CFL Pass

O-line's Depth Helps Offset Injuries

The Eskimos offensive line’s near-perfect run this season suffered a hit against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers on Friday night at The Brick Field at Commonwealth Stadium.

After surrendering only three quarterback sacks during their first nine games of the CFL season, the Esks gave up three sacks on Friday night alone as Winnipeg defensive end Willie Jefferson proved to be a one-man wrecking crew (three sacks, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, one pass knockdown, four defensive tackles and a 35-yard punt single).

“He’s one of the best that there is in that position,” said Kyle Saxelid, the Eskimos’ 2019 second-round draft pick who made his second CFL start – and first start at left tackle – in the game.

“I looked at it as a great opportunity for me – that I was able to go in there, a rookie, first start at left tackle, to witness that firsthand right off the bat,” he continued. “All I can do is learn from it. It’s a great experience.

“I feel like I started off pretty well and then, near the end (of the game), he was able to do some things on me.”

Despite its success this year, the O-line has been in a state of flux all season. The Eskimos signed SirVincent Rogers on the opening day of free agency, but the two-time CFL all-star left tackle tore a tricep muscle during training camp and hasn’t played a down.

Then starting left guard Jacob Ruby missed a game and starting right guard Matt O’Donnell went down, but former CFL all-star guard Travis Bond, an American player, stepped into their positions without the O-line missing a beat. Bond, 28, has played six games, including each of the last five.

Now, Tommie Draheim, a 30-year-old veteran who “was playing as good as any left tackle in our league,” according to Head Coach Jason Maas, is hurt.

“Tommie’s, hopefully, going to be back,” Maas added. “It’s not going to be a super long thing.”

Draheim’s injury during the Aug. 16th game in Toronto opened the door for the six-foot-seven, 290-pound Saxelid to step in at left tackle, the position he played in high school and for 33 NCAA games at UNLV (University of Nevada Las Vegas), during the recent Argos game and again against the Blue Bombers on Friday.

With O’Donnell on the verge of returning to the lineup for the Labour Day Classic against the Stampeders in Calgary after completing a six-game stint on the injured list, Saxelid may be returning to his role as the offensive line’s sixth man (backup).

“My job right now is to be the sixth man and be in there for whoever needs help,” he said. “That’s just what I’m doing right now; just getting on the field and doing what I can to help the team.”

Saxelid, 24, grew up in California and is an American-trained offensive lineman, but only recently discovered that he is considered a national player because his mother was born in Canada. That’s a huge advantage in the CFL, where a minimum of seven starters – and a minimum of 21 players on the 44-man game roster – have to be national players.

“Since we’ve met Kyle through the (CFL Draft) interview process and watched him in training camp, you know that he’s light years ahead of another rookie coming in,” said Eskimos Head Coach Jason Maas. “He’s done nothing but work hard and listen and pay attention and be a great teammate and fit in.”

Saxelid has practised at every position on the O-line this year and played all but centre and right tackle during games. With the exception of his two starts, he has been a backup the other eight games.

“I never want to get on the field at the expense of someone else, and that’s just how I have (got opportunities to play this year),” he said about the injuries that have sidelined four different starters this season. “But it’s what it is. I’m going to take full advantage of the opportunity.

“I’m still in that whole ‘I’m just excited to be here’ mode,” he added. “I’m a rookie here in the CFL. I’ve played in most of the games.”

Meanwhile, Rogers still has to wait for at least two more games to clear the six-game injured list a second time.