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August 16, 2019

O’Leary: Esks’ DC Lolley still sweating the small details

Jason Halstead/CFL.ca

The architect of the best defence in the CFL doesn’t spend his nights watching highlight reels of Mike Moore and Almondo Sewell sacking quarterbacks, or Jordan Hoover and Tyquwan Glass pulling in interceptions. 

Phillip Lolley’s nights are spent worrying about what could go wrong. 

“To be honest with you, I don’t think we had a good practice,” are some of the first words out of Lolley’s mouth as he arrived at the Esks’ hotel in downtown Toronto on Thursday afternoon. 

“Mostly, I thought we missed too many assignments. That bothers me and I’m a worrier by heart. 

“I think you’ve got to have a first plan, a second plan and a third plan. Things can happen in the course of a game and don’t go exactly like you plan. There are injury situations and especially in the CFL, where when I came from college football in the SEC, we’d be four, five, six-deep at each position. (In the CFL) you have to be versatile.” 

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Lolley’s worrying, as needless as it might seem, is paying off. Going into Week 10, his defence was first in points allowed (138), net offence (251.6 yards per game), first downs (126), completion percentage (59.6) and yards allowed per play (5.2). If you look at the league leaders in defensive plays, you don’t see one player running away with any category, other than Moore’s team-leading six sacks. This is a defence that’s getting it done by committee and getting it done extremely well. 

“That’s what they tell me,” Lolley said, adding that he doesn’t worry about stats for his group. He uses last week’s win over Ottawa, where Edmonton didn’t record a sack as an example of scheme outweighing stats. 

“Last week we probably could have had a few more sacks, but what they were doing to us offensively, we had to kind of change some things. We had to ask things out of our front a little differently. 

“I’m proud of the guys because like I told them, it’s going to take all of us to get this game under control. The most important thing is winning the ball game, it doesn’t matter the score. 39-38, we’ll take it, whatever. We just want to do our part.” 

There are a lot of coaches that come to the CFL with similar backgrounds to Lolley’s. He was a lifelong coach in the U.S. with 40-plus years experience and ended a 14-year stay at Auburn University to come to the CFL in 2014. He gave Chris Jones his first job, adding him to the staff of his North Jackson High School team in Stevenson, Alabama in 1999. Jones returned the favour when he became the Esks’ head coach in 2014, hiring Lolley as his linebackers coach. 

Many coaches with long, successful careers in the U.S. have come to Canada, but they haven’t all been able to adapt well to the differences in the CFL game. 

“Everything’s a puzzle. Whenever you get a great offensive coordinator and (in the States) I’ve faced my share, some of the brightest minds there, you match,” Lolley said. 

“It’s competitive and you find a way. There’s a puzzle, you try to figure out their philosophy, what they’re trying to do and you’re trying to match it. You’re trying to get your talent up to theirs. There are so many things that go into it. 

“And so when you come to the CFL, you’re facing some other things. All the guys in motion, the field is wider and longer, the end zones are deeper. The main thing I think is not just the width of the field, but when you get to the end zone…and it’s 20 (yards). Coaching defence (in the CFL), you have to think differently, all over the field, really. It’s intriguing. It really is.” 

After two years and one Grey Cup win as Jones’ linebackers coach in Edmonton, Lolley went to Saskatchewan with him in 2016. After serving as the Ticats’ defensive coordinator in 2017, he took last season away from football before returning to Edmonton to join Jason Maas’ staff. 

Edmonton Eskimos linebacker Larry Dean celebrates a defensive stop against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (Jason Halstead/CFL.ca)

“I’m 65-years old and I’m working for a young guy that’s real energetic, wants to win a championship, loves Edmonton. I remember when I had as much energy as he has. It reminds me of me when I was that young. 

“He’s full of energy, full of life, but the main thing is he lets me do my job.” 

Lolley doesn’t need the work and said he could have retired a long time ago. At this point, he’s taking coaching season-by-season. He talks about his grandchildren in Birmingham, Alabama and his son and daughter there. But he still lights up when he talks about having breakthroughs with players, about watching them put great years together and figuring out those puzzles on the field. 

The coaches that mentor and teach are the ones that players always remember. 

“That’s the part I enjoy,” he said. “I enjoy watching that confidence grow in them. I call it growing up, they’re all men, but becoming a real professional.”