April 19, 2019

Former Ticats Unamba, Dean anchor new-look Eskimos defence

The hour difference between the announcements of linebackers Don Unamba and Larry Dean signing deals with the Edmonton Eskimos on the opening day of free agency wasn’t exactly a coincidence.

At 2:25 p.m. ET, the Eskimos announced that Dean had put pen to paper. Unamba’s announcement was not far behind at 3:25 p.m. ET.

The pair had been talking the days leading up to February 12, chatting about their futures in the league and what team they wanted to end up on. And when Dean made his final decision to join the green and gold, Unamba jumped on the opportunity to sign on the dotted line too.

» Bio: Don Unamba | Larry Dean by the numbers
» Eskimos sign SAM linebacker Don Unamba
» Former Ticats LB Larry Dean signs with Edmonton
» Morris: Patience could pay off for Esks, Tevaun Smith

Unamba is pictured during a marketing photo shoot in Edmonton (Dale MacMillan/Esks.com)

“We said, ‘if you go (to Edmonton), I’m going!’” laughed Unamba. “We kind had an inside thing, that we were going to go together. If Hamilton isn’t going then we’re just going to go over here together. I didn’t know when exactly he was going to do it (sign in Edmonton).

“A lot of people talk and then you look on the wire and he signed (with another team) and you’re like, ‘he talked all of that and he signed (somewhere else) anyway?’ When I actually saw Larry sign, it was like, ‘okay, now I’m going to go and sign. I’m going to do it.’”

Both Unamba and Dean enjoyed career years with the Ticats in 2018 and will be welcome additions to the Eskimos defence.

Unamba racked up 59 defensive tackles, four sacks, one interception, one touchdown and three forced fumbles and was named an East Division and CFL All-Star for his efforts. Dean tallied 105 tackles, two interceptions and scored his first career CFL touchdown on his way to earning the East nomination for Most Outstanding Defensive Player.

“He (Dean) does everything right on the field, off the field,” Unamba said from Edmonton last week, after finishing up a marketing photo shoot with the team. “He does the extra things in the weight room, after workouts, extra film. Me and Larry got really close last year. I was basically right there with him, doing the extra work, following his footsteps that he was doing. It worked so having him here is going to be big for me and for the rest of the team as well because he’s a good leader.”

Along with wanting to stick with Dean, Edmonton seemed like the perfect fit for Unamba, who had a few other teams interested in his services when he hit the open market.

A familiarity with the coaching staff intrigued the six-foot-one, 195-pounder, who had played for Esks new defensive coordinator Phillip Lolley and defensive assistant William Fields during his time in Hamilton.

When Lolley left the Tiger-Cats after the 2017 season, Unamba and his former coach kept in touch, talking football when they could.

“He kept up with me even when he departed from there (Hamilton),” Unamba said. “I’m hoping that we just continue that. Me and Lolley have spoken several times since I’ve signed. I know I just have to be ready when I come here and do my job and everything else will work itself out.”

Things seem to have worked themselves out for Unamba over his four-year CFL career, becoming a household name after last season as a linebacker. He didn’t always lineup in the middle of the defence, however.

When Unamba came into the league in 2014, he was primarily a cornerback but the Winnipeg Blue Bombers decided to use him as a WILL linebacker. Over the next few seasons with the Saskatchewan Roughriders (2015), Montreal Alouettes (2017) and Tiger-Cats (2017-2018), Unamba found himself starting at almost every position in the secondary.

“It’s like, ‘we better do something with all these guys we’ve got.’ It’s a little bit of pressure like we can’t disappoint them.”

Unamba on the new additions to the Eskimos

Unamba hit a career-high in tackles with 59 in 2018 (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

“I’ve played everything and I feel like SAM is a mixture of all of those traits put together in one so I feel like it was just a perfect fit,” he said. “I don’t even like doing the same thing over and over and with SAM I get to blitz sometimes, I get to hit, I get to cover, I get to drop back in zone and it’s the most fun spot on the field.”

During training camp in 2018, Unamba noticed injuries piling up and asked his coaches if he could play on the strong side of the linebackers unit. He’d never tried that position before at any point in his football career but he was confident he could do it and do it well.

“I should have switched to this spot a lot time ago,” laughed Unamba. “It’s just a mixture of everything that I’m able to do and everything that I’ve already done in the league.”

The linebacking corps appeared to be an area of concern for Edmonton this off-season, with long-time Eskimo J.C. Sherritt retiring and heading to the Stampeders coaching staff as well as Chris Edwards following Mike Reilly to the Lions. The Esks made quick work of free agency to beef up the middle of their defence, adding in Unamba, Dean and former Blue Bomber Jovan Santos-Knox.

On paper, the Eskimos look like a powerhouse that could take over the West Division. A new quarterback in Trevor Harris, new targets for him to throw to in DaVaris Daniels and Greg Ellingson, and an overhauled defence that, along with depth at linebacker, includes All-Star DB Anthony Orange and defensive lineman Mic’hael Brooks, has fans excited to see what Edmonton can do this season.

But football games aren’t played on paper and Unamba – who was watching with excitement when the Esks kept signing big-name players during free agency – knows that they’ll have to make it work on the turf when the season gets underway in May.

“It’s almost like a little pressure because everybody is seeing all of us together and it’s like, ‘we better do something with all these guys we’ve got,’” admitted Unamba. “It’s a little bit of pressure like we can’t disappoint them. They’re going to be looking for a show, let’s not disappoint.”