It’s good to do what the Eskimos Matt O’Donnell says. It’s even better to do what he does.
O’Donnell sets a perfect example for young Canadian offensive linemen to follow to not only survive in the CFL but excel as well.
Be versatile. Learn to be proficient at more than one position. Learn all of them if you can.
“I’ve played tons of games at left guard, tons of games at right guard and a dozen at right tackle so I tell the young guys the more you can do, the more flexible you are, the longer your career will be and the better you’ll play,” said O’Donnell, who was both, a CFL and West Division All-Star at right guard last season.
The six-foot-11, 350-pound veteran offensive lineman, will make his second consecutive start at left tackle when the 1-1 Eskimos play host to the 1-0 BC Lions at The Brick Field at Commonwealth Stadium at 8 p.m. Friday. It is also Canadian Armed Forced Appreciation Night, presented by EPCOR.
With the exception of centre, left tackle is the position O’Donnell has played the least during his 86 career CFL games – maybe a couple of dozen snaps over seven seasons.
“There’s always a chance that in case of an injury, I might get thrown out there for a couple of plays or half a game or something like that, so I’m always prepped for it,” said O’Donnell, who did just fine last week against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in his first full game at left tackle since he started in college with the Queen’s University Golden Gaels in 2010.
“I felt great out there,” said the native of Comox, B.C. “I made a few small adjustments to maybe finish a guy more and not let him get as close or something like that. I felt like I played pretty well, but the problem is you play a team game, so we’ve got to make sure we get those ‘Ws’ for the home fans.”
The Eskimos were upset at home by the Ticats last week.
Asked about the difference between playing left tackle and right guard, where he has been an anchor for the offensive line the last few years, O’Donnell said: “It’s just different. You’re playing in a lot more space, and you’re playing faster, quicker guys. You don’t have to play as much power, but you have to play a lot more finesse, so you’ve got to make sure you cover the space and don’t let them get you too far inside or outside.
“We get a lot of good practice, and a lot of good (video) tape and our coaches get us ready,” he continued. “Coach Gibby (offensive line coach Mike Gibson) has given me lots of reps (repetitions) at tackle the last two years, even when I’m playing guard.
“I’m pretty comfortable out there. It’s just a different mindset. ‘Here are my cues, here are my reads, take up space, go.’ ”
O’Donnell will probably see a lot of B.C. defensive end Odell Willis on Friday, but he knows his former teammate well from practising against him for several years.
“He’s a CFL All-Star,” O’Donnell said. “He was a great guy on the team. He was great for our locker room. He’s the kind of guy who can definitely change the game with one play, so we’ve got to make sure we take that away.
“He’s very quick, a finesse rusher, really good. He can turn the corner really well, dip and rip, so I’ve just got to make sure I cover him up and take away the space.”
The Eskimos started the season with six-foot-four, 300-pound Tommie Draheim at left tackle, but the 29-year-old international O-lineman, who played with BC in 2015 and the Ottawa RedBlacks in 2016, broke his thumb early in the first game against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
“It sucks what happened to Tommie, getting his thumb broken, but he was a trooper and played through the whole game for us and helped secure the win after the 2-1/2-hour thunder and lightning delay,” O’Donnell said. “It was tough to lose him, but we shuffled some stuff around. We’re trying to keep the same ratio. I know the coaches have to worry about that, but we’re still three Canadians on the O-line – so it’s good.”
The other Canadians starting on the Esks offensive line are veteran centre Justin Sorensen and versatile University of Alberta Golden Bears product David Beard, who shifted from left guard to right guard when O’Donnell slid over to left tackle.
“You lose a little bit of chemistry when guys are moving around, but the good thing is we have a lot of guys who have been here for a while so we know the systems and you just slide in and play,” Sorensen said. “We figure it out as we go.
“Obviously, the longer you play together, the better you play. We’re used to our guys moving around and playing different positions now. As long as you understand the system, there’s not as much of a fall off when you’re playing a new position.
“It’s when you’ve got new guys in there who don’t know the system, and then you have to re-learn everything,” he added.
Didn’t the Eskimos pick up international left guard Travis Bond, who had been released by the Saskatchewan Roughriders after training camp, only a few days before last week’s game?
“Bond is new to this team, but he’s been in the league for a while, so he understands how offences work, and he’s a smart guy, and he picked it up really quick,” Sorensen explained. “And Hamilton didn’t run a lot of complicated schemes, too, so that was a good first game to get him started.
“We could have played better, but as a group, we communicated well.”
It probably didn’t hurt that Bond is a six-foot-seven, 356-pound barricade who played 28 games with the Blue Bombers during the 2016-17 seasons and was named a CFL All-Star in ’16.
Completing the current alignment on the O-line is right tackle Colin Kelly, who started 11 regular-season games at that position last season.
Edmonton also allowed just one sack in the first game.
While Beard has already played both guard positions and practices as the backup centre, O’Donnell doesn’t expect to ever get the call to play in the middle of the offensive line.
“I don’t think they want a six-eleven centre out there,” he said. “(The quarterback) might have trouble seeing the defence over you.”
O’Donnell, who hasn’t played centre since he was in Grade 9, served as the long-snapper on punts and place-kicks for the second half of a game during his rookie season with the Esks, though.
“Wherever they want to put me is fine as long as I’m playing,” he said.
Behar gets first CFL start
Nate Behar, the Eskimos first-round draft pick in 2017, was excited to learn he will make his first CFL start at slotback in Friday’s game.
“Put a big smile on my face,” said Behar, who waited patiently all season last year for an opportunity to play on offence. “You know for a fact you’re going to be seeing 50, 60 plays versus ‘Hey, I’m hoping I get in for 10 or 15.’
“I don’t want to get happy or get complacent with where I am. I’m always going to have fun while it happens and while it’s going on, but keep on working up.”
Behar was used on special teams during 12 games last year but only made it on the field for one offensive play in the red zone (the opponent’s end zone to 20-yard line).
“I thought it was a good route, but I got a minus in film (study),” Behar said. “I’ve just been waiting my time.”
He’s been doing more than just “waiting” for an opportunity. Head coach Jason Maas said Behar is “as hard a worker as anybody on our team.”
“He stays after every single practice; catches balls from our backup quarterbacks; he knows every position receiver-wise – so that’s five positions, he knows them all; he’s about as smart as they come, and he’s dedicated to his craft,” said Maas.
While Maas said, it was difficult to determine the extent of Behar’s ability last year “because we didn’t put him in a lot of situations to have to know,” it’s starting to show this season.
For example, Behar was filling in for injured wide receiver Vidal Hazelton when he made a leaping catch for a two-point convert in the back of the end zone to tie the score late in the season-opener against the Blue Bombers. Kicker Sean Whyte booted the game-winning field goal 74 seconds later.
“Now we’ve seen him in a couple of spots where he’s had to make some miraculous catches that we saw him make in college,” Maas said. “He’s made them, so now you start to see the physical tools coming along with his mental capacity. Now experience is going to follow that. We’ve seen a lot of growth in a short amount of time from him.”
The Eskimos activated recently signed national receiver Sam Giguere and moved national fullback Pascal Lochard to the one-game injured list to provide some backup support for Behar and Natey Adjei, who are both in the starting lineup for Friday’s game.
That allows the Eskimos to start international defensive back Maurice McKnight at cornerback instead of Jordan Hoover, a fourth-round 2017 draft pick who started the first two games at field (wide-side) corner.
McKnight, a 22-year-old rookie out of San Jose State, played the first game at boundary (short-side) corner and the second game as a backup at defensive halfback.
Maas said he believes McKnight “is a very good cover corner” from what he’s seen in two regular-season games and two exhibition contests this year.
“Putting him out there, you would hope that presents a different challenge for the receivers going against him,” Maas said. “I’ve got full confidence that if we go back the other way (with Hoover in the lineup), we’ll be just fine. But this week, we’re presented with this opportunity, so we went with it. In the course of the game, I can change that back as well.”
The BC Lions have seven former Eskimos in the starting lineup, including five players who helped Edmonton win the 2015 Grey Cup – Willis (defensive end), cornerback Marcell Young, strong-side linebacker/nickel Otha Foster, backup offensive lineman Chris Greaves and veteran slotback Cory Watson.