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JONES: Not many returning Eskimos for Friday's first game of season

Thursday, on the eve of their first game of the CFL season, the Edmonton Eskimos were required to produce their first depth chart of the year.

Only NINE players that started the final game of the regular season last year — RB C.J. Gable, WR Natey Adjei, OT Tommie Draheim, OL David Beard, OL Matt O’Donnell, OL Colin Kelly, DE Kwaku Boateng, DT Almondo Sewell and Forrest Hightower — are starting Friday against Montreal.

That’s nine out of 24.

Perhaps you’ve noticed. Unlike last year and throughout many years of Eskimos history, next to nobody is picking Edmonton to get to the Grey Cup. And that’s despite having more players listed on the TSN Top 50 poll than any other team.

When it comes to Grey Cup odds released by this week, only two teams are listed as longer shots than 10-to-1 Edmonton — the 12-to-1 Toronto Argos and the team the Eskimos open against Friday, the 14-to-1 Montreal Alouettes.

Of 50 respondents to the CFL annual media poll, only two projected the Eskimos to finish first in the West compared to 24 selecting Winnipeg, 17 picking Calgary and seven the B.C. Lions. Nobody liked the Als to win the East.

And that’s despite Edmonton being ranked second to B.C., 24 votes to 19, as the team making the best overall moves in the off-season.

So what might you make of all that?

The so-called experts, I believe, have come to the conclusion that the West is going to be a wild scramble between four, if not all five, worthy clubs this year, and that the Eskimos have likely made too many changes to get off to a good trip and to have a cohesive team for the 18-game regular season schedule.

Even head coach Jason Maas conceded the other day that he looked at last year’s Eskimos team picture and added up a total of 53 members of the team who were no longer here this year.

If there was ever a year the Eskimos needed to get off to a good start, this might be it.

An old manager of the Triple A Edmonton Trappers, a great character by the name of Moose Stubing, used to sit at spring training in Mesa, Ariz., and talk about The Art of Getting Off To A Good Trip. He’d made something of a study of it.

There are certain baseball managers, he contended, who specialized in getting out of the gate great. And he guessed that must be true of head coaches in most other pro sports.

It’s early in the career of Jason Maas but as he goes into his fourth season as head coach of the Eskimos, there is at least some evidence that he may have the special talent at getting out of the gate great to which Stubing used to speak. Again, it would be a good time to prove that to be true and exercise it.

Getting off to a good trip is almost mandatory for the Eskimos, who go against former quarterback Mike Reilly the following Friday at home and again in their fourth game in Vancouver with two games against Winnipeg and three against Calgary in their first 12 games.

Through the first three years, Maas, the 43-year-old former Eskimos quarterback, has had records of 10-8, 12-6 and 9-9 for an overall win loss record of 31-23. He’s lost an East Final, lost a West Final and missed the playoffs the year the most ballistic Grey Cup was held in Edmonton.

He’s yet to prove he can win his last game of the season as a head coach but after losing his first game in overtime to Ottawa in 2017, he’s excelled at getting off to a good trip these last two years.

He led the Eskimos to a 7-0 start to their season two years ago and got them away to 5-2 trip last year. The flip side, of course, is that the Eskimos ended the year 3-6 and missed the playoffs.

The contrast will be on the other side of the ball Friday. The Alouettes began their five-win season at 1-8, their worst nine-game start in their history. The Als were actually a respectable 4-5 in the second half of the season.

The Eskimos are 42-27-1 over their first 70 years to open the season.

“Even though we have a lot of new faces, I think this team is as close as any team we’ve had coming out of the gate,” said Maas.

One aspect to watch early with Edmonton is penalties.

“We talked about that, too. One of our first team meetings was ‘Where do we want to be?’ and ‘What do we want to be known as?’ he said of developing a team identity,” said the head coach.

“We discussed it just that way. We’ve always been bad at the start of the year with penalties but by the end of the year, we seem to get it. So why don’t we focus just a little bit more in practice, have more thought behind it when it comes to discipline at the start of the season.”

Maas keeps a board in the dressing room with a different set of standings than the one they print in the paper.

“If you are in the top three in creating turnovers and in the top three in not taking penalties, those are the teams most likely to make the playoffs. We want to be one of those teams.”