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Change continues to be the constant for Eskimos' off-season

If it’s a game of Would You Rather, Brock Sunderland would probably rather not play at all.

Especially if the question for the Edmonton Eskimos general manager involves whether he would rather spend an off-season having to replace his head coach and coaching staff, or having to replace his franchise quarterback?

“Can I do ‘C: None of the above?’” Sunderland said with a laugh during a phone call from the CFL winter meetings in Ontario’s Blue Mountain Resort.

A year ago, he had the unenviable task of signing a free-agent replacement for quarterback Mike Reilly, and followed up this time around by overhauling the Eskimos coaching staff after firing head coach Jason Maas.

“I spent Christmas with my dad,” Sunderland said of long-time NFL scout Marv Sunderland. “He kind of looked at me jokingly, like, ‘Are you going to have an off-season where you can have a little bit of stability there?’

“I said, ‘Yeah, that’s the goal.’”

It started in December with the hiring of new head coach Scott Milanovich, who is currently re-familiarizing himself with all things CFL amid meetings with fellow coaches, GMs and, of course, league commissioner Randy Ambrosie.

After spending the past three seasons as quarterbacks coach with the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars, Milanovich is back on the three-down circuit for his second term as a head coach, having previously led the Toronto Argonauts to a Grey Cup championship in 2012, on his way to being named CFL coach of the year.

Milanovich’s hiring ends a trend that has seen the Eskimos bring in a string of first-time head coaches since the turn of the millennium: Tom Higgins, Danny Maciocia, Richie Hall, Kavis Reed, Chris Jones and Maas.

“I saw that after the fact, I didn’t realize it either,” Sunderland said of Milanovich being the first one with previous head coaching experience since Don Matthews in 2000. “I had no idea until I looked at it.”

Sunderland and Milanovich previously worked together with the Montreal Alouettes in 2007.

“He was at the top of my list with an asterisk, because the big question was, ‘Would you want to leave the NFL?’” Sunderland said. “That was the big thing. He was a play-caller in 2018, he had been an offensive co-ordinator, was highly thought of and highly respected in the NFL and I still keep in touch with quite a few people down there.

“So the question was, ‘Was this something you’d even have an interest in?’”

Sunderland got his answer, although it meant Milanovich had to pull double duty as he finished up his responsibilities with the Jaguars’ season while also getting a head start on his Eskimos duties.

“He was working, he was burning both ends of the candle, for sure,” said Sunderland, who travelled down to Florida to meet with Milanovich before offering him the job. “That couldn’t have been easy.”

And there has certainly been no rest for the wicked this week.

“I picked him up at the airport here yesterday, we drove up to Collingwood together and we’re working on finalizing a coaching staff,” said Sunderland, who expects to make an announcement by next week.

The next step will be to focus on re-signing outgoing Eskimos players ahead of next month’s free-agency window.


While defensive end Nick Usher is the latest player to earn an NFL opportunity, Sunderland had lost four players to NFL contracts by the time last year’s winter meetings rolled around.

One of those, of course, was league-leading receiver Duke Williams, who, if only he could have hung onto a contested ball in the end zone on Wildcard Weekend — something that had become his trademark play in the CFL — may very well be staring at an eight-figure deal with the Buffalo Bills as we speak.

“Yep, and we all know he’s capable of making that catch,” said Sunderland, who calls himself the biggest fan of any of his players who get a chance to chase their NFL dream. “I was so happy for him. From the moment we had him at the tryout in Las Vegas, you’d heard about the past, things at Auburn and so forth, but he was never ‘that guy’ that I knew. He was always humble, hard working, he embodied every trait that we want in the Eskimos organization.

“So I just couldn’t be happier for him. You love seeing good people have success and no one deserves it more than Duke.”

In and out: The Eskimos announced Tuesday the re-signing of RB Shaq Cooper and DB Brian Walker. Cooper, a five-foot-10, 190-pound Fort Hays State product, is coming off his second CFL season where he had 352 yards and two touchdowns on 65 carries across five games. He also added 112 yards on 15 passes. Walker, who spent the 2018 season on the practice squad, started nine games last year as part of 14 games that saw him earn 25 tackles, two sacks and an interception.


On Twitter: @GerryModdejonge


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