EDMONTON — While the road to the Grey Cup leads to Edmonton in 2010, it hasn’t led through Edmonton in a very long time.
But the Edmonton Eskimos hope that a revamped defence and an offence of returning veterans will see them standing on the sidelines on the newly installed high-tech FieldTurf at Commonwealth Stadium for the CFL’s championship game Nov. 28.
“That would be awesome,” said quarterback Ricky Ray.
“Everybody’s goal is to get to the Grey Cup. But when you’re the host city, there’s such a big advantage of being able to play a championship game at home in front of your own fans, in your own locker-room, in your own stadium
“We have that extra motivation.”
To do it, the team that finished 9-9 in 2009 (3rd in the CFL West) needs to consistently complete drives on offence and not allow the big play to blow them up on defence, says head coach Richie Hall.
Hall said it’s critical they keep the mental toughness developed late last year in a season that ended with a first-round 24-21 playoff loss to the Calgary Stampeders.
“I thought as the season progressed we were a very tough team, very confident team, whereas I felt earlier in the season we were very fragile,” said Hall.
“When things were going well, we were a pretty good team, but when something bad would happen, you didn’t know which way we were going to go.”
The offence will benefit from a full season under co-ordinator Kevin Strasser. Strasser came in at the midpoint last season to invigorate a struggling attack.
There was progress, said Ray, but having Strasser from the get-go in 2010 will boost the learning curve.
“He likes different formations, different personnel groupings,” said Ray. “Hopefully we can keep defences off balance by giving them a lot of different looks and making them cover the whole field.”
Ray returns as the starting quarterback and the face of the team.
He completed a league-leading 401 passes last season for 22 touchdowns against 12 interceptions.
He’ll be backed up by veteran Jason Maas and Jared Zabransky.
Arkee Whitlock will carry the load as running back after turning heads when first-stringer Jesse Lumsden went down with a dislocated shoulder in game one of 2009.
The 26-year-old from South Carolina proceeded to rumble for 1,293 yards, third best in the CFL, and scored 12 TDS.
Lumsden spent the winter pushing Pierre Lueders’ bobsled in the Olympics.
He was released before training camp when his shoulder was not deemed ready to play football.
Mathieu Bertrand is back at fullback.
Fred Stamps, the league’s top pass catcher last season, returns to lead a talented receiving corps. The four-year veteran hauled in 85 passes for 1,402 yards and eight touchdowns.
Speed demon Kelly Campbell, who led the CFL with a 22.6 yards-per-catch average in 2008, returns after a failed attempt to stick with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Veterans Andrew Nowacki, Efrem Hill and Kamau Peterson are also back while Andre Talbot and Brad Smith have come over in a trade with the Toronto Argonauts.
The offensive line features returning veterans Patrick Kabongo, Joe McGrath, Calvin Armstrong, Kyle Koch and centre Aaron Fiacconi. Fiacconi, however, is expected to start the year on the one-game injured list after getting his leg rolled on in the pre-season.
On defence, general manager Danny Maciocia focused this off season on rebuilding a secondary that was torched way too often in 2009. The defence allowed a league-worst 284.5 yards passing per game. They allowed 26 touchdowns through the air — only Toronto was worse.
Lawrence Gordon and Chris Thompson have been brought in from Hamilton and Lenny Walls has come over from Winnipeg. Cornerback Jason Goss is the only returning starter from 2009.
Elliott Richardson, who took over early last season as the starting safety, was to be the starting safety this year, but dislocated his left wrist in the final pre-season game against the B.C. Lions. He’ll be replaced by five-year-man Jason Nugent.
Thompson said it’s critical the secondary learn to work together quickly.
“Last year they lost a lot of games in the last quarter,” said Thompson. “We’re jelling pretty good. We’ve got a lot of veteran guys who know what they’re doing.”
They’ll be getting their marching orders from Hall directly. The second-year head coach will also be defensive co-ordinator.
Maciocia said it was his idea. He said they hired Hall because of his reputation for sound defensive game-planning when he was with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, so why not take advantage of that in Edmonton.
“As a former offensive co-ordinator, going up against him was a pain,” said Maciocia. “We had some serious battles.”
At linebacker, Maurice Lloyd returns in the middle after what he admits was a poor 2009. He is flanked by Rod Davis and T.J. Hill.
Up front, veteran tackle Dario Romero anchors a defensive line that trailed the entire league with just 32 sacks last season. Justin Brown is the other tackle, with Greg Peach and Kai Ellis on the ends.
Twelve-year veteran Noel Prefontaine returns to handle the kicking duties while Skyler Green is expected to be the return man. Thunderbolt kick returner Tristan Jackson was placed on the nine-game injured list with a shoulder injury suffered against Calgary in the pre-season.
Tim St. Pierre takes over long-snapping duties from veteran Taylor Inglis.
The Eskimos open the season at home Sunday against the Lions (7 p.m. ET, TSN).