EDMONTON — While two of the go-to guys from the 2017 Edmonton offence that led the CFL in passing yards are gone, receiver Derel Walker has made it abundantly clear he’s still here.
Walker, 26, delivered big results in a 33-30 win over the Winnipeg Blue Bombers to open the season June 14 with seven catches, including a 101-yard touchdown strike from Mike Reilly, for 176 yards. That’s tops in the CFL through one week as the Eskimos prepare to host the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, who opened with 28-14 loss to the Calgary Stampeders, on Friday.
“I definitely take it as motivation because the guys who were here prior to me, Adarius Bowman and Brandon Zylstra, they did great when they were here,” Walker said. “I’m just coming in this year willing to add on to what those guys did.
“Adarius was one of my great friends. I came in here for my rookie year in 2015 and he really took me under his wing. I learned so much from the guy.”
With Zylstra, who led the CFL with 1,687 receiving yards last season, gone to the NFL, and Bowman chasing down passes with the Blue Bombers, Walker is the big name remaining in Reilly’s receiving corps.
“It’s always been the mentality that the next man up has to be ready to go and ready to play at a level even higher than the guy before him,” Reilly said. “That’s how Derel came into this program. That’s how guys like Zylstra came into this program.
“We have a lot of strength in that position and I knew we would. We’ve always known what’s been waiting in the wings … I think people are starting to get a glimpse of why we weren’t worried in the off-season.”
In his fourth season with the Eskimos, Walker has put up big numbers before. A two-time all-star and 2015 most outstanding rookie, Walker had 109 catches, 1,589 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2016.
“This is a great group of receivers,” Walker said. “We lost two very valuable receivers to this organization, but as you see, every year we pick up the pieces, pick up the slack and find a way to keep moving and getting better every year.”
Walker had a tryout with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season, but returned to the Esks in September. Now, with Zylstra and Bowman gone, he’s unquestionably the go-to guy.
“Derel has been a beast in this league since he stepped onto the field,” Reilly said. “He was the story everybody was talking about in 2015, playing two-thirds of the season and putting up crazy numbers. He’s a confident guy and he should be. He’s got a ton of ability, he understands our offence. Me and him have played a lot of football together.”
Eight different receivers caught passes against Winnipeg as Reilly went 32-for-46 for 408 yards. Aside from Walker, Reilly still has D’haquille (Duke) Williams, Kenny Stafford and Vidal Hazelton, although Hazelton’s been put on the six-game injured list so the receiving depth will get a test against Hamilton.
“In our receivers, we have a bunch of monsters, a bunch of dogs,” said second-year man Williams, who had four catches for 74 yards against the Blue Bombers. “We’re willing to compete every play.
“A.B. and Zylstra were great. I wish them the best, but we’re here and we’re always going to support each other. We got a lot of guys who can catch the ball.”
HAMILTON (0-1) at EDMONTON (1-0)
Friday, Commonwealth Stadium
BREAUX BACK IN — All-star cornerback Delvin Breaux will be back in the Hamilton line-up for the first time since the 2014 Grey Cup game, a 20-16 loss to Calgary. Breaux left the Ticats to play for the New Orleans Saints in 2015.
HOME TURF — In their 70th season, the Eskimos are looking for their 50th win in a home-opener. They’re 49-18-2, including 7-3 in their last 10. The Esks are 3-1 in home-openers against Hamilton.
I KNOW YOU — Running back C.J. Gable, who played 51 games in parts of five seasons with Hamilton, is facing the Ticats for the first time since being acquired by the Eskimos on Oct. 2, 2017.
WAITING GAME — Hamilton QB Jeremiah Masoli got off to a hot start, going 25-for-36 for 344 yards in the loss to Calgary, meaning Johnny Manziel will continue to wait for his chance to play.
EYE ON THE SKY — Given the record weather-delayed marathon the Eskimos played in Winnipeg to open the season, it should be noted the forecast calls for thunderstorms in the Edmonton area in the afternoon and leading into game time Friday.