Wright returns favor for Stallions

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Chris Wright, barely out of college, went to his first professional football training camp two months ago with one thought ringing in his head.

Don't worry about the makeup of Baltimore's Canadian Football League roster, he told himself. It figured to be packed with veterans, leaving little room for a rookie running back like Wright.

"I wasn't going to be intimidated by Mike Pringle's rushing

record or something like that," Wright said. "That would have taken my game down, and I want to get to his level. I came to camp with confidence. But the thing was, can I make it happen? Can I perform?"

Two games into the season, Wright has erased any doubts about his place with the Baltimore Stallions. Two games into his CFL career, Wright is establishing a reputation as one of the league's more dangerous kick returners.

Throughout its successful inaugural season last year, Baltimore thrived on big plays, yet one ingredient was missing from the package. In 21 games, no one ever returned a punt or a kickoff for a touchdown.

Wright filled in that blank in the season opener at British Columbia. In the closing minutes, he received a punt at midfield, burst through a seam down the middle and sprinted untouched for a 55-yard touchdown that gave the Stallions their only lead in a 37-34 defeat.

Then, in last week's home opener, Wright's 69-yard punt return just before halftime put San Antonio in a 17-point hole and sparked the Stallions to a 50-24 rout.

Two weeks. Two touchdowns. Two team records for longest punt returns.

"My goal this week [in San Antonio] is to return a kickoff for a touchdown, and if they punt it to me, another punt return for a touchdown," Wright said. "Every week, I challenge myself to do something, to improve on a skill. I'm just trying to stay consistent, show the coach that if I touch the ball, I can make something happen."

The coach is convinced.

"You can tell guys are worried about him when they start kicking out of bounds," Stallions coach Don Matthews said. "It didn't take any effort to see his skill. He's fast, he's quick and he's tough. It was just a question of finding a spot out of the 37 that he could fit into."

Wright first caught Baltimore's eye in March when assistant general manager Jim Popp saw tapes of him at Georgia Southern, the Division I-AA school quarterback Tracy Ham led to national titles in 1985 and 1986. Popp signed him after an off-season workout.

Still, with Pringle and Robert Drummond established on the running back depth chart, and with the dependable Lester Smith available for return duty, chances appeared slim for Wright.

The team had rated Willie Latta a shade higher than Wright coming into rookie camp. But Wright, who carried the ball rarely in Georgia Southern's wing-T offense but made his mark as the school's all-time kick returner by averaging 21.5 yards over four seasons, kept getting noticed.

He looked quicker in person. His balance was outstanding. His shifty, leaning, high-stepping style made him a difficult target for tacklers.

Wright, 5 feet 8, 175 pounds, earned his roster spot in the Stallions' final preseason game, a 37-0 rout of Birmingham. He touched the ball 23 times as a return man and running back, besides covering kickoffs and punts. The game left Wright exhausted.

"He had done so many good things before the Birmingham game, but that game was a vital time for him," Matthews said. "A lot of first-year players have to go through the rigors of the CFL game to figure out what it's all about."

Said Wright: "That game really prepared me mentally for the CFL. "He [Matthews] introduced me to the speed of the game, and he showed me the kind of condition I had to be in."

Wright has responded by covering more ground than any other Baltimore player. Through two games, he has averaged 23.1 yards on seven kickoff returns, averaging 21.6 yards on seven punt returns. He has 313 all-purpose yards.

Last week, he also chipped in two tackles on special teams and even played in the offensive backfield late in the game.

Ham had an idea that Wright might stick around and make an impact. After he found out Wright had been signed, Ham -- who lives near Wright in Statesboro, Ga. -- introduced himself to Wright. The pair spent more than two months working out together.

"We mostly worked with weights. I didn't realize he was so quick," Ham said. "He's a special kid, because he's got speed and he's quick, which makes you a very valuable asset in this league. He's giving us good field position. I think he's looking to break one [return] every game now, which is good."

Wright said he plans to break many more returns for long yardage. And look for him to refine the cartwheel and accompanying back flip he has performed twice in the end zone.

"I love to give the fans some kind of entertainment," he said. "And I want to be a spark for this team."

NOTES: Linebacker Maurice Gravely will be activated from the practice roster to replace Jason Bryant, who will have surgery to repair a broken right ring finger. Bryant will probably miss a week. . . . Offensive lineman John James, also on the practice roster, will accompany the team to San Antonio. He could replace either Guy Earle or center Nick Subis, who has been bothered by bruised ribs this week. . . . Ham was named CFL Offensive Player of the Week. He threw for 233 yards and two touchdowns against San Antonio and leads the league in quarterback efficiency with a 129.9 rating. . . . Elfrid Payton was named the league's Lineman of the Week after recording three sacks and recovering his own forced fumble against San Antonio.

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