Receiver Kevin Challenger makes a tough catch during
the Edmonton Eskimos rookie camp at Clarke Stadium.

Photograph by : Greg Southam, The Journal

Challenger has big skills
in small package
June 4, 2008

by John MacKinnon
The Edmonton Journal

When it comes to Canadian play-makers on offence, the Edmonton Eskimos training camp roster is lousy with them, for a change.

Which makes for a pleasant puzzle for head coach Danny Maciocia to sort out between now and the CFL opener on June 28, and the kind of healthy competition any coach looks for at training camp.

Two pieces of the puzzle are rookie receivers Kevin Challenger, fresh from a five-year NCAA career with Boston College, and Dante Luciano, a converted quarterback the Eskimos drafted this spring out of Sir Wilfrid Laurier University.

They're both very talented," Maciocia said after practice on Tuesday. "Challenger has had an outstanding collegiate career at Boston College.

"He's undersized. He doesn't wow you with his size, he doesn't wow you with his speed, but he gets it done.

"You watch him and you say, 'He catches the ball, he knows where he's going, he understands the concepts, he's just a solid player.'

"As for Luciano, he is extremely athletic," said Maciocia, who coached Luciano as a QB with Team Canada at the NFL global junior championship. "He just runs good routes, he's got great hands.

"He's not a kid that's going to test well at (the scouting combine). His numbers won't wow you. But then you watch him play and he's getting it done."

They are getting it done on a roster that includes Canadian receivers Kamau Peterson, who's coming off a 1,000-yard season with the Eskimos, Raymond's Brock Ralph, who was the leading receiver with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats last season (50 catches, 721 yards), and versatile veteran Andrew Nowacki, who had his best-ever CFL season in 2007 (47 catches, 465 yards).

So Challenger, a five-foot-eight, 180-pounder, and Luciani, who checks in at six-feet and 200 pounds, harbour no illusions about where they fit in the pecking order.

Maciocia, meanwhile, is confident he has upgraded the depth chart with Canadian receivers after off-loading incumbents Pat Woodcock, who was injured most of last season, and Jean-Francois Romeo.

"They're fighting with the other three guys that we've got, basically," Maciocia said of Challenger and Luciani. "For the first time since I've been here, I don't know if we've been this good and this deep at the receiver position as far as Canadians are concerned.

"That's as good as we've had here in a long, long time."

The 26-year-old Challenger is a product of Montreal's Vanier College, a particularly fertile patch of Quebec's strong football grassroots system.

Offensive lineman Patrick Kabongo and Sammy Okpro, who's competing for a spot on the defensive secondary, also came out of Vanier.

So did Tiger-Cats receiver Obed Cetoute and, going back a few years, ex-Esks defensive back Kelly Wiltshire.

Challenger came out of there like gangbusters, earning a scholarship to Boston College, where he played pitch-and-catch with QB Matt Ryan, catching 45 balls for 551 yards and five TDs in his senior year, when the Eagles went 11-3 and played in the Citrus Bowl.

"It's different from what I'm used to," said Challenger, who was traded to Edmonton in the deal that also brought offensive lineman John Comiskey here.

"The scheming is different, you've got to learn new plays. It's a little rough, but it's great to come out here, learn from veterans like Tuck (Jason Tucker), and KP and Nowack. It's a good process."

For Challenger and Luciani, the process means demonstrating they can handle playing a backup role, contribute on special teams, or wherever they're needed.

"I don't mind," Challenger said. "I just want to start playing and eventually win a Grey Cup, that's my goal."

Luciani expects to be going full speed today after being sidelined for two days by a hamstring he strained Sunday.

Like Challenger, the 22-year-old Luciani, who also returned 17 punts for 225 yards and one TD in CIS play last season, is looking to earn a spot by paying his dues and demonstrating his versatility. He is unfazed by the numbers game he is part of.

"The only thing that means is we have to push ourselves and we get to learn from (some of) the best receivers out there," Luciani said. "People like Brock Ralph, Andrew Nowacki, we've got to learn from all the Canadian receivers that we're behind.

"I don't have a problem with it at all."

Luciani has been only mildly surprised by the professional generosity of the more established members of the receiving corps.

"Well, when you think about it, everybody's fighting for a job, everyone wants to get paid," Luciani said. "But at the same time, if everyone's goal is to win the Grey Cup, we need to help each other out.