for Fletcher, who says waiting to get an opportunity is something he’s used to.

"That's kind of been my story since high school, man,” he said. “I had to always work my way up.”

In college, Fletcher transferred from Division III Randolph-Macon College to Division II Edinboro University of Pennsylvania before climbing to Division I Ball State as a graduate in 2019 and totalling 1,032 all-purpose yards.

Instead of getting impatient behind Stanback, or Elks tailback James Wilder Jr. before that, Fletcher took it as a chance to learn.

"I played with two of the premier backs in the league, so to learn from those guys is a blessing,” he said. “You see how they prepare, I watched their tape, I watched how they run the ball, watched how they protect. There's nothing wrong with learning by sitting behind guys.”

But deep down Fletcher knew that he would be a No. 1 running back in the CFL, and he believes his opportunity has arrived at the right time.

"At 27 years old, I’m kind of hitting my prime right now,” Fletcher said. “I know how to run, I know how to catch, now it's just being able to sustain a full season healthy and being able to withstand those hits as well."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 17, 2024.