EDMONTON — The Edmonton Eskimos finished last season on a sour note, losing on an head-scratching play call.
However, the Eskimos have a chance to make all their fans forget about that tough ending if they can hoist the Grey Cup on their own field in November.
“It’s a new beginning. A lot to look forward to,” Jason Maas told reporters at the start of his third training camp as head coach.
“We’ve got the kind of group here that just wants to work and get better.”
Maas took a lot of heat in 2017 after the Eskimos — down by seven points in the shadow of the Calgary Stampeders’ goalposts with under two minutes to go in the West Division final — kicked a field goal. The Eskimos offence never got the ball back and the season was over.
This year Edmonton will host the 106th Grey Cup, and earlier this month announced they had sold 51,000 seats in the first four days of ticket sales.
Any hope of getting there begins and ends with quarterback Mike Reilly, the CFL’s 2017 most outstanding player. He is coming off back-to-back seasons of more than 5,000 yards passing.
The Kennewick, Wash., native completed more than 68 per cent of his passes for 5,830 yards and 30 touchdowns, against 13 interceptions. He made things happen with his feet as well, rushing 97 times for 390 yards and 12 TDs.
Reilly begins his sixth season as the Eskimos starter at the controls of a receiving corps that has seen key players leave, return and switch out, but the group continues to roll up big numbers.
Speedy Derel Walker, an Eskimo standout in 2016, is back after missing half of 2017 trying to stick with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
He’s joined by returning veterans Vidal Hazelton, Duke Williams, Kenny Stafford and Bryant Mitchell.
Brandon Zylstra, the top CFL receiver in 2017 (1,687 yards), has signed with the Minnesota Vikings. Veteran Adarius Bowman was released and is now in Winnipeg.
“In terms of our first group that we have right now, there’s nobody new out there that I haven’t played football with at some point in time. There’s a very high comfort level,” said Reilly.
Edmonton was the best in the air in 2017. It led the CFL in passing yards per game (331.8), average gain per pass (8.9), net offence (406.8 yards per game), and offensive points (27.2 a game).
Walker started seven games in the regular season, racking up 634 yards and two touchdowns, along with 163 yards and one TD in the playoffs.
“Feels great to be back out here, back clicking with Mike Reilly,” said Walker.
“We’ve got a great group of receivers this year. One of the best I’ve played with in the CFL.”
C.J. Gable, acquired last year from Hamilton, is the starting running back and Calvin McCarty is back in the fullback spot.
The offensive line allowed only 29 sacks last year, tops in the CFL, but is being rejigged after the team lost Joel Figueroa and Simeon Rottier retired.
The line remains anchored by Justin Sorsensen at centre and Matt O’Donnell at guard.
Edmonton’s defence was middle of the pack in many categories last year.
The defensive line has been blown up, with veterans Odell Willis, Marcus Howard and four others dispatched. Eight year veteran Almondo Sewell and Kwaku Boateng are the only 2017 holdovers, joined by newcomers Alex Bazzie and Jake Ceresna.
J.C. Sherritt returns at the middle linebacker position after losing 2017 to an Achilles tear, flanked by Chris Edwards and Adam Konar.
The defensive backfield is led by Aaron Grymes, who came back late in 2017 from the Philadelphia Eagles. He is joined by returning vets Forrest Hightower, Neil King, Johnny Adams, and Arjen Colquhoun.
Sean Whyte returns to handle placekicking after missing a long stretch of 2017 with a leg injury. Hugh O’Neill is the punter.
To hoist the cup, Edmonton will also have to avoid getting run over by injuries. The Green and Gold lost 346 man games to injury last season and saw 88 players put on the jersey.
Here’s a breakdown of the 2018 Edmonton Eskimos:
HEAD COACH: Jason Maas, entering third season.
2017: Finished third in West at 12-6, beat Winnipeg 39-32 in West semifinal before losing 32-28 to Calgary in West Final.
NEW ADDITIONS: Veteran QB Kevin Glenn signed to back up starter Mike Reilly. Alex Bazzie and Jake Ceresna join an overhauled defensive line. Kevin Palmer is pencilled in at the right tackle spot on a revamped offensive line.
DEPARTED: Slotback Brandon Zylstra, the CFL’s top receiver in 2017, has signed with the Minnesota Vikings. Slotback Adarius Bowman was released in the off-season and is now in Winnipeg. Linebacker Kenny Ladler is trying to catch on with the Washington Redskins. Defensive lineman Odell Willis is now in B.C. after a three-way trade. Offensive lineman Joel Figueroa has signed with B.C. and linemate Simeon Rottier retired.
PLAYERS TO WATCH: Star QB Mike Reilly is back, along with standout receiver Derel Walker. C.J. Gable is the starting running back. The defence is anchored by defensive back Aaron Grymes and middle linebacker J.C. Sherritt.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press