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JONES: Has Sunderland reloaded Eskimos roster?

There’s a perception problem to overcome as the Edmonton Eskimos head to training camp this weekend.

The Eskimos have experienced more turnover lately than the provincial legislature. There was a definite name drain in the off-season as high profile players made Edmonton exits like they were Oilers in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.

The combined effect of those departures on the heels of last year’s miss-the-playoffs pratfall, effectively broadcast the end of the multi-Grey Cup era that Mike Reilly had so convincingly projected for the team before and after winning their 14th title in 2015.

Reilly, of course, led the parade, the league’s best quarterback leaving to join the B.C. Lions.

Middle linebacker J.C. Sherritt retired to become a coach with Calgary. Star receiver Derel Walker departed for the Argos. And 2018 league-leading receiver Duke Williams followed previous league-leading receiver Brandon Zylstra to the NFL.

Also departing were Aaron Grymes, Jake Ceresna, Justin Sorenson, Bryant Mitchell, Mercy Maston, Chris Edwards, Neil King, Nate Behar and Kevin Glenn.

As the 71st edition of the team heads to training camp, the question is if general manager Brock Sunderland reloaded or assembled a new set of deck chairs for the team that so unexpectedly turned into the Titanic last year?

While there’s are a lot of new faces in a lot of new places throughout the CFL this season, does anybody really have a read on what kind of team the Eskimos will be?

Sunderland doesn’t understand why everybody doesn’t necessarily see what he sees — that he’s built this team to go to Grey Cup 107 in Calgary to make up for not getting in the 106th edition last year in Edmonton.

“We have very high hopes. We’re exceptionally excited. There’s been no rock left unturned by this organization. We were very fortunate in free agency and I think we definitely have a better team going into training camp than we did last year,” he said.

While the Eskimos GM received effusive praise for the job he did on the unprecedented wild and crazy free agent frenzy day in CFL history, replacing Reilly and some of the other departed players, I’m not sure it carried all the way to training camp with some of the pre-season predictions that are out there.

It seemed an appropriate time to push his buttons.

To this point, it’s been the job of Sunderland to round ’em up. Starting Sunday, it’ll be the job of Jason Maas to coach ’em up. And Sunderland thinks he’s giving Maas a team that’s going to reach for the top.

“We have a very talented roster. If you look collectively at our whole team, we have the pieces in place.

“We certainly have a linebacker corps that should be in the conversation as best in the league. Yes we lost J.C. Sherritt. But we added the linebacker of the year in Larry Dean (Hamilton). We have Devon Santos-Knox (Winnipeg) who probably would be in the NFL if he hadn’t had a late-season injury. And we acquired Don Unumba (Hamilton), a CFL all-star. At corner, we added Anthony Orange (B.C.), another CFL all-star.

“We were already tied for the lead in sacks with our defensive line, so we feel pretty good there. And we’ve added some people at camp that are certainly going to push the incumbents and maybe even beat them out. We added to the talent level of that group.

“Overall defensively, I definitely think we’ve improved.”

On the other side of the ball, it should tell the tale.

“Everybody knows Reilly left but Trevor Harris (Ottawa) has had a very good career. I said this at free agency. There were two quarterbacks in the Grey Cup last year and we have one of them. He set a record for CFL playoff touchdown passes in one game with six. He’s been a part of two Grey Cup champion teams. He knows this system. He’s played for Jason and worked with me before.

“Our running back corps had C.J. Gable, the first running back to have over 1,000 yards for this organization since 2011, and Shaq Cooper, who as a pure ball-carrier, might be the most dynamic runner in the league.

“At receiver, we have Greg Ellingson (Ottawa). That speaks for itself,” he said of Harris’ battery mate who caught a combined 332 passes for 4,863 yards over the last four seasons.

“We have receiver DaVaris Daniels (Calgary). Ricky Collins Jr. (B.C.) is a guy we like. We think the arrow is up on him. We think he’s a 1,000-yard receiver if he gets the targets and the opportunities. Tevaun Smith is a six-foot-two first-round draft choice that kicked around the NFL for a couple of years, who runs a 4.3 (second 40-yard sprint) and played in the Big 10. And lets not forget our left tackle, SirVincent Rogers (Ottawa). He’s has been the league’s best at his position for years. We’re talking all-stars across the league.”

As the Eskimos go to training camp leading to the first pre-season game the following Saturday afternoon against the B.C. Lions at Commonwealth Stadium, it’ll likely take all week for everybody to introduce themselves to each other. But by the time they emerge from training camp, Sunderland believes they’ll look around the dressing room at each other and realize the possibilities.

The thing is, it all has to come together.


On Twitter: @ByTerryJones