Eskimos quarterback Mike Reilly measures performance in terms of team success, so it isn’t a good season without a championship at the end of the year.
“If you’re hoisting the (Grey) Cup, that’ll be your best year to date,” Reilly said after being nominated as the Eskimos most outstanding player for the third year in a row. “So, right now, ’15 feels like my best year.”
The Eskimos won their last Grey Cup in 2015.
“But this year feels like we have an opportunity for me to think of this as the best year of football I’ve been involved with,” Reilly added, with the Eskimos, 11-6, on a roll again with four consecutive wins heading into their final game of the regular season at 5 p.m. Saturday against the Saskatchewan Roughriders, 10-7, at Regina’s Mosaic Stadium.
Edmonton is already guaranteed a playoff berth, but it’s still up in the air whether the Eskimos will be playing in the West or East Division Semi-Final.
“I’m certainly honoured to represent our team, but it’s a combined group effort,” Reilly said. “It’s been so many guys … who have made impacts on our team. This is a team game and nobody’s getting anything done without the other 11 guys on the field and the other, in our case, 90 guys in the locker room.”
Because of injuries, the Eskimos have had 84 players appear on the active roster this season, with 54 players starting at least one game.
Reilly and fellow award winner Matt O’Donnell, who was selected as the Eskimos most outstanding Canadian player and most outstanding offensive lineman, are the team’s only two players who have started all 17 games this season.
Most outstanding defensive player Kenny Ladler played each of the first 16 games before sitting out last week’s contest in an attempt to get healthier for the playoffs while 2017 draft picks Christophe Mulumba-Tshimanga (outstanding special teams player) and Kwaku Boateng (outstanding rookie) have played in every game, but not necessarily as starters.
Reilly, who was also named a CFL Player of the Month for October for the third year is a row, leads the league with 5,536 passing yards. He is only 127 yards shy of Ricky Ray’s club record of 5,663 yards, set in 2008, and is just one of six CFL QBs to ever reach the 5,000-yard mark in consecutive seasons, joining Warren Moon, Doug Flutie, Kent Austin, Anthony Calvillo and Ray.
He also leads the CFL with 30 passing touchdowns and is tied for the league lead with nine rushing TDs. He has passed for 300 or more yards in 12 games for the second year in a row, twice threw for more than 400 yards, and has an efficiency rating of 102.8.
His 361 rushing yards is only four yards behind LaDarius Perkins’ team-high 365 yards this season, and he has moved past TSN commentator Matt Dunigan into fifth place on the Eskimos all-time QB rushing list with 2,416 yards.
O’Donnell can receive some of the credit for Reilly’s success. He has helped anchor the offensive line, usually playing right guard, but he has also taken snaps at right tackle, left guard and left tackle.
“He can play any position on the offensive line,” said Reilly, pointing out that O’Donnell is usually the player who gets moved any time a fellow offensive lineman gets hurt during a game. “Any time that you can play the right guard spot, you can jump out to right tackle, you can bump out to left tackle and play any of those positions based on what our needs are in the course of a game, you’ve got a pretty special player there.
“I haven’t taken a snap from under centre from him,” Reilly added. “I’m not sure how that works. I don’t know if I can get my hands high enough to take the snap. It’s already tough enough with Justin (Sorensen).”
O’Donnell stands six-foot-11 compared to regular centre Sorensen’s six-eight build.
“I played centre in Grade 9 for a year,” O’Donnell said. “I had a decent shotgun snap.”
O’Donnell also joked that Reilly could still throw over him if he had to play centre, just have him adjust “a little to the left, yup, we’re good.”
“He’s had a great season so far,” Reilly said. “He’s been physically and mentally tough and he’s been very sound in his technique and things like that.”
O’Donnell has been a regular on the offensive line since the Eskimos acquired his rights in a trade with Saskatchewan in September 2012. He played in six games that year, making one start, and also served as the long-snapper in one game when Ryan King was injured.
He said it’s “a good feeling” to be named the winner of two different Eskimos awards, but added: “We’re playing Sask. right now, maybe have an outside chance of securing a home playoff game, but right now we’re worried about those guys next door in Saskatchewan.”
O’Donnell, 28, has started 75 of his last 79 games with the Eskimos over the past five seasons. The 28-year-old native of Comox, B.C., has improved a lot and is in better shape than when he was last nominated as the team’s top O-lineman in 2013.
“It’s second year in a row I’ve had Coach (Mike) Gibson,” O’Donnell said. “He’s really helped me refine my game from last year on.”
He also said there has been “a lot of off-season stuff (training), watching the diet, making sure you get eight to 10 hours of sleep, just working hard and never being satisfied.”
Ladler, who leads the Eskimos with 81 defensive tackles (seventh overall in the league, has been one of the few constants on defence for the Green and Gold because of all the injuries this season. He also has three interceptions, two fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles, a blocked field goal attempt and 12 special teams tackles.
“I felt grateful, humbled and honoured to be a recipient of that award,” he said.
The 25-year-old second-year linebacker said he’s come a long way from just trying to “fly around” to make plays last year to having a better understanding and feel for the CFL game, better anticipating pass route concepts when covering a moving receiver off the line of scrimmage.
Ladler said he wanted to establish himself as “more of a playmaker for the defence” and felt he was able to establish that early in the season “with the experience I had the previous year.”
He’s refreshed after taking last week’s game off.
“I’m feeling much better this week,” he said. “My legs feel like they’re ready to go for this game.”
The special teams award usually goes to a kicker or kick-returner, but with injuries taking out kicker Sean Whyte for 12 games as well as several different kick-returners, Mulumba got nominated. He made a splash with four special teams tackles in his CFL debut and followed up with three more special teams tackles in his next two games.
Because of injuries, Mulumba received opportunities to start games at both weak-side linebacker and middle linebacker over the course of the season while still making 13 special teams tackles and 19 on defence.
“I think it’s a team award, too,” Mulumba said. “All the vets – Calvin (McCarty), Blair (Smith) – all of these guys helped me throughout the season.”
Boateng beat out wide receiver Duke Williams for the Eskimos outstanding rookie award. Williams had 46 catches for 715 yards and four touchdowns over 13 games this season, but Boateng’s improvement at defensive end overshadowed the receiver’s sometimes brilliant catches.
“I’ve come really, really far,” said Boateng. “Just based off of film, if you watch how I played during training camp and I played throughout the pre-season, I’m a completely different individual on the field. If I were to take what I learned here with Coach Casey Creehan and all the elders in the locker room, if I went back to university, I feel like I’d be amazing.
“With all of those traits and all of those things I’ve gained throughout the 16, 18 weeks so far, I’ve developed on and off the field and it’s a testament to the coaching staff we have here and the individuals we have in the locker room.”
Boateng, 22, is part of an impressive 2017 Eskimos draft class, along with players like Mulumba and safety Jordan Hoover. He made 21 defensive tackles, four quarterback sacks and forced a fumble while taking a regular rotation on the defensive line.
“When I got drafted fifth round, I was really worried because I knew Edmonton only had American D-lineman and it was going to be a tough battle,” he said. “Being fifth round, there’s a chance you might get cut.”
He was also upset at himself for not having made a better showing at the CFL combine and was angry that some CFL teams told him before the draft that he would fit perfectly into their lineup with their other Canadian defensive linemen.
“I wound up fifth round,” Boateng continued. “There’s nothing wrong with that. I think that me the person I am today. Who knows? Maybe if I went first round, where I was projected, I might not be as good of a player as I am now as a rookie.”
He admitted that having a chip on his shoulder when he came to training camp also probably helped him improve to the point he has to date.
He’s still a rookie, though, and it’s reinforced every day when he was to put the big blue blocking bags out in order on the field every morning before practice.
Eskimos head coach Jason Maas said Edmonton didn’t expect to have a chance to draft Boateng because they had other needs and planned to go with an American D-line. But when Wilfrid Laurier’s all-time sack leader was still there in the fifth round, the Esks jumped at the chance to take him.
“We had him rated way higher than that,” Maas said. “Obviously, he’s done nothing but exceed expectations since he’s been here. We all thought he was a great player, but you never know how a rookie is going to respond to 18 games and respond to a hard training camp and all that.
“From Day 1, he hasn’t done anything but work hard. That’s the mentality of our football club – blue collar – and he fits in with that.”
The East and West Division award winners will be announced on Nov. 8.