Success for the Edmonton Eskimos is 2013 rests on five mountain-sized men who barely know each other protecting the CFL team’s third opening-day quarterback in three years.
But Eskimo head coach Kavis Reed promises a drastic improvement on the team’s 7-11 record from 2012.
“We know there’s still going to be some growing pains,” said Reed.
“However given the talent and given the core leadership that we have, we feel very confident this is going to be a very competitive football team that should win more games than we lose.”
The Eskimos open the CFL season at home Saturday against the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
Leading the way is quarterback Mike Reilly, acquired from the B.C. Lions in the off-season.
The 28-year-old from Kennewick, Wash., gets his first crack as a starting QB in the pro game after years of apprenticeship as vagabond NFL training camp fodder before signing with the Lions in 2010.
He started three games last year and saw action in six, completing 52 of 75 passes for 682 yards and four touchdowns against two interceptions.
“It’s something I’ve worked my whole career for,” said Reilly, standing in front of his stall in the Eskimo dressing room, the one that used to belong to famous ex-Edmonton quarterback Ricky Ray.
“I’ve wanted to be a starting quarterback on a professional team since I was a little kid. Now that opportunity has come, but it’s still no guarantee. You’ve still got to go out and perform each week.”
Reilly was to fight Matt Nichols for the starting pivot job this year until Nichols tore up his knee in the first pre-season game against the Riders. He is done until 2014.
The No. 2 quarterback is rookie Jonathan Crompton.
They are part of the roster overhaul that will see newcomers in half the starting positions and major changes to the offensive line.
Guard Simeon Rottier shifts over the from the left side of the line after missing half of 2012 with a hyper-extended elbow.
Gord Hinse, who takes over from Kyle Koch at centre, missed most of last season with a thumb injury.
Guard Matt O’Donnell came to the Esks late last season, and tackles Thaddeus Coleman and Cliff Louis are off-season acquisitions.
When Reilly walks to the line of scrimmage, he will see, from left to right, Coleman (six-foot-eight), O’Donnell (six-foot-11), Hinse (six-foot-four), Rottier (six-foot-six) and Louis (six-foot-eight).
It’s not a line, it’s a cordillera.
They acquitted themselves well in the last pre-season game. Against the Lions they opened holes for 134 yards in rushing, 298 yards in passing and three TDs.
The line has been under the gun from the get-go at camp with Reed and new general manager Ed Hervey playing good-cop, bad-cop.
While Reed has built up the line, Hervey has delivered swift kicks to its backside.
“Play better,” Hervey said in an interview before camp opened.
“Every year we’re always asking these questions about the offensive line. Well how about the offensive line answer those questions.”
Rottier said it’s fair game.
“Anything the coach says, the GM says, they’re asking a lot – but we’re asking a lot of ourselves. We never take that personally. We want to win as much as they do.
“We definitely want to be leading this team, playing aggressive, and give the skill guys a chance to win.”
The skill guys are looking for a breakout year in 2013.
Slotback Fred Stamps returns as the go-to guy in the receiving corps.
Stamps, entering his seventh CFL season, led the Green and Gold with 70 catches for 1,310 yards and nine touchdowns in 2012.
Lining up with him are Nate Coehoorn, Shamawd Chambers, Cary Koch and the lightning fast rookie Isaiah Sweeney.
In the backfield, Hugh Charles returns after accumulating 1,409 combined passing-running yards and six TDs last year.
The defence is the strength of the Eskimos, led by middle linebacker JC Sherritt.
The 25-year-old from Truckee, Calif., set a CFL record for tackles with 130 and was named the CFL’s most outstanding defensive player.
Beside him are returning veterans T.J. Hill and Damaso Munoz.
Up front, free agent rush Odell Willis will try to regain the sack magic that made him the “Mayor of Swaggerville” in Winnipeg two seasons ago.
Lining up at the other defensive end position is Marcus Howard, who recorded 11 sacks in 2011 only to be derailed by a recurring hamstring injury in 2012.
Ted Laurent, Don Oramasionwu and Almondo Sewell provide strength at the tackle positions.
Chris Thompson returns to lead a revamped secondary that includes newcomers Aaron Grymes and Marcell Young on the corners.
Grant Shaw handles the kicking duties and Burke Dales is the punter.
The coaching staff has also been overhauled. Doug Sams is the new offensive co-ordinator and Greg Marshall handles the defence.