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Eskimos GM Sunderland: When healthy, Trevor Harris was best quarterback in CFL in 2019

THE BLUE MOUNTAINS —The Edmonton Eskimos flashed plenty of potential during the 2019 Canadian Football League season, it just wasn’t enough for general manager Brock Sunderland.

Sunderland, a former assistant GM with the Ottawa Redblacks, decided to move on from Jason Maas, firing the head coach following the team’s 8-10 finish and a 36-16 loss to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the East Division final. The Eskimos looked south of the border, to the National Football League, for their new head coach —Scott Milanovich, the quarterbacks coach with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

And now, there are new expectations, new hopes as Milanovich, previously a head coach with the Toronto Argonauts from 2012-16, builds on a very good base that includes several former Redblacks, including quarterback Trevor Harris, receiver Greg Ellingson and offensive lineman SirVincent Rogers.

Harris, who was in Ottawa from 2016-18, was elite in 2019. Despite an injury to his throwing arm that restricted him to 13 games, the 33-year-old completed 343-of-478 passes for 16 touchdowns and just six interceptions. His 4,027 passing yards ranked second-best in the CFL, behind only Saskatchewan’s Cody Fajardo, who played in 18 games.

“I might be biased, but when he was healthy, I think Trevor was the best quarterback in the league and I don’t think it was close,” said Sunderland during the CFL’s winter meetings, which wrapped up Thursday at a ski resort north of Toronto. “His ability on the field, his leadership, his knowledge of the offence, his command in the locker room — all those things are tremendous. I don’t know if I’ve seen a player commit to the level he does. Flying out on trips, he has these mental games he does. Instead of reading a book, watching a movie or sleeping, he’s mentally preparing. He watches film. He’s the first guy in, last guy out. A lot of quarterbacks say they’re that way, he really is.

“He does so many things above and beyond. I know when he was hurt, he told me one night he couldn’t sleep because his mind was going through everything. He was saying, ‘Yeah, I was taking drops and going through the motions at three in the morning.’ We were like, ‘Just let it heal. Relax a bit.’ You want that. You want a guy you have to rein in as opposed to having to prod. I really can’t say enough about who he is as a person, his talent as a player and his leadership ability – all of the above – we’re thrilled to have him.”

Rogers, who like Harris signed with Edmonton as a free agent, had been a Redblack since 2015. A torn triceps injury wiped out his 2019 season. But Sunderland expects the big lineman will be a key part of his team’s lineup in the coming season.

“Right now, I think if we were going to play a game tomorrow, he’d be ready to go,” said Sunderland. “He worked his tail off. I think he’s finally taken that last step. I think he’ll be a full go for training camp. We expect him to be our left tackle.”

Finding players who previously suited up for Ottawa has worked out well for Sunderland and the Eskimos. One of the best finds was defensive lineman Mike Moore, a Redblack in 2016 who had nine sacks as an Eskimo in 2019.

“People say it happens, players move from Ottawa to Edmonton,” said Sunderland. “It also happened when Jim Popp went from Montreal to Toronto, it happened when Ed (Hervey) went to B.C. It’s not unique to us. But you know who they are, you know what you’re getting on and off the field.

“Mike Moore, we released him in Ottawa, but I liked him a lot. We were looking for a guy who could play the 3-tech as a defensive tackle, but also kick out and play defensive end.”

The timing was right, Sunderland said, to make a coaching move.

“We underachieved,” he said. “I didn’t have a specific number of wins in mind (that Maas would need to keep his job), there wasn’t a benchmark of if this happens, then … It was gut instinct. Without getting into specifics, it was things through the course of the year — the overall record and a combination of a couple of years. It wasn’t a decision based totally on 2019. I thought we’d gone as far as we could go with that structure. Moving ahead, we made a change to improve and hopefully get to where we all want to get – the Grey Cup.”

Sunderland said he had a list of seven or eight potential replacements to guide the team moving forward.

“At the end, there was probably three guys I really zoned in on,” said Sunderland. “Scott was always on the list. Realistically and truthfully, I wasn’t sure he would leave the NFL. He was on the list, but it had an asterisk next to it simply because I wasn’t sure he would come back to the CFL.

“Scott and I go back to Montreal. We didn’t work together for a long time — six or seven months —but I was immediately impressed. Not a lot of people know this, but what he did (for the Argos) when he was there under those circumstances was unbelievable. It was almost like the real-life Major League, the movie. The (training field) facility burned down, they were running meetings out of a pub. He finds a way to win a Grey Cup, then in 2015, they were playing home games on the road (due to scheduling conflicts with the Pan Am Games and Toronto Blue Jays). When I was with Ottawa, we kind of felt we were pulling one over on them because they were playing a home game at our place. Then they came in and took it to us. Winning under extremely difficult circumstances was beyond impressive. His ability to develop quarterbacks and get the most out of them is also impressive. He’s a proven winner, a leader of men. Across the board, he checked every box. I think I met with Scott for about an hour and a half. Within that hour and a half, I knew he was the guy.”


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