October 12, 2017

Morris: Zylstra hoping that win resets Eskimos season

Walter Tychnowicz/CFL.ca

Edmonton Eskimos’ wide receiver Brandon Zylstra did something in his last CFL game he had never done before in his football career.

Well, a couple things actually.

His 201 receiving yards on seven catches in the Eskimos’ 42-24 win over the Montreal Alouettes was a career high. It also was the first time he ever played a football game without wearing gloves.

“That was something new for me,” chuckled the 24-year-old from Spicer, Minn.

Zylstra took off his gloves during a game played in rain and cool temperatures which resulted in the ball becoming wet, heavy and sometimes slippery “like a bar of soap.” He made the decision during the warmups, believing it would be best to stop the ball with his body, then corral it for a catch.

“I just stuck to it the whole game because it was working for me,” he said.

Included in Zylstra’s catches was a 56-yard grab and a touchdown. He was named one of the CFL’s Top Performers of the Week but was even happier the Eskimos were able to snap a six-game losing streak.

“The losing streak has been pretty tough on the team, pretty tough on the coaches,” said Zylstra. “We know we are a better team than that.”

Edmonton started the season with seven straight wins and despite a lineup devastated by injuries looked prepared to challenge the Calgary Stampeders for first place in the West Division. The Eskimos lost their first game Aug. 17 in a 33-26 defeat to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and would go close to two months before winning again.

Edmonton was rarely blown out during that streak. Two of the losses were by seven points or less. Another two by nine or less.

“It’s just the little things that were kind of costing us the game,” Zylstra said. “We had a big focus this week of paying attention to the little details because the little details add up to the big details.

“We finally got that win and it kind of sparked everybody in the locker room. We got that swagger back a little bit. Now we just have to carry that momentum through this next game.”

The Eskimos (8-6) play the Toronto Argonauts (7-8) Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium. An Edmonton win, combined with a loss by the B.C. Lions, would clinch the Eskimos at least a crossover playoff spot.

Even though his team has struggled at times Zylstra has enjoyed an outstanding season. The six-foot-three, 220-pound receiver has 82 catches and his 1,335 yards is second only to Ottawa’s Greg Ellingson. His totals included four touchdowns, 10 catches of 30 yards or more and 33 second-down conversions.

Zylstra has been named player of the week twice and was September’s player of the month. The individual recognition is nice but not the reward he is seeking.

“I’m way more focused on the team wins,” he said. “That’s what gets you in the playoffs and the ultimate goal of everybody on the team is to win that Grey Cup.

“It’s nice to get that recognition sometimes but in the scheme of things it doesn’t mean a whole lot to me. I have bigger plans than that.”

Zylstra played is college football at Concordia College in Minnesota and signed with Edmonton as a free agent in May 2016.

“We have a good team. It would be good to prove to everybody, but mostly ourselves, who we are, that we can compete with all these teams. We deserve to play like we did at the beginning of the season.”

Eskimos WR Brandon Zylstra

He began last season on the practice roster before getting his first start in Week 14. Over the final six games he showed his potential with 34 catches for 508 yards and three touchdowns.

“Last year I was basically trying to learn the CFL game and seeing how everything is done,” he said. “This offseason I focused on my route running. Learning the different coverages and how to run your routes versus these different coverages.”

Zylstra’s career path has benefited by watching and learning from veterans like Adarius Bowman and Derel Walker.

“It’s great to have two mentors like that on the same team,” he said. “Last year I picked their brains constantly, asking them different questions. Sometimes even if I knew the answers I wanted to see if we were on the same page.”

The player Zylstra learned the most from was veteran receiver Chris Getzlaf.

“He was my No. 1 mentor,” said Zylstra. “He is a technician out there. He pays attention to details. He knows the playbook inside and out. He was somebody I leaned on all the time. I always gave him credit.”

When the Eskimos released Getzlaf in September Zylstra send him a note thanking him for all he had done.

“I sent him a nice long text thanking him and letting him know that he was the reason I’m having success in the CFL from all the little stuff I learned from him,” Zylstra said.

The Eskimos will face an Argonaut team that has won three of its last four games but is still trying to hang onto first place in the East. The Toronto defence is third in the league against the pass, having allowed 4,077 yards through the air this season.

“This is another huge game against a Toronto team that is red hot,” said Zylstra. “Their defence is outstanding.

“We have a good team. It would be good to prove to everybody, but mostly ourselves, who we are, that we can compete with all these teams. We deserve to play like we did at the beginning of the season.”

While Zylstra is positive about what he wants for the Eskimos this weekend he’s wavering on whether or not he will wear gloves in the game.

“I guess the weather will determine that again,” he said. “I kind of have the confidence now I don’t necessarily need them to play.”