Samuel Eguavoen might as well be walking around the streets of Regina these days with his helmet on, chin strap cinched tight.
It was only Wednesday when we talked, but the Saskatchewan Roughrider linebacker seemed like he was already set for Sunday when he and his Rider teammates play host to the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in what should be a barn-burning Western Semi-Final. I couldn’t see his game face over the phone but I could feel it.
“The fans are gonna be crazy, we’re gonna try and run Winnipeg out of there early,” said the 25-year-old, who has enjoyed a sensational 2018 season. “We’re ready. We’re fired up.”
The Saskatchewan defence has been fired up most of 2018, a brute force for most of the year. Some say the league’s best. Indeed, the unit ranks at or near the top of a number of key defensive categories: Number two in rush defence, number one in passing yards given up per game. Eleven touchdowns scored, by far and away tops in the CFL.
There are many reasons for those successes, of course, and Eguavoen is most assuredly one of them. In his third year with the Riders, he has emerged as a premier defender, his presence being felt all over the field not only on defence but on punt teams as well.
You know the phrase “the straw that stirs the drink”? Sam Eguavoen is that for the Riders. As one of the top playmakers in the CFL, you just know that he is going to be at the centre of it all again, this Sunday, when the Riders and Bombers square off at Mosaic Stadium.
Eguavoen is one of those players that you don’t hear enough about. Sure, they know his value in Saskatchewan, but nationally, he doesn’t seem to get his due. Seen as a good, solid player by most, Eguavoen should actually be looked at as a superstar on defence and his 2018 numbers bear that out.
With 109 total defensive plays made this year, Eguavoen ranked seventh, overall, in the Canadian Football League, just behind middle linebackers Larry Dean of Hamilton and J.C. Sherritt of Edmonton (Montreal safety Branden Dozier finished just ahead of him as well). Three other middle linebackers are at the top of the heap and they are the big names you’d expect; Calgary’s Alex Singleton, Montreal’s Henoc Muamba and Winnipeg’s Adam Bighill. Eguavoen, then, ranks as the top weakside linebacker (WILL) in the CFL, just ahead of Calgary’s Jameer Thurman, another WILL who probably doesn’t get enough recognition.
That’s good company.
Those 109 defensive plays gave Eguavoen the Saskatchewan team lead, 31 ahead of safety Mike Edem, in second with 78. He tallied three sacks, two knockdowns and one interception; a pick that he returned that 103 yards for a touchdown against Winnipeg in Week 13. His nine tackles-for-loss were just two back of the league leader (Muamba) and he forced two fumbles. During Saskatchewan’s 40-27 win over Calgary back on August 19th, Eguavoen blocked a punt and returned it for a major.
No wonder some declared he would have been a great pick as Saskatchewan’s defensive player of the year, an honour that went to defensive end Willie Jefferson, a guy who does his own fair share of stirring the drink.
“A lot of plays just came my way and I just capitalized on them,” said Eguavoen, quick to credit the teammates around him for his success, something that has been bolstered by his being elevated into full-time starter’s status, after rotating at the position in 2017, and before that, having his first year cut short by a knee injury.
“The game just slowed down completely for me,” said Eguavoen, when asked why his 2018 campaign has been so good. It’s a sentence that a lot of players use to describe the sense of comfort they feel and the confidence they have in making decisions as they become more experienced.
“I just see the game better,” he continued, before touching on the work that has helped him do that. “I’m watching more film. I’m more involved in meetings.”
“You don’t wanna let nobody down,” he said. “Definitely don’t wanna let yourself down.”
In short, Eguavoen has emerged as one of the league’s top linebackers simply because he has been given more responsibility and because he has welcomed that responsibility, meeting it with sweat. There is another factor at play, though, and it is one that has helped many a player flourish in a Chris Jones designed defence; it’s fun to play.
“Everybody’s gonna get a shot at making a big play in a Coach Jones defence,” said Eguaovoen, laughing as he considered his next sentence. “It’s like controlled chaos out there.”
“Every day, coming into meetings, you just never know what he’s gonna draw up on that board, which is great.”
Whatever Jones has drawn up for the Blue Bombers in preparation for the Western Semi, Eguavoen is confident that the unit can get the job done against Matt Nichols, Andrew Harris and the rest of that Winnipeg offence. Not that it’ll be easy. “The mindset is that you can’t take nothing for granted,” he said. “Next week is never promised when it comes to the playoffs.”
Eguavoen gives Winnipeg’s offence, and its coordinator Paul LaPolice, due respect.
“He is a good play caller,” said Eguavoen. “They do a lot of things to try and confuse defences and when you watch film, it works. He calls a lot of good plays at the right time, they try to take advantage of the weak spot on the defence.”
He paused for a moment.
“I mean, shoot, it’s gonna be hard to find a weak spot on this defence come Sunday.”
There’s the game face again. Eguavoen has had it on all year long, in a season that has seen him climb to the elite level among CFL defenders.
Not only did Sam Eguavoen make play after play after play on that Saskatchewan defence in 2018, but he also made them on the Riders’ punt teams and it was one play in particular that fortified his confidence and resolve, a catalyst for what was to come.
Back on August 19th, the Calgary Stampeders came to call at Mosaic, and Eguavoen chipped in with a major score in a big, 40-27 win.
Coming free up the middle on a Calgary punt attempt, Eguavoen met the ball just as it came off Calgary punter Rob Maver‘s toe. Eguavoen collected the ball after it bounced once on the turf and hiked it thirty yards for a touchdown.
“After that, I was like ‘I know I gotta take off this season.’ Because plays like that don’t really happen often. I was like, ‘it’s on. I can’t let this season go to waste.’”
Of Eguavoen’s 109 defensive plays made, 10 were special teams tackles. He relishes the opportunity for extracurriculars outside of his defensive duties.
“It gives me some juice,” he said of the rush of playing on the punt cover team. “You get a big hit on punt, you’re already pumped up, you’re ready for first down. Also, if I don’t have a really good game on defence, I try to make sure I have a great game on special teams.”