Davis: Nelson Lokombo: From forgotten man to starting cornerback of the Roughriders


“Injuries can be a setback, but I like to come back from them”

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Since being selected second in the 2021 CFL Draft, defensive back Nelson Lokombo has essentially been a forgotten man.

The Saskatchewan Roughriders played 54 regular season games, but Lokombo only appeared in 23 of them and started four, so it's easy to forget the promise, athleticism and maturity he can offer to a team that's rebuilding its defensive line.

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Of course, it hurt that just days after signing, Lokombo was one of four Roughriders to tear an Achilles tendon during preseason practice, causing him to miss his entire rookie season. He is the only one of those four still playing.

After rehabilitation and recovery, Lokombo was ready to start the 2022 season. And the 2023 season.

Injuries quickly derailed those plans, but nothing could weaken his resolve. Lokombo, a product of the University of Saskatchewan, signed a one-year contract extension in the offseason.

“Man, I just love playing football,” Lokombo said after a recent Roughriders practice at Mosaic Stadium. “Football is what got me here. I love competition and, you know, I like challenges.”

“Injuries can be a setback, but I like to come back from them. I want to keep going and keep playing. It's really in my blood; it's always been that way.”

Now back in action as a wideside cornerback, he has started each of Saskatchewan's two preseason games at that position and continues to be in the number one lineup at daily practice.

“I think that's my place right now,” Lokombo said. “But at the same time, I'm proud to be able to play anywhere. If they need me as a halfback, safety – phew! – on the defensive line, then I'll do it.”

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When the Roughriders opened training camp in Saskatoon nearly three weeks ago, only five of the 12 defensive players were locked into their positions for Saskatchewan's season opener on June 8 against the home Edmonton Elks. Returning defensive tackles Micah Johnson and Anthony Lanier II were safe, as were safety Jayden Dalke, halfback Rolan Milligan Jr. and the only new addition in the surefire category, free agent linebacker Jameer Thurman.

Has Lokombo joined them?

“Now he's here,” head coach Corey Mace said. “He's got to earn it. He definitely has the talent. I think that's what made him a first-round draft pick. He's made some good plays for us at this point.”

“He has the flexibility to play in the (defensive backfield). They've asked a lot of him during his time here, field half (back), corner, safety. So that's a nice luxury for him.”

Versatility and availability, the old saying goes, are two of the most important skills in an athlete. It also helps that Lokombo, who was born in Abbotsford, is Canadian.

CFL teams are required to have seven Canadians among their 24 starters on offense and defense. Dalke, free agent linebacker Adam Auclair and Lokombo will likely start on defense, along with three offensive linemen and at least two receivers, giving the Roughriders some roster flexibility.

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Mace said that in his first season with the Roughriders, the coaching staff is considering how best to position the Canadian portion of the team while still considering the final roster decisions that must be made by the league's deadline on Saturday.

“I know (Lokombo's) background and the injuries he's had to deal with pretty well,” Mace said. “To see him where he is today really says something about his attitude. Guys like that are the kind of guys you want to run with.”

As the Roughriders continue to prepare for another CFL season that could go any way, Lokombo was asked if he feels blessed or cursed as he looks back on his career, the setbacks and the potential.

“I mean, either way, you can learn something from it, right?” said Lokombo, who turned 25 in March. “When something happens, I just try to learn from it and move on.”

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