TORONTO - He hasn't played in a CFL game since August but rookie Jalil Carter found himself practising with the Toronto Argonauts starting defence Thursday.
Carter was lined up in the cornerback spot usually held down by East Division all-star Pat Watkins, who was held out most of Thursday's practice at Rogers Centre due to an ankle injury. Watkins, who finished tied with safety Jordan Younger for the team lead in interceptions with five, is day-to-day.
Argos head coach Scott Milanovich said he should know more Friday whether Watkins will play in the East Division final Sunday against the Montreal Alouettes at Olympic Stadium.
If Watkins can't go, Milanovich has no reservations about Carter stepping in. The 23-year-old native of Toledo, Ohio, started four games earlier this season when cornerback Pacino Horne was injured, including Toronto's 23-20 road win over Montreal on July 27.
"He's very athletic, plays the ball well, very instinctive," Milanovich said of Carter. "He has played against these guys in the past so that's a bonus."
The six-foot-one, 190-pound Carter registered 18 tackles in his four games, including six in his final start, an 18-9 home loss to the B.C. Lions on Aug. 6. Since then, Carter has patiently waited for another opportunity to suit up for the Argos.
"Pat is day-to-day and I'm just doing as I'm told," Carter said. "If they want me to fill in, I'll fill in . . . I'm just playing my role on the team.
"Every week you have to prepare like you're playing. That's all there is to it. Anything can happen so you can't be complacent."
But if Carter must play, not only will it be for his first game action since August but it will come in the biggest contest of the year for the Argos.
"So true and I'm ready," the former University of Toledo star said. "I feel like I do well under pressure.''
Watkins suited up for practice and participated early on before chatting with Milanovich and defensive co-ordinator Chris Jones. After the brief conversation, Watkins walked over to the sidelines with his head down, removed his helmet and began riding an exercise bike. He didn't return as Carter lined up at cornerback with the starting unit.
Watkins wasn't available for comment, as per team policy regarding players who are listed as day-to-day.
Carter and his teammates practised Thursday with noise piped into Rogers Centre to mimic what they'll face at Olympic Stadium. Milanovich said the loud conditions in Montreal can give the Alouettes a decided advantage.
"It's absolutely an advantage especially if they can get it rolling and start getting hot, then the crowd seems to pick up," he said. "If the other team is able to come in and get off to a lead it's not as much of a factor so it would be great to play with the lead.
"It doesn't always happen that way but we're going to have to be prepared to play 60 minutes to win this game."
Argos defensive backs coach Orlondo Steinauer said Watkins was held out for precautionary reasons and believes the former Dallas Cowboy and San Diego Charger will play Sunday. But if Watkins can't, Steinauer said nothing will change within the secondary.
"I don't see it as a big deal if something unforeseen happens because then we just plug in and play," he said. "We plug people in all the time . . . our system is such where we're always prepared.
"I always ask the DBs, 'What position are you prepared to play if there's an injury and execute bigger than just play?'"
Toronto was ranked third against the pass this season and had the second-most interceptions (24) in the CFL. The Argos' defence was also the toughest to throw against, allowing a league-low 58.8 per cent completion percentage.
Toronto's pass defence figures to be important Sunday with veteran quarterback Anthony Calvillo, who was second overall in passing, spearheading Montreal's offence. The unit also features two 1,000-yard receivers in S.J. Green and Jamel Richardson.
Richardson's 75-yard TD grab anchored Montreal's 24-12 win over Toronto on Oct. 14 which gave the Alouettes the season series 2-1.
Younger, an Argos defensive captain, also said Watkins was simply given a rest day. But if Watkins can't play, Younger said the onus will be on Carter to step in and perform.
"Next man up, but the mission stays the same," Younger said. "He (Carter) is an exceptional athlete with good size and speed.
"He can go."
While the post-season is indeed a stressful time for players and coaches, Younger, a nine-year CFL veteran, said it's also a time for positive reflection.
"It's one of those times where you can feel all the work coming together," he said. "All the struggles, all the arguments and fights in trying to keep things together in the locker-room, going through the losing streaks just go get here and then see everything kind of come together.
"We've got some momentum, it's exciting."
NOTES — Toronto and Montreal players will receive $3,600 each for playing in the East final. Members of the Grey Cup-winning team will earn $16,000 while the players on the losing squad get $8,000 apiece . . . Veteran punter Noel Prefontaine kicked field goals Thursday but only because kicker Swayze Waters had a doctor's appointment. Milanovich said Waters is fine and will play Sunday . . . Milanovich said twice this week he has warned his players against saying too much leading up to Sunday's contest. "We're trying to stay humble and just play the game."