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JONES: Hope has returned for the Eskimos in quarterback Harris

In the program he’s listed as No. 7 Harris.

In reality, he’s No. 1 Hope.

Trevor Harris is the reason to have any expectations for the Edmonton Eskimos to become the first crossover club in history to go from finishing fourth in the Western Conference to getting to the Grey Cup.

When he was healthy on the front end of this CFL season the Eskimos were a Cup contender with a 6-3 record and Harris was a clear candidate to be named CFL Most Outstanding Player.

But the biggest hope Harris may bring to the Eskimos and Edmonton as the team heads to Montreal for the Eastern Semifinal is that last year, in the Eastern Final, he quite possibly played the greatest single playoff game by a quarterback in a CFL playoff game in history.

Harris broke an Eastern Final record with six touchdown passes to lead the Ottawa Redblacks to the Grey Cup and defeat the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 46-27. He completed 29 of 32 passes to 10 different receivers for 367 yards. His 90.6 completion percentage was also a record.

The Eskimos returned to the practice field Tuesday inside the Commonwealth Stadium Field House in a generally positive mood, possibly because they’re not going to be playing a playoff game in -17 C to -22 C temperatures in these parts but headed to Quebec where it is projected to be 4 C.

But mostly the mood was because Harris is not only back but he’s also back as almost certainly the league’s healthiest quarterback going into the playoffs.

“You’d have to put your money on me, right? I’ve played one game in the last two months.”

The playoff quarterbacks potentially in his path, Vernon Adams Jr., Dane Evans and Cody Fajardo, all of whom started the season as backups and have zero playoff experience, weren’t in his situation, said Harris.

“I have the advantage of having experience that I didn’t have to play the last three games in a row. I’ve been in the fire and played in November with no rest. I’ve played a ton of games at this point.

“It was also good to come back and play a game after I hadn’t thrown for a month and a half and then another week of rest. My arm is like 12-year-old again. That’s how alive it feels.”

If head coach Jason Maas is going to keep his job he almost certainly needs to become the first head coach to emerge from the Eastern Division playoffs as a crossover team. The first nine teams to try it failed, including the Eskimos three times.

Maas made his bet on Harris by putting the quarterback on the six-game injured list and leaving him there, other than bringing him back for the final home regular season game two weeks ago against Saskatchewan.

After one start, Harris was back as a spectator Saturday as a healthy scratch for the final league game in Regina as the Eskimos completed the schedule with an 8-10 record and failing to win a single game against any team in the playoffs except Montreal when the Alouettes were a team in turmoil in the first game of the season.

“To have your starting quarterback returning healthy at this time of year is great. We protected him for the last game and really for the last five weeks and now he’s ready to roll,” said Maas.

“Hopefully that’s going to pay off for us.”

Harris’ performance in the East Final instantly qualified as something of legend and lore in the three down game.

“Any time you’ve done it before means you can do it again. That’s what he’s capable of and I think that’s in the back of everyone’s mind,” said Maas of the quarterback who managed to get to the Grey Cup in three of the previous for years with Ottawa and Toronto.

For Harris, having that history and particularly that performance in his back pocket can never be a bad thing.

“That was last year,” he said.

“It was fun to look back on during the off-season and to go forward turning the page and finding the lessons I could learn for the playoffs in that game.

“Knowing that defences can come out and show you something completely different than they’ve shown on film is something I took from that game.

Asked if that playoff game was by far his greatest game including college and high school, Harris began his answer.

“It was close …”

He broke out in a big grin and admitted it.

“Yeah, probably,” he laughed.

Harris, despite missing one-third of the schedule, ended up with the league’s best completion percentage at 71.8 and 4,027 yards passing.

Everything considered — with his sensational start and the frustration that followed, first playing hurt and then the finally being shelved as the team lost seven of their last nine — Harris couldn’t be more pumped.

“It’s what you play for. The ones you live for are the ones that mean more. There’s something different in the air when playoffs come and we’ve been waiting for this moment ever since we knew we were going to be crossing over.”