Rewind to a year ago and questions were rampant about what type of performance we would see from the Edmonton Eskimos in 2011.
At the time, about half the roster looked different. There were eight new starters on defence along with about six on the offensive side of the ball.
The end result of the unknown Eskimos? A tie for first place in the West Division, accompanied by a trip to the Division Final.
Even though there was major disappointment within the Eskimos locker room, there was also major optimism about what was to come in the 2012 season.
However, that optimism took a major hit in mid-December when General Manager Eric Tillman traded away franchise quarterback Ricky Ray to the Toronto Argonauts for a 2012 1st-round pick, kicker Grant Shaw, and quarterback Steven Jyles.
Ever since that day, debate has raged in Edmonton about whether Tillman is still a football genius or he suffered a moment of insanity.
Now, the 2012 season is upon us and the Eskimos will have an early litmus test on Saturday as yes, Ray and the Toronto Argonauts visit Commonwealth Stadium.
Head coach Kavis Reed didn’t waste time last Sunday in naming Jyles his starter for the season opener. This, despite the fact that backup Kerry Joseph looked far better than Jyles did in the Eskimos’ final pre-season game against the Lions.
Joseph went 6-8 for 133 yards. Jyles had a difficult first quarter connecting on 4-7 passes for 53 yards. Granted, the Eskimos didn’t have Adarius Bowman in the offence and Fred Stamps basically just ran around for one series.
Jyles wasn’t operating with the full playbook as well. Reed says his receivers missed assignments but he’s not taking much stock into pre-season results. He feels Jyles gives his team the best chance to win.
Jyles’ career numbers as a starter are not stellar, just five wins compared to 14 losses. However, he looked strong in training camp throwing just four interceptions in about 450 attempts.
He now has the full complement of receivers which Reed says is like “drinking hot chocolate on a cold night.”
Ray had the ability to put the team on his shoulders and win football games. Jyles at this point in his career doesn’t have that in his arsenal.
He’ll be required to be a game-manager, not Superman, and not Ray. He has the luxury of working with an outstanding receiving corps which features All-Stars Stamps and Bowman. Greg Carr, Cary Koch, and Nate Coehoorn will serve as more than adequate compliments.
In the backfield, tailback Jerome Messam is still with the Miami Dolphins. The run game will look different not only in personnel but in style. Hugh Charles brings a slashing type running style compared to Messam’s downhill style.
The coaching staff feels Charles can be a difference maker.
The offensive line was a source of frustration in 2011 thanks to injuries and poor play. Continuity was a rare as a lunar eclipse. The big acquisition was Simeon Rottier who’s the left guard, while Greg Wojt , the team’s lineman of the year in 2011 will be looked upon to solidify to the right side.
With an offence which will likely need some time to gel, the defence might be under a lot of pressure to hold the fort. Perhaps early on, the defence can help to steal some games.
The strength of the club is the front seven. Look closely and the front four should be a nightmare for opposing offensive lines and quarterbacks.
This columnist feels Marcus Howard will be the CFL sack leader. Julius Williams, Rashad Jeanty and second round draft pick from this year Justin Capicciotti also provide great depth.
The linebacking corps will miss Rod Davis but Damaso Munoz, J.C. Sherritt, and T.J. Hill are all back.
The big question with the defence, however, is the secondary.
The Eskimos lead the league in interceptions in 2011; they also led the league in touchdowns allowed through the air. The only change is Joe Burnett at the wide corner. This group will be asked to play more physical on opposing receivers.
The special teams units are lead by the cover teams who swarmed opposing returners last season and not much has changed. The team will need to do a better job in the return game, and they will likely look towards Burnett and Yamon Figurs to handle that role.
The kicking game is a big question mark. Burke Dales is the punter but who’s the place-kicker? Here’s the issue: Derek Schiavone, who starts the season on the injured list, has the accuracy but lacks distance.
Grant Shaw has the big leg but lacks accuracy. Import kicker Swayze Waters can do all three kicking duties but getting him on the roster is the big question because of his import status.
Overall, the Eskimos are a very strong club in most areas. The big question mark is at quarterback. Jyles looks ready to take his game to the next level.
He’s showing leadership skills, he can make all the throws. He has a stronger arm than Ray and has better agility and athleticism.
Is Jyles ready to be a starter? Does he have the football IQ to make the smart football decisions on the field?
Jyles is no Superman. These mere mortals will need to look more like Batman and Robin. Everybody will have to chip in if 2012 will be a success.
Dave Campbell has been on the Eskimos beat since 2004. He’s entering his seventh season as the Eskimo colour analyst for 630 CHED broadcasts. He also hosts The Points After Show, an openline post-game show. Follow Dave on Twitter @Dave_CHED.