Eskimos look to return to playoffs after off-season of change
EDMONTON — After an off-season of sweeping personnel changes, the Edmonton Eskimos are trying to fit the new pieces together.
With new faces at key positions, the Eskimos will find out how well they’ve managed the turnover against the Montreal Alouettes at Commonwealth Stadium in their 2019 season opener on Friday.
"We have a lot of new players, a lot of guys who haven’t been in this building," said Eskimos head coach Jason Maas. "We wanted to get everybody closer, get to know each other so they could trust each other. That’s what football is all about. It’s about doing your job and trusting the guy next to you is going to do his.
"It’s that you will prepare, understand the process of what we do and believe in our schemes and all that. Believe in our locker-room and the way we do things around here. The faster we could get people up to speed with that, the better the team we would be. That’s been the focus of our camp."
Trevor Harris, who came over from Ottawa as a free agent after passing for 5,116 yards and 22 touchdowns and taking the Redblacks to the 2018 Grey Cup final against Calgary, starts at quarterback in place of Mike Reilly, who signed in B.C.
Harris has been biding his time since playing just one quarter in a 22-7 pre-season win over the Lions on May 26. He went 8-for-12 for 50 yards and then didn’t play in a 20-3 loss to Winnipeg on May 31.
"It would be a lie to say we were comfortable," Harris said of having two games so early in camp. "I think we’ve made a ton of strides since then. It’s just one of those things where you start to feel it click as an offence.
"It starts to operate better and better. We’ve got a bunch of hungry guys, so we’ve tried to take advantage of the time we’ve had together."
While Harris is the most noteworthy change on offence, he’s far from the only newcomer. Like Reilly, receivers Duke Williams, Derel Walker and Bryant Mitchell are gone after the team missed the playoffs last year for the first time since 2013.
"Each day you get, it’s a little better each time," Harris said of settling into a new system with new teammates. "That’s part of the gymnastics of this.
"You find yourself thinking, and that’s not where you want to be as a quarterback. You want it to be second nature, know things like the back of your hand. The more reps you get, the better you get at that."
Defensively, Edmonton will have as many as six new starters, most notably replacing linebackers J.C. Sherritt and Adam Konar. There’ll be lots of new faces in the defensive backfield as well.
With two weeks between their second pre-season game and the opener, the Eskimos made their final big cut Saturday. Fullback Calvin McCarty, entering his 13th season and the team’s longest-serving member, knows the drill.
"Everybody has that challenge," McCarty said of the changes to the roster. "Obviously, we lost some key guys … you can’t take anything for granted. You’re being evaluated at all times here, even standing around when you might not think anybody is watching.
"Guys are competing. Guys have families to feed. It’s a job. We play games, but it’s not a game. There’s mental battles. There’s physical battles. There’s all kinds of battles you face in training camp. Everybody has their own, but you’ve got to stay ready and be ready."
EDMONTON ESKIMOS AT A GLANCE
HEAD COACH:Jason Maas, fourth season
LAST YEAR: 9-9-0, fifth in West, missed playoffs
KEY PLAYERS: QB Trevor Harris: The former Redblack led all CFL quarterbacks with a 70.1 completion percentage with Ottawa in 2018, but he has a new offensive scheme and new targets with the Eskimos.
WR Greg Ellingson: Four straight seasons of 1,000-plus yards receiving with Ottawa. Ellingson is the most proven pass-catcher in a revamped receiving corps and a familiar face for Harris.
LB Larry Dean: A two-time East Division all-star with Hamilton, Dean takes over at middle linebacker from J.C. Sherritt.
THE BIG QUESTION: Edmonton’s defence will stress speed and aggressiveness under new defensive co-ordinator Phillip Lolley, but will it be markedly better than the group that wasn’t good enough in 2018?