EDMONTON — In less than a year, Edmonton Eskimos running back Arkee Whitlock has gone from goat to go-to-guy.
Whitlock started last season on the reserve list as star running back Jesse Lumsden was counted on to carry the load. But he was suddenly called into action in the second game of the year after Lumsden went down with a season-ending injury a week earlier.
Whitlock’s debut in Montreal left people wondering if he would see a second game.
Twice he found himself wide open in the end zone in the first half, only to drop touchdown passes both times. He also fumbled the ball and tipped a pass into the arms of an Alouettes defender, who took the ball back for a touchdown.
But Whitlock quickly put the dismal performance behind him and has blossomed into the running back the Eskimos have so desperately needed.
“I don’t really think about that game anymore,” said the 26-year-old Whitlock, who took a day off from training camp Tuesday to rest a sore leg. “The season is too long. Once I had played a few more games and started doing better, I put that game behind me.”
In his next 17 games, Whitlock recorded 1,293 yards on 211 carries with 12 touchdowns and 44 receptions for 392 yards. He also had 14 kickoff returns for 397 yards.
“It was forgotten early,” he said of his season-opening disappointment. “My motivation is being better than I was last year. I don’t think that game defined anything. By the end of the year I proved some of the things that I was capable of.”
With Lumsden cut loose by the Eskimos last month, Whitlock is the No. 1 guy heading into the season, a role he relishes.
“It feels good,” said the five-foot-10 Southern Illinois product. “It just means that the organization feels they can rely on you and I am blessed to have an opportunity to have those type of expectations on me. To me that shows they respect what I can do.”
He says his teammates always believed in him.
“They gave me the opportunity to play my best and I got a chance to show that I could play,” he said. “This year it is all about me getting better and working on the things outside of just being a running back. It feels good to have bigger expectations on me. They have confidence in me and that just helps me play harder.”
Eskimos head coach Richie Hall witnessed Whitlock’s transformation last season and is hopeful he can not only pick up where he left off, but also continue to get better in his second full CFL season.
“The biggest difference now is that he is coming in with 18 games of experience,” said Hall. “So his confidence level is different now than it was at this time last year. I expect him to continue to improve as a football player.”
While Hall isn’t concerned about his running game, he hopes to see Whitlock become a more well-rounded player.
“It’s if he can continue to improve his overall football game — pass blocking and catching the football,” said Hall. “I’m not worried about his running game because that is his forte. It’s whether or not he can improve or adapt the other skills that that position calls for an become that all-around back.”
While Whitlock is the expected starter, he will likely be pushed at training camp by rookie Ramonce Taylor.
Any back will be on more solid footing at Commonwealth Stadium this season after the installation of the new state-of-the-art artificial turf.
“There will be more consistency playing on this,” said Whitlock. “We were the only team that played on grass, so we had to get used to playing on turf and then coming home and playing on grass. Just playing on one thing the whole season, I think it can help create a lot of consistency as far as your footing. It will also be better when the weather starts to get a little tricky.”
The Eskimos play their first game on the new turf Sunday against the Calgary Stampeders in pre-season action.
They officially open up the season on July 4 at home to the B.C. Lions.