EDMONTON — Head coach Richie Hall strides onto the Edmonton Eskimos practice field with a smile on his face and a shark on his hat.
With him comes the guts of his old Saskatchewan Roughriders defence, and the hope that an Eskimo team that fell just short of the Grey Cup last year will advance to the CFL’s title game in 2009.
“There’s been a lot of changeover. It’s just a matter of us coming together,” said Hall, clad in green shorts and shirt along with his bleach-white Gilligan-esque fishing hat — the word “Cancun” and the outline of a shark stitched above the brim.
The hat is a reminder of good times with old friends.
For the Eskimos, good times returned in 2008 after two consecutive years in the non-playoff wilderness. The Double-E was 10-8 in the regular season and finished last in the West Division, but made the East playoffs as a crossover team. They lost 36-26 to the Montreal Alouettes in the division final.
Shortly afterward, then-Eskimo coach Danny Maciocia kicked himself upstairs fulltime to focus on general managing duties, and in came Hall. His hiring was the first of a series of moves to overhaul a middling defence and diversify an offence way too dependent on quarterback Ricky Ray’s passing arm.
The 48-year-old Hall won a Grey Cup as a player with Saskatchewan in 1989. He had spent the last 15 years as a coach and defensive co-ordinator with the team, but had long been denied a top job.
When he came on board, ’Riders middle linebacker Maurice Lloyd and safety Scott Gordon signed on with Edmonton as free agents, and defensive end Kitwana Jones came over in a trade.
“His strength is motivation,” said Lloyd of Hall.
Lloyd said Hall was the major reason why he abandoned the watermelon-hatted fans of ’Rider nation.
“His strength is he played this game. And I think that’s the biggest thing I respect. He played this game. He got a Grey Cup in ’89 and he got one with me (as coach) in ’07.”
Hall said success comes with a balanced run-pass attack, adding the Eskimos now have that with versatile veteran Calvin McCarty catching swing passes out of the backfield to go with the bull rushes and fleet feet of free agent acquisition Jesse Lumsden.
The bruising six-foot-two, 226 pound Lumsden was on pace for a 1,000-yard season in Hamilton last year when he went down with a season-ending ankle injury in July. He still finished with 6.7 yards a carry and five touchdowns.
“Part of the reason I came here is Coach Hall and his reputation,” said Lumsden. “I’m looking forward to seeing what we can do on the field.”
The hope is Lumsden, whose father Neil won three Grey Cups as a fullback with Edmonton, can avoid the recurring injuries that have plagued his career.
“The more you guys (reporters) bring it up, the more it gets put on my mind, but I don’t think about it all,” he said.
Hall said a strong run game will chew up defences and give Ray more freedom to work the passing game. The seven-year veteran from Happy Camp, Calif., completed almost 70 per cent of his passes last year, best in the CFL, for 5,661 yards and 26 TDs.
“We haven’t been as consistent as we wanted to be the last few years,” said Ray.
“Hopefully a guy like Jesse will bring that added power to our offence.”
Ray will be backed up again by veteran Jason Maas.
The offensive line was stung by the retirement of guard Dan Comiskey, but is expected to be strong with returning veterans Patrick Kabongo, Calvin Armstrong and centre John Comiskey. Comiskey is expected to miss some action with a knee injury.
The receiving corps still could use for another big-play guy to offset the loss of Kelly Campbell to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the NFL. Dependable Jason Tucker has retired after suffering a broken neck in 2008. He will now coach the receivers.