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Landry: Scary Terry set to bring electricity to Eskimos

The last time the Edmonton Eskimos returned a kick for a touchdown during a regular-season game, Terry Williams was entering his senior year with the Kutztown University Golden Bears, in Pennsylvania.

On that Friday night at Commonwealth Stadium — August 28, 2015 — Kendial Lawrence fielded a Toronto punt at the Eskimo 46-yard line, bounced a step to the right, then cut hard to his left and raced hard out of traffic, sprinting down the sideline for a 64-yard score.

There hasn’t been a Green and Gold regular season or playoff kick-return touchdown since.

“No way,” says Williams, taken aback when informed of the Eskimo kick return goose egg. “Oh wow. Now I’m even more excited to bring back a return touchdown.”

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The Edmonton return game has been in a touchdown drought for a long, long time, and Williams — who signed as a free agent in late February — is expected to do for the Eskimos exactly what he’s been doing for the Calgary Stampeders over the previous two years.

Bring a little rain.

The 27-year-old native of New Jersey, a guy who never wanted to be a returner at all — and who still harbours a great desire to be an every-down running back — is expected to inject a little nitrous into the engine that can help drive the Eskimos’ field position game.

The last four seasons haven’t been particularly explosive ones for the Edmonton return game, and the last two have been especially arid.

In 2016, the Eskimos were last in ‘big play’ kick returns (punt returns and missed field goal returns of 30 or more yards, kick-off returns of 40 or more) and were last in average punt-return yardage. The punt drought continued into 2017 when the team tied with BC for the lowest return average in the league. The kick-off return average was terrific — second in the CFL, in fact — and the number of big-play returns in total, was a half-decent (9), but the touchdown swoon went on.

In both 2018 and again last season, Edmonton’s ‘big play’ total on specials planted them in last, with totals of three and five, respectively. And the stretch of games since Lawrence’s punt return major against the Argos on that August night rose to 81.

During each of the last two seasons, the Eskimos pulled off mid-season deals with the goal of jump-starting the return game, picking up speedster Martese Jackson from Toronto in 2018 and the dynamic Christion Jones from Saskatchewan in 2019.

Jones did help out the Edmonton return game after he arrived last August, even if the touchdown bagel remained. Of the five big-play returns the Eskimos had in 2019, Jones was responsible for at least four of them — a punt return of 41, a kick-off return of 43, and missed field goal returns of 100 and 32 yards. The Eskimos extended Jones’ contract during the off-season, so their one-two punch in the return game seems strong, indeed.

In Williams, the Eskimos are getting a dynamic return man who, despite his great successes, is still growing into the role, believe it or not.

A running back at heart, Williams had almost never brought back punts as a high school or college player and he had no intention of heading down that road as a professional.

Stampeders special teams coordinator Mark Kilam had other ideas, however.

“To be honest with you, I always shied away from returning punts because it was like a nerve-wracking thing,” says Williams, chuckling at the memory. “I guess that’s my thing now.”

He recalls standing on the sideline during special teams drills, back in 2017, waiting for more reps in the backfield, hoping Kilam wouldn’t call out his name. But the coach did, ordering Williams to get out there and shag a few.

“I guess he saw something in me to do it,” Williams said.

At the beginning of the 2018 season, with the abrupt departure of Calgary’s incumbent returner, Roy Finch, Williams was told he would be auditioning for the vacancy. He had a good pre-season, ripping off a
54-yarder against the BC Lions and following that up with an 86-yard punt return major against Saskatchewan. The job was his, whether he wanted it or not.

“I never wanted to do it but he made me do it to the point where I got comfortable with it,” Williams said. “Shout out to Coach Kilam. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be doing it.”

Now, with a couple of seasons under his belt, Williams can take aim at improving the little details of his craft. In 2019, he says, punters were still testing him, spraying the ball around the field in order to try to make him mishandle it as he hauled it in. He didn’t, he says, drop a single ball through the entirety of the campaign.

Still, the once-reluctant returner has room to grow, by his own admission. Williams likes to think of his first three years in the CFL the way one would think of a college progression. He was a wide-eyed freshman in 2017 and a sophomore in 2018. Last year, he felt more growth as a junior. Now, it’s his senior year, if you will, and that’s the time to let it fly.

“Just be more explosive,” Williams says of his goals for the upcoming campaign, and that has to be music to the ears of Eskies’ fans, who are longing for some kind of electrification of the team’s return game.

“Be more comfortable back there, catching punts, reading the punter. How they kick it. Little nuances of the game. I feel like there’s a lot more for me to improve.”

An improvement on what he’s become is a tantalizing possibility.

When he took over the full-time return duties in Calgary in 2018, Williams scored three punt-return scores during the regular season, including one of 102 yards. Then, he gave the Stampeders a firm grip on the 106th Grey Cup presented by Shaw when he raced 97 yards (a Grey Cup punt return record) for a major against Ottawa just before halftime.

Last season, he was second in punt return yards and fifth in kick-off returns, a 103-yard touchdown included. Add in his offensive numbers and you get the man with the second-highest combined yards totals (2,147, just 36 yards behind league leader Chris Rainey), giving more insight into the type of weapon the Eskimos have in Williams.

And when you remember that he racked up 156 yards and 3 touchdowns on 16 carries in his first-ever CFL start at running back in 2017, you get a clearer picture still.

With Shaq Cooper favoured by many to be the feature back for Edmonton in 2020. Devontae Smith and Brandon Burks have been added to a stable that includes Jordan Robinson (the Eskimo player who last returned a punt for a touchdown in 2018, albeit in a pre-season game). Despite that, Williams will endeavour to change the depth chart thinking when camp arrives.

“I know I probably won’t be the premier guy but I’m ready for that too,” Williams says, his running back DNA coming to the fore. “I also just want to expand my role,” he adds.

“I just want to be able to show my versatility and, you know, try to do both as much as possible.”

But when it comes down to it, should the Eskimos decide he’s their prime time returner and not much more, Williams will embrace the job he didn’t at first want, and be thankful that he was told to learn to be a returner when he was in Calgary.

“I’m glad,” he says. “And I’m now making myself a living actually doing it, so it’s kind of crazy.”

WILLIAMS LEARNING ALL ABOUT HIS GREAT EDMONTON NAMESAKE

When Edmonton GM Brock Sunderland made the deal to bring Christion Jones in from Saskatchewan last season, he noted that the memory of the great Henry Williams will always linger with the Eskimos, meaning expectations for the return game will forever be demanding.

“The measuring stick here with Gizmo is pretty high,” Sunderland said at the time.

“It’s kind of the equivalent of the Chicago Bulls saying, ‘Man, we need to get a shooting guard who’s like Jordan.’ Well, pretty hard to replicate that,” he’d added.

For Terry Williams, the legend of Gizmo is one he’s only a little familiar with, though he’s about to get an intensive course in what the Hall-of-Famer means in Eskimo lore.

“I’d heard a bit about him,” says Williams. “We’ve got the same last name so someone called me, like, ‘Little Gizmo’ or something like that. I just know he was an Edmonton great, that’s all I know.”

I rattle off just a few numbers for him; 23,927 combined yards in his career.

“Geez,” says Williams, impressed.

Five punt return touchdowns in one single season. 26 in his career, I advise.

“Beast,” replies Williams. “That’s a crazy stat.”

Source: www.cfl.ca




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