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Zylstra is the league’s top receiver this season with 1,687 yards on 100 catches and has had 10 games with 100 or more receiving yards; Bowman was the CFL’s leading receiver two of the previous three years and is a three-time all-star; and Walker finished runner-up to Bowman in 2016, was the league’s most outstanding rookie in 2015 and rejoined the team in mid-season after an unsuccessful NFL tryout.
With a star-studded cast like that, it’s easy to understand why Vidal Hazelton can fade into the background. But he’s the only receiver on the team who can say the Eskimos have a 10-1 record whenever he has started a game this year.
Hazelton’s only loss came after he was hurt early in a game against the Blue Bombers at Winnipeg on Aug. 17. He missed seven games over the next two months while sidelined with a hamstring injury, then returned for the last three victories in the Eskimos’ five-game win streak to finish the regular season.
“He sets the tone for us offensively,” said Eskimos quarterback Mike Reilly, who completed a game-high five passes to Hazelton for 64 yards on Saturday at Regina.
The Eskimos defeated the Roughriders 28-13 to finish the regular season with a 12-6 record and tie the Bombers for second place in the West Division. Because Winnipeg won both games between the teams during the regular season, the Bombers were awarded second place and will host Sunday’s 2:30 p.m. MT West Division Semi Final against Edmonton.
“This team, the No. 1 thing I don’t question is our will to fight, especially through tough games and if it’s close games at the end,” Hazelton said during the 630 CHED post-game show Saturday. “When things come down to the last minute, I know guys are going to pick up and make those plays and do exactly what the coaches say.
“We’ve just got to keep it rolling,” he added. “We’re doing a good job. I feel like we’re executing our offence. Mike is seeing the field really good. There’s times he gets pressured, but Mike Reilly does a great job with his feet, getting out there and making plays outside the pocket. That’s big in this league.”
Despite the multitude of talented international receivers Reilly has available to throw the ball, Hazelton is anything but an after-thought.
“He’s very aggressive,” Reilly said. “He plays very passionately, he’s not scared to get up in (defensive backs’) faces, he’s great in the run-game blocking down field. He’s a beast for us. On second-and-medium, second-and-short, second-and-long, we know we can get him the ball.
“He’s done a great job since coming back from his injury and he’s just going to continue to get better and better. He still is learning new things every week, but he plays with an incredible amount of passion, he’s very reliable, and he’s the guy who sets the tone and the tempo for us.”
At one point during the season, Hazelton was the glue holding everything together for the receivers as both Bowman and Zylstra were injured and he became the leader of a young and inexperienced receiving corps. He had just surged past Zylstra to take over the team lead in receiving yards and ranked fourth in the league with 560 yards after seven games when he was injured.
“I really felt like that was the last straw to break in our injuries this season,” Reilly said. “We had so many guys in the wide receiver crew getting hurt and getting shuffled in and out, but the one constant for those first seven weeks was Vidal. He was playing great and then he got hurt early in that Winnipeg game.”
Hazelton, 29, played 24 games with the Toronto Argonauts over the 2015 and ’16 seasons before he was suddenly released last fall and joined the Eskimos practice roster. He is a physical receiver at six-foot-three, 212 pounds, which Roughriders cornerback Jovon Johnson learned the hard way during Saturday’s game.
“It was a violent collision between him and Jovon on the sideline,” Reilly said. “That’s a hard collision in any normal game. When it’s cold out like this, you don’t see those very often because nobody wants to hit like that, but Vidal does.”
“Honestly, I caught the ball and I turned up and saw him coming,” said Hazelton. “Naturally, you’ve just got to dip your head and see what happens. I did, but my prayers are out to Jovon. I didn’t realize when he fell down that he was kind of like concussed.
“I like to trash talk and have fun, but I never want to see anybody get hurt so he’s definitely in my prayers, but I’m glad I made the play for my team.”
The runner-up to Walker for the league’s rookie award in 2015, Hazelton prides himself on being able to catch almost every pass thrown his way while also bringing a lot of energy to his fellow receivers.
“I know the other guys in the receiving corps feed off of my energy, so I try to keep it going out there under any circumstance,” he said.