April 28, 2018

O’Leary: Esks’ mini-camp checks off plenty of boxes


Channeling his best Comic Book Guy voice, Mike Reilly looked back on the Edmonton Eskimos’ mini-camp in Las Vegas and summed it up as such.

Best. Mini-camp. Ever.

That’s basically what he said.

“I think it was a combination of things, where we had our entire team there,” Reilly, the league’s reigning Most Outstanding Player, said on the phone from his home in Seattle.

“The other mini-camps that I’d been a part of it was usually the quarterbacks are the only veterans and the rest are free-agent guys.

“For us at this camp it was basically like training camp. We showed up, we had a couple hours of install the first night and we hit the ground running on the field and the guys were going full-speed because they’d been in the system already and knew what was expected. That was part of what I felt was great about camp, was that it was really just an extension of training camp.”

The other half of the best-mini-camp-ever equation ties into the biggest questions that surround the Esks as they head into their actual training camp on May 20.

“I think the part that made me really happy about how the mini-camp played out was that our team has gone through a bit of transition,” Reilly said. “We’ve gotten a lot younger in certain areas of our team, which is necessary if you want to continue to be a championship-calibre team, but you never really know for certain how that’s going to pan out until those young guys get out there and play.”


Through four days in Las Vegas, Reilly liked what he saw from those young guys.

“I felt like the guys that were now slotted in as starters that previously in their careers, because of their youth, were backups and don’t have a lot of experience, they came in and you wouldn’t have been able to tell that this was their first time lining up as a starter. They really played as if they were veterans and I think that bodes really well for what our team will be able to accomplish this year.”

Heading into his second season as the Esks’ GM, Brock Sunderland will bring a younger roster into training camp, having made some difficult moves. Receiver Adarius Bowman was released and defensive end Odell Willis was traded away (to Ottawa by Sunderland, but the REDBLACKS immediately shipped Willis back West, trading him to BC). Both extremely successful in their time in Edmonton, both fan favourites, the moves were tough pills for fans in Edmonton to swallow.

Statistically, the team should move forward without too many hiccups. The Esks, as Reilly will quickly tell you, are loaded with young, talented receivers. Bowman was injured last year and when he returned fell behind Brandon Zylstra, Duke Williams, Vidal Hazelton and Derel Walker in production. Despite tying for the team-lead with sacks (eight), Willis had a six-game dryspell that saw him record zero sacks and he was a healthy scratch in a mid-October game. But both players leave an off-the-field void that will need to be replaced.

“When you have a guy like Odell or Adarius, you lose more than just their on-field production when they’re no longer with your team,” Reilly said. “You lose that locker room presence, that energy.

“Those are guys that their particular position groups have looked to them to follow their lead and they did a great job for us, obviously. You have to make sure you can replace all of the intangibles that they brought to the team.”

Aaron Grymes is pictured among other Esks defenders during mini-camp in Vegas (Esks.com)

It won’t happen overnight, in Vegas or in training camp, but Reilly felt like he saw players starting to take steps to fill that void.  

“You kind of sit back and watch and see who does that and I was very pleased with what I saw,” he said.  

“I think our receiving crew is the strongest that I’ve seen it since I’ve been here, in the sense of all the way across the board. Every time that we lined up against the first group, all five guys at the wide receiver position are a weapon that we can use at any point in time.

“There’s really no weak link and I think that’s kind of going to be our M.O. We’re going to be distributing the ball pretty evenly across the board and that’s exciting for our guys. The only way that’s possible is if they’re all comfortable and ready to go out and perform every route in our playbook and they are.”

Reilly talked up literally every receiver in the corps, but was especially impressed with Duke Williams.

“I can’t say enough about Duke. He’s had a great off-season to this point. He looks like a totally different guy from last year,” Reilly said.

“He still has all the same positives that we saw last year: a big, strong guy that could go up vertically and catch the ball. He certainly worked on his craft and became very good at maybe some of the things he wasn’t so good at last year in terms of endurance, stamina, and ability to run some of the more intricate routes in our offence.

“I think he really took to heart some of the conversations that me and the coaching staff had with him. He wants to be a big part of our offence and I think that he’s done everything that you’ve wanted him to do in the off-season.

“You lose a big name, a big character and a big personality in Adarius and you know, I think based on the makeup of our room the way that we’re going to replace that is by committee. We’re not going to have one guy that’s going to step in and replace Adarius and get 1,800 yards. I think all of our guys have stepped it up equally to fill in that void. That’s exciting to me, I really do look forward to that.”

Reilly pointed to eight-year veteran Almondo Sewell on the defensive line, both as a leader for that position and as the top interior D-lineman in the league. When he looked across the field in practice this past week, he saw a big difference at middle linebacker.

“Probably the biggest thing we have going on for us on the defensive side of the ball is we got our leader back,” he said.

“JC (Sherritt) got hurt in Week 1 last year and that’s a guy that you just can’t replace, no matter how hard you try or how badly you want to. He’s just such a smart, instinctual player and he’s such a good leader for our defence. (Losing him) was a huge blow for us and he looked great back out there on the field.

“All those guys are stepping up. It’s never easy to replace an Odell Willis or an Adarius Bowman but we have the proper guys in our locker room to do it.”