C.J. Gable is closing in on his first 1,000-yard rushing season in the CFL and he has the Eskimos to thank for that.
The 30-year-old running back has proven to be everything the Eskimos needed and more since they acquired him in a trade with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Oct. 2.
“It’s crazy how everything happened,” Gable said about becoming such an important part of the Eskimos offence upon arrival. “I would never think that I would have been on a team that was going to the playoffs right now. But it happened and I’m happy.
“I prayed for something to change when I was in Hamilton,” he added. “God put me in the best position that fits me. I’m having a lot of fun with the teammates and the streak that we’re on right now. Everything feels good over here.”
Gable’s role with the Tiger-Cats was more blocker than running back. He averaged only eight carries a game despite gaining more than 5.8 yards per carry during 51 games over 4-1/2 seasons with the Ticats. If receptions are included, he averaged less than 11 touches per game.
With the Eskimos, those numbers have doubled to 20 touches per game, including 17.6 carries. Gable, who is in the final year of his contract, has already produced three 100-yard rushing performances and totalled 474 rushing yards in only five games with Edmonton, including last week’s West Division semifinal at Winnipeg. Add in 466 rushing yards on 72 carries over nine games with the Ticats and Gable is at 940 rushing yards for the season.
“He’s certainly a weapon for us; we’re glad to have him,” said Eskimos quarterback Mike Reilly, a CFL Most Outstanding Player finalist this season.
Eskimos head coach Jason Maas said Gable is simply “proving his value and his worth to this organization. He fits right in, he’s a complement to what we do offensively and we’ve been excited from the moment he arrived.
“He’s just a little bit more powerful the way he does certain things,” Maas continued. “And he’s also a ferocious blocker. He’s one of those guys who likes to block so he likes to get his nose dirty.”
While the Eskimos expect their running backs to help the offensive line protect Reilly, they also want to give him the ball around 20 times a game to balance the offence.
“We’re just able to do a little bit more with him,” said Maas, who currently has three starting running backs – John White, TraVon Van and LaDarius Perkins – sidelined with season-ending injuries. “That’s more because of his skill set.”
Gable, who is six-feet, 219 pounds, displayed his entire skill set during his first 15-yard rushing touchdown against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the West semifinal.
“He made a couple of crazy cuts early and made some defenders look silly,” Reilly recalled. “That was kind of the finesse part of his game. But then he just kept his legs moving.
“The coolest part about that was the last three or four yards seeing our offensive linemen jumping over people to get in there and help push the pile,” said Reilly. “It was an entire team effort to get into the end zone, but it all starts with C.J. and his abilities.”
Gable said the key things on plays like that is to keep your legs moving, have lower body strength and the determination to keep going.
“That’s why you work out, man, for stuff like that,” he said. “I don’t want to go down. I want to be hard to take down … so I always drive my legs and try to see how far I can go.”
With the Eskimos leading 11-10 after disrupting Winnipeg’s fake punt attempt early in the third quarter, Gable was determined to score a touchdown, even though nine or 10 Bombers attempted to stop him at various points during the play.
“I wanted to get in there bad, so I was going to do whatever it takes to get in there,” he said about the end zone. “When I got stopped at the last part, I saw the end zone right there. I was like, ‘I can almost get in there,’ so I just kept driving my legs. Luckily, I got a push from my O-line that got me in there.”
Right guard Matt O’Donnell said all five of the Eskimos offensive linemen were pushing the pile of players surrounding Gable towards the end zone.
“He’s strong,” O’Donnell said. “For a back his size, he’s about 30 pounds stronger than he looks. He’s fast, he’s shifty, but he’s got strong legs and he knows how to push a pile so we just get in there and help him a little bit.
“It just turns into a rugby scrum at that point,” continued O’Donnell. “That’s playoff football. We try to bring that every week in the regular season, but playoff football is do-or-die, so every yard, every inch, every scrap of turf counts. You got to make sure you get in there.”
O’Donnell said plays like Gable’s TD are a rarity because offensive linemen don’t always know the location of the ball when they’re busy blocking an opponent.
“But if you see a giant pileup – you might see a running back get slowed down by one guy – you just turn on the jets and hope to get there in time,” he added. “You push the pile as much as you can, keep the feet churning and hope you get a touchdown.”
Gable, who also had a similar run through the heart of the Toronto Argonauts defence in his second game with the Eskimos in October, had another unusual play on his second 15-yard TD run against Winnipeg. He hurdled Bombers safety Taylor Loffler at the goal line.
“I saw him trying to go low on me so I just jumped over him,” Gable said with a shrug. “I don’t want anybody to think I’m going to keep doing that. I know when to do it and when not to. I just do it sometimes. I change it up. Sometimes I’ll run you over. You never know.”
That touchdown capped a three-play scoring drive where Gable ran for 10, 33 and 15 yards on back-to-back-to-back plays en route to a 107-yard outing on 16 carries. He also caught four passes for another 37 yards.
Gable had only 16 rushing yards on five carries in the first half, but Reilly still felt the running back made important contributions to the offence.
“If it’s a bad look in the box (the interior of the opponent’s defence), he’s going to get us at least three or four yards, which is something that a guy like (Calgary’s Jerome) Messam has done for years,” Reilly said. “That’s a benefit to have on your team, to know that you’re going to be in second-and-manageable no matter what if you hand the ball off.”
Maas said there were several plays in the West semifinal “that tell you the story of C.J. Gable and what we’ve grown to love about him.” They didn’t all include Gable running with the football.
“There’s a block early on the touchdown to Adarius (Bowman) where he de-cleats one of the D-lineman, he’s getting blocked and has a chip just coming out of the backfield; he steps up in the hole and blocks another linebacker; and then the two really good runs where he was really physically, hit the hole, made some cuts, made people miss in space, but then still had the power to drive through.
“He’s the complete back,” Maas stated. “It’s just that each game you get to see a little bit more.”
Watson a special teams star
Cory Watson had never seen a fake punt play up close and personal until he made the tackle on Winnipeg’s Timothy Flanders for a two-yard loss early in the third quarter of last week’s West Division semifinal.
“It was a huge play in their zone and really helped us,” Watson said. “If they had executed it correctly, there was a good chance they would have got a first down and it would have helped their drive.”
Instead, Watson burst through an opening in the Bombers line to catch Flanders before he could turn the corner and get a first down on the third-and-three gamble.
“To be honest with you, I was not blocked,” admitted Watson. “Someone made a mistake on their part and I capitalized. It worked in our favour.”
Watson said the Eskimos “weren’t quite sure” what Winnipeg was doing on the play because “they had a few communication issues, so that kind of tipped us off a little bit, but for the most part, we weren’t really clued in until it really happened.”
Initially, Watson and teammate James Tuck were supposed to double-team a Winnipeg player, “but Tuck was doing such a good job on his man, it allowed me to work up to the up-back.”
Watson, 33, is usually in the Eskimos starting lineup as a slotback on offence. He has caught 27 passes for 350 yards and two touchdowns this year.
“Cory is an extremely unselfish player,” Maas said. “He does a tremendous amount of work for us that people don’t probably see. On offence, on special teams, he’s one of those guys who just does his job … and he does it extremely well.
“He’s a capable receiver. He’s one of those guys who if you sleep on him at all, he can get right by you. He doesn’t get as many chances as the other guys, but usually when he does, he makes you pay. But all of the other little things are the reason he’s so valuable for our football team.”