The Edmonton Eskimos face the prospect of playing their biggest game of the year without their biggest weapon.
Tailback Jerome Messam is listed as questionable for the West Division semi-final against the Calgary Stampeders on Sunday.
“He has a lower-body injury that we think should be fine, but right now the medical term is questionable,” Eskimos head coach Kavis Reed said Thursday. “It is on the 50-50 side.”
Reed wouldn't provide injury details, but said it caught the coaching staff by surprise.
“It's a situation where we thought we had something under control, but it just flared up in practice on Monday,” he said. “Obviously Jerome Messam is a very important part of our offence, so it does concern us.”
Messam was not immediately available for comment.
Since coming over from the B.C. Lions in training camp, the Toronto native has been the fulcrum of the Eskimos offence.
At six foot three and 245 pounds, he ran around and over defenders this season for 1,057 yards and six touchdowns. He was the first Canadian to run for 1,000 yards since Sean Millington in 2000, and is the West Division's nominee for top Canadian.
More importantly, with defenders having to respect Messam, quarterback Ricky Ray had more time and space to deliver passes to his talented trio of receivers Fred Stamps, Adarius Bowman and Jason Barnes.
If Messam can't play, the running duties fall to newcomer Hugh Charles and veteran Calvin McCarty.
Charles, a five-foot-eight 190-pounder, has played in two games for the Eskimos since being acquired from Saskatchewan less than a month ago. The 25-year-old from Oklahoma has 46 carries for 277 yards and a six-yard average in 2011.
“I'm a vet in this league. I'm going to be prepared for whatever happens,” said Charles. “If Jerome can't go, I'll be the guy to step up.
“It's do or die and you never know if you'll get this opportunity again, (but) I'm hoping he can step up and play.”
Ray admitted Messam's absence would change the dynamic, both on the field and in the critical import ratio.
“Jerome's a good player and he's Canadian. That hurts. That's the double whammy,” he said.
“He's a big, physical, powerful kind of a runner, and I think the rest of the guys are kind of finesse guys, so that's going to be the biggest difference.”
Ray added that either way, the Stamps won't get a free pass to focus on the long passing game.
“Calvin and Hugh, I think they're better pass catchers out of the backfield, so they (the Stamps) will have to worry about that, too,” said Ray.
Messam has not been practising this week, and statistics say he could use some reps.
He has struggled against the 11-7 Stampeders this season. His best outing was on Labour Day, with 51 yards on 14 carries. In three games against Calgary, he ran the ball 26 times for 97 yards.
A win on Sunday and Messam's club would get to play his old teammates in the West Division Final on Nov. 20.
Messam came to Edmonton in a pre-season trade with the Lions as damaged goods.
Despite the physical tools, he had worn out his one-year welcome with the Lions, punching out teammate Paris Jackson, going half speed in training camp and flouting training camp rules by reportedly having a woman in his dorm room.
Edmonton general manager Eric Tillman and Reed gave him a final chance, making it clear that no nonsense would be tolerated. Messam responded.
Notes: Reed expects defensive lineman Greg Peach (knee) and linebacker J.C. Sherritt (ankle, finger) to play Sunday .... Offensive lineman Greg Wojt (ankle) is still day to day ... The forecast for Sunday's game is balmy for November: sunny and three degrees Celsius at kickoff... Six Eskimos have been named to the West Division all-star team, the most from Edmonton since eight were picked in 2003. They include Messam, Wojt, Stamps, defensive lineman Marcus Howard, linebacker Rod Davis and defensive back Rod Williams.
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