EDMONTON — Mediocrity has attached itself like a mould to the once-proud Edmonton Eskimos franchise, but the team says the clean up begins in 2014 with its new head coach and a franchise quarterback.
“I know our fans are a little annoyed with certain things, but they also have to understand we are committed to getting this done,” said general manager Ed Hervey, referring to last year’s 4-14 record and the team’s fourth missed playoff attempt in eight years.
Hervey said that starts with new head coach Chris Jones and returning quarterback Mike Reilly.
Jones, the highly touted former Toronto Argonauts defensive co-ordinator, gets his first shot at proving he can run the whole show as a head coach in the CFL.
His resume speaks to success: 12 years coaching in the CFL, never missed the playoffs, won three Grey Cups.
He will also run his trademark defence for Edmonton, featuring defenders who play with risk and aggression, tripping up offences with multiple sets, blitzes and stances.
Jones said the defence isn’t about dictating the play as much as taking an offence out of its comfort zone, refusing to let a quarterback do what he wants to do.
“We try to do our best to make (the offence) play left-handed,” said Jones.
Jones will do it with a retooled roster. Veterans Donovan Alexander and Chris Thompson were dispatched in the off-season as Jones rebuilt the secondary around bigger, stronger players.
Joe Burnett, Patrick Watkins, Marcell Young and Aaron Grymes are the projected starters at cornerback and defensive back, with Ryan Hinds and Chris Rwabukamba at the safety spot.
Veterans Rennie Curran, JC Sherritt, and Eric Samuels are the starters at linebacker, although Sherritt has been absent from practices this week with an undisclosed injury.
Almondo Sewell, Eddie Steele, Marcus Howard, and Odell Willis are the defensive lineman.
On offence, the team revolves around Reilly, who was signed this week to a contract extension through 2016. The 29-year-old from Washington State had a breakout season under centre in 2013, finishing second in the CFL in passing yards (4,207) and leading the team in rushing (709 yards) while absorbing head-jarring hits behind an offensive line held together by spit and binder twine.
Matt Nichols will be the backup after missing all of 2013 to a knee injury.
In the receiving corps, slotback Fred Stamps is still the top go-to guy. Now in his eighth year, the man from New Orleans led the CFL with 1,259 receiving yards in 2013. Adarius Bowman lines up on the other side.
Shamawd Chambers and Nate Coehoorn are the wideouts.
Jones has made it clear the running backs must protect Reilly. To that end, veteran Hugh Charles was cut to make way for second year man John White and newcomer Tyler Thomas, who are better blocker and pass protectors.
The offensive line has been retooled. Of the 11 lineman the team broke camp with, six are new.
Brian Ramsay is at centre, joining guards Andrew Jones and Simeon Rottier, and tackles Thaddeus Coleman and Tony Washington.
Grant Shaw is back to do the kicking but needs to get better. He was 21 for 27 on field goals to finish in the middle of the pack in 2013.
Reilly said 2014 is a pivotal year for the CFL’s one-time flagship organization that made the playoffs for 34 consecutive seasons before falling into dysfunction following its last Grey Cup win, and appearance, in 2005.
“We have very high expectations, as should the fans, but again we understand it’s not just going to happen by talking about it,” said Reilly.
“We’ve got to go out and do it on the field.”
The Eskimos open the regular season in Vancouver Saturday against the B.C. Lions.