June 14, 2018

Right at Home: Reilly, Esks eye playing in Grey Cup at Commonwealth

Johany Jutras/CFL.ca

“There is plenty of motivation (this year). Having not made it to the Grey Cup last year, and having the Grey Cup being played in our stadium this year, what more do you need for motivation?”

– Eskimos quarterback Mike Reilly

he first game of the CFL season hasn’t even been played yet but the Edmonton Eskimos are already being asked to think about the final game.

This year’s Grey Cup is being hosted in Edmonton. Does that weigh on the minds of the Eskimos, a team that came within a questionable coaching decision of playing in last year’s championship.

“From our approach it won’t change,” general manager Brock Sunderland said during a conference call earlier this year. “Our standard and our goal every year is to participate and win a Grey Cup.

“We will never guarantee and say we are going to be there, but that’s the goal.”

Quarterback Mike Reilly agreed winning the Grey Cup is the goal every season but added this year it’s a little more personal.

“I don’t want somebody else sitting in my locker, changing, getting ready for that game,” said Reilly, the 2017 league Most Outstanding Player. “That’s not something we are going to allow.”

There’s a lot of football to be played between now and Nov. 25 which will determine if the Eskimos will have a chance to win a championship at home. The Eskimos take the first step on that journey when they travel to Winnipeg to play the Blue Bombers to open the CFL season Thursday night.

Mike Reilly doesn't want any other team but his own to use his locker in November for the Grey Cup (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

Two of the biggest changes on the Eskimos over the winter was the departure of receivers Brandon Zylstra, who led the league in 2017 with 1,687 yards on 132 catches, and Adarius Bowman, who had four 1,000-yard seasons in Edmonton.

Reilly said when he first arrived in Edmonton the passing game was focused on players like Fred Stamps and Bowman. Over the years the offence evolved to include receivers like Vidal Hazelton, D’haquille Williams, Derel Walker, Kenny Stafford and Juron Criner.

“Over the last couple of years we have really tried to spread the ball around,” he said. “That’s a more effective way to play. We always want to try to be as balanced as we can.

“With the group of wide receivers we have now I believe we are the most balanced that we have been at all positions. No matter who is out there we are going to have the weapons that the defence is really going to have to worry about.”

The Eskimo defence saw the departure of defensive back Cauchy Muamba, defensive tackle Euclid Cummings, defensive ends John Chick and Odell Willis and linebacker Kenny Ladler.

Head coach Jason Maas said parts of the defensive, especially the front four, were showing their age. He likes the energy that will be provided by players like Alex Bazzie, Kwaku Boaten, Jake Ceresna and Almondo Sewell.

“We made a concerted effort as an organization to move in a different direction,” said Maas. “We feel like they are young guys who can contribute to us right away and make our team look different but still be productive.”

Sunderland likes the Eskimo secondary which consists of players like Nick Taylor, Johnny Adams and Forrest Hightower.

“The proof will be in the pudding,” he said. “Those guys have played at a high level. We have all the confidence in the guys that are here.

“Some of the guys are a little bit younger, haven’t played in a regular season but we wouldn’t have them here if we didn’t have the confidence they could excel and help us win games.”

The defence will also be boosted by the return of linebacker J.C. Sherritt who missed all last year after suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon in opening game.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Sherritt said about his first game back. “It’s a great feeling to have the ability to prepare for a game and know you have the opportunity to go out and be with your teammates.”

Spending a year on the sidelines opened Sherritt’s eyes to other aspects of the game.

“To be with the coaches, watch how they break down film, watch how they draw up schemes, helped me tremendously,” he said.

An Eskimo offensive line that allowed a league-low 29 sacks last year has also seen changes. Left tackle Joel Figueroa signed with the BC Lions and left guard Simeon Rottier retired.

Reilly remains comfortable behind a line anchored by veteran centre Justin Sorensen and right guard Matt O’Donnell.

“Those two veteran guys and veteran presence certainly helps our offensive line communicate and play well together,” he said.

The Eskimos experienced a Jekyll and Hyde season last year.  Things started with a pretty seven-game win streak then turned ugly with six constitutive losses.

Reilly will hope his team will be playing in their home stadium for the Grey Cup come November (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

Injuries were a major factor last year. The Eskimos used 83 players who played at least one game and had a CFL-high 346 player-games missed. They had 53 players spend at least one game on injury reserve.

The Eskimos finished 12-6 and defeated Winnipeg in the West Semi-Final.  In the West Final against Calgary, Edmonton trailed by seven points with less than two minutes remaining. Facing a third-and-four, Maas elected to kick a 20-yard field goal instead of trying for the touchdown. Calgary won 32-28.

The one consistent last year was Reilly. He threw for a CFL-leading 5,830 yards, 30 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. TSN recently selected him the best player in their list of the top 50 players in the CFL.

“We’ve all moved on from last year,” said Reilly. “It’s a new season with a new challenge and new goals. For me I always rate our accomplishments on whether or not we won the Grey Cup. Last year we fell short.

“There is plenty of motivation (this year). Having not made it to the Grey Cup last year, and having the Grey Cup being played in our stadium this year, what more do you need for motivation?”