Shea Emry has a big job ahead of him.
In a sea of new faces on the defence of the Toronto Argonauts – including his own – the seventh year veteran will literally, as well as figuratively, be at the epicentre of whatever good and whatever bad happens with that defence this season.
“I wouldn’t want it any way else,” was his pointed response to that scenario.
That’s good, because there isn’t a solitary soul who admires the sport of football who would entertain any other answer from a middle linebacker. Shrink from that challenge and you’ve really got no business in the position. Rise to it and you can be a standout. Emry has proven to be up to the task in six previous seasons with the Montreal Alouettes.
With the announcement this week of Chad Kackert’s retirement, the starting running back job is up for grabs at Argonauts training camp.
261 tackles, 13 sacks, an all-star nod and two Grey Cup championships are all on his resume, as are awards for being both the top Canadian and top defensive player in the East in 2012.
Those numbers and awards are what made him one of the most sought after free agents on the market this past off-season and what makes him an essential piece on that Toronto defence, which sees it’s third major overhaul in as many campaigns.
“My job involves getting everyone aligned, getting everyone the play call and making sure that we’re all in position to execute our assignments,” Emry explained after a practice this week.
He will be the quarterback of the unit, responsible for vital communication and execution in a group that, in football terms, is in its infancy.
“First thing is to learn their names,” he joked, before getting serious about the job of facilitating familiarity.
“I’m just trying to get to know the guy behind the mask,” he explained of his plans to spend time with new teammates off the practice field. “Get to know who they are and try to speed that process up as fast as possible because these are the guys I’m going to go into battle with.”
“I’ve got a few things in mind, I’m going to try and get together with them individually and try to really get to know them. Because we’ve got to be flying June 26th in Winnipeg.”
June 26th marks the date of the Argos’ first regular season game, against the Blue Bombers. Having that defence flying out of the gate is a laudable goal, but not a realistic one. With so many newcomers being inserted, regardless of the talent level they may possess, a couple of pre-season games and three weeks of practice just do not give enough time to foster consistency and compatibility.
That doesn’t matter so much, really, when the end goal is to have a unit that is down a half dozen starters (including three East all-stars) from last year’s roster humming away as the air gets colder this autumn. It’s what happened in 2012, when then defensive coordinator Chris Jones found the formula with a large group of newcomers (Pat Watkins, Pacino Horne, Ahmad Carroll, Marcus Ball, Brandon Isaac, Robert McCune, Jalil Carter and Armond Armstead among them) who stepped up at the right time, playing their best game of the year on Grey Cup Sunday.
Prior to that, however, it was a unit that took half a season to find consistency and almost another half to find peak performance.
In 2013, when a large exodus of talent from the champions forced another defensive rewrite, the script was in many ways similar at camp, but with a much different ending in autumn. Picked apart by Henry Burris and the Hamilton offence in the Eastern Final, last season’s defence never really did find a big, bad groove.
So change may not be a bad thing, although losing all-stars Ball and Watkins stings mightily. The Argos decided to part ways with McCune, even after his own all-star year, decorated with 99 tackles. That’s because they had Emry lined up to take his place, with the native of Richmond, B.C. providing a younger look in the middle. At 28, He s seven years McCune’s junior.
“Both of them play sideline to sideline,” said head coach Scott Milanovich, when asked to compare Emry with McCune. “Very physical. Very strong, instinctive football players that seem to be around the ball when you need them to be most. That’s been Shea throughout his career.”
In the middle at Montreal, Emry had the comfort of relative stability. Defensive lineman John Bowman was in front of him the whole time. Linebacker Chip Cox beside him. Linebacker Kyries Hebert on the other side for two seasons. Defensive back Billy Parker behind him since 2009. Now, it’s all new and Emry is intent on getting a feeling of comfort and trust as quickly as possible.
To that end, he continues with his plans to understand the personalities of his teammates and how they all fit together.
It helps that the Argos’ new defensive coordinator is Tim Burke, the same Tim Burke who coordinated defences in Montreal for Emry’s first three seasons. He recognizes some things from the old days but adds that Burke is not simply rehashing old, comfortable schemes and sets.
“Burkie’s got us going and got us doing things that are a little different from what he’s used to. I think with the guys that we have in this group, it’s going to work very well.”
When asked if he thinks Burke’s plotting can be described as the aggressive kind, Emry responds “I think that’s an accurate description for any defensive coordinator.”
Then, he distills all the newness and all the strangeness of his unfamiliar uniform, surroundings and teammates down to the starkest of football truisms. That despite it all, there is some simplicity at play.
“That’s your job. Your job is to out hit those guys,” he says of the opposition.
That’s another answer you want from your middle linebacker and a philosophy that will be important as the Argo defence, once again, is reinvented.