REGINA — Chris Jones and the Edmonton Eskimos face their final test of the pre-season on Friday night, as they visit Mosaic Stadium to battle the defending Grey Cup Champion Saskatchewan Roughriders.
It’s a tune-up both teams welcome following an off-season of changes, especially as they face increased pressure amid high expectations, even more so for the Riders who are coming off of a championship year.
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Like most Grey Cup winners, the Riders return in 2014 with key off-season losses. Kory Sheets and Weston Dressler, two of the league’s most dynamic playmakers, are pursuing opportunities south of the border. Others cashed in on a championship season by signing with other teams.
Yet the way quarterback Darian Durant is approaching this season, it’s not about who left but who’s here.
“I think we’re well on our way,” Durant told Riderville.com ahead of Friday’s action. “I don’t think you can just replace those guys and their production with one guy – it’s going to take a total team effort.”
The Riders have developed plenty of talent in the past, earning them status as one of the league’s elite teams over the past several seasons. Head Coach Corey Chamblin meanwhile has always deployed a ‘next man up’ mentality.
While Chris Getzlaf, Taj Smith and Rob Bagg return as expected contributors, the Riders are hoping for the emergence of other talented young receivers like Brett Swain, Eron Riley, former NFL receiver Chaz Schilens, and 22-year-old Ryan Smith.
Riley may be the most highly-touted of that group, yet a year ago he couldn’t even get on the field given the Riders’ star-studded offence. Now with another training camp under his belt and a chance to play, this could be his breakout season.
“I just think confidence,” Durant said when asked what Riley’s shown so far. “When you’re a rookie you’re not so sure of what to do all the time.”
“I think him communicating with me a lot more, knowing the playbook better – he’s just more comfortable and when you’re comfortable you don’t have to think as much and you can let your natural talent shine.”
Even with the new look, the offence showed little rust in its matchup with the Ottawa REDBLACKS last weekend, who made their CFL debut in Regina. Durant made quick work of his first-team reps completing seven of eight passing attempts for 76 yards and a touchdown, including one to Swain.
Also benefitting were the running backs, who will have to team up to replace the production of both Sheets and off-season departure Jock Sanders.
Keith Toston had 58 yards on three carries, including an impressive 38-yard dash, in his first action of the pre-season. Curtis McNeal and Jermaine Thomas also chipped in with a combined 43 yards on 12 carries, and this weekend all three may get a chance to show what they can do in pass protection – something likely to be a point of emphasis against a Chris Jones-coached defence.
“We’re playing Chris Jones so we’ll see this week, he’s going to blitz and he’s going to get things done so we’ll be excited to see how it goes,” said Chamblin.
As the Riders look to finalize their roster ahead of their season-opener on June 29th, Chamblin is mostly looking to see how his guys stack up in game situations.
“The thing I’m looking forward to is seeing the guys’ effort, seeing how they play and seeing how they win the one on one matchups and how they get themselves out of situations.”
The Eskimos, too, face no shortage of pressure entering their 2014 campaign, although they’re not coming off of a championship. Last season amid mighty expectations they came up short in the standings, however with the emergence of Mike Reilly as one of the league’s most exciting young passers and an off-season coaching change fans are expecting more.
Although they dropped their pre-season opener 14-11 to the Lions last weekend, the first-team offence looked to be in mid-season form. Mike Reilly completed 11 of 12 passes for 117 yards and a touchdown while Fred Stamps had 54 receiving yards and a 33-yard touchdown catch in the opening frame.
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“I thought Mike did a good job managing the game, getting them in and out of the huddle and played with a lot of energy, and I think he’s got a bright future for us,” Jones told Esks.com.
General Manager Ed Hervey added that while the team didn’t earn a W, there’s plenty to build on.
“I feel very good about the consistency of the play-calling from the coaches and the effort of the players,” said Hervey, now in his second season in the GM chair. “It looks like our team is buying into what’s been put in front of them, and above everything else I think our fans left satisfied knowing that this team has a chance.”
“It’s something to build on, we’re not there yet but I do believe we’ve taken another step toward improvement.”
Considering there were no major injuries and the veterans looked sharp, it was a moral victory for the Eskimos. Soon, though, the team will have to do better than just moral victories after the way things went last season.
A win in Saskatchewan wouldn’t be a bad start. Even if it is pre-season, Mosaic Stadium is one of the most difficult places to play at any time of year. The Riders lost just three times at home last season, and playing in a hostile environment and winning would give the team a leg up heading into their season opener on the road against BC.
“It’s a tough place to play no matter what time of the year it is,” Reilly told the team’s official website. “They have a great fan base and it’s always fun to go in there and take that challenge on and play against them.”
“They’re the Grey Cup Champs and so until somebody knocks them off, they’re gonna be the reigning Champs so it’s nice to get a crack against them and try and gauge yourself against last season.”
Kickoff is at 9:00 P.M. ET.