Bryant Mitchell was the hottest receiver in the CFL during the last seven weeks of the regular season.
Mitchell, 26, caught eight passes for a game-high 104 yards during the Eskimos’ final game of the regular season at The Brick Field at Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday and made 44 receptions for 635 yards and two touchdowns over the past six games.
But he was spinning his wheels early in the season. He didn’t play in the first three games and spent the next three games as a designated import, making two catches for 18 yards in limited action.
“It’s been a journey, but I’ve had strong faith,” Mitchell said. “I’ve had a great support system in my family – both of my kids’ mothers, my kids, my mother.
“I just wanted to be ready when my number was called. I’ve worked hard. I’ve continued to work my whole life. Thank God it’s coming to fruition now.”
At that point, Mitchell boldly went where he hadn’t gone before and basically told head coach Jason Maas that he could help the team if he was given a chance to play. Mitchell had been patiently waiting for an opportunity to become a regular member of the receiving corps since joining the Esks in 2015 but had played only one game at the end of his second year and seven last season when the receiving group was hit with several injuries.
“I felt like I’m a guy who can definitely help any time,” said Mitchell, who first consulted the spiritual council at his Houston church about whether he should approach Maas about his situation.
“I work hard enough, too,” Mitchell added. “I just wanted to speak with (Maas) about what was the move. I want to be able to help in any way possible. I think that was a good conversation. We’re now sitting here. I think that was the right move to make.
“In these last three years, I’ve been growing,” Mitchell continued. “Even last year, with the seven games that I played in and having 100-yard games, I knew I could be productive, and it just came with opportunity. They say when opportunity meets preparation, it’s a deadly thing.”
Mitchell actually sat out the next two games after talking to Maas, then had a breakout game with seven catches for 128 yards and a touchdown against the Montreal Alouettes on Aug. 18. He sat out two more games after that before being added to the game roster when star wide receiver Derel Walker injured his knee against the Calgary Stampeders on Labour Day.
Mitchell had 51 catches for 721 yards over the last seven games of the season, including a 100-yard performance in each of the last three games, and was hoping to get to 1,000 yards with a big performance against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers on Saturday.
“The goal was 237 (yards),” he said. “I needed 237 to have 1,000. I just thank God I was able to have 800 (actually 867 yards). It was definitely a blessing.”
Mitchell might have got there with a little luck. Eskimos quarterback Mike Reilly tried to hit him with a home run toss that would have gone for 85 yards with five minutes left in the game.
“It was a great play by (Winnipeg cornerback Kevin) Fogg,” Mitchell said. “He definitely got there early, but it’s a play I’ve got to make. He just grabbed my helmet, so I couldn’t really see the ball anymore.”
“He had a hell of a season the past seven games,” said Walker, who first met Mitchell at the Eskimos’ rookie mini-camp in 2015. “That’s my brother, man. I’m so happy for him. He truly deserves the praise and the hype he’s getting right now.
“I’ve been here with him since ’15, I’ve seen the struggle he went through, I’ve seen the hard times, and the sky’s the limit for him. Well, I wouldn’t even say the sky’s the limit because there isn’t a limit.”
Williams thankful for opportunity with Eskimos
D’haquille (Duke) Williams is the third Eskimos player in as many years to lead the CFL in receiving yards.
“I’m very thankful to be with those top guys,” he said about the CFL’s best receivers. “I left some plays on the table, but I made a lot of plays as well.
“It’s all God’s work. I stayed down a long time, and I stuck to the plan and just grinded it out. I had an amazing off-season, believed in the coaching staff, believed in our players, and they believed in me, and they just let me go out and be myself.”
Williams, who finished with 88 receptions for 1,579 yards and tied for the league lead in receiving touchdowns (11) despite playing the last six games with an injured shoulder, is a pending free agent and could try to follow in Brandon Zylstra’s footsteps and land a job in the NFL.
“But this is home, too,” Williams said. “When nobody else took me in, this is where my loyalty lies. If it’s what I want to hear (for a contract offer), then I don’t plan on going nowhere.”
Maas talked after Saturday’s game about having watched Williams grow as a player “from the moment we got him to the man he is today on the field.”
“To lead the league in receiving is hard to do,” Maas said. “There’s a lot of great players in our league. In order to lead the league in receiving, you have to be a tremendous player, but you also have to be a tremendous worker, and that’s something I’ve begun to love about Duke and the way he comes to work every day.”
Grymes enjoyed move to corner
Defensive halfback Aaron Grymes made his first start at cornerback on Saturday since his rookie season in 2013.
“I had a lot of fun there,” he said. “Honestly, I just prefer to be around the ball. I want to be a playmaker, but most importantly, I want to help my team win football games.
“I had an absolute blast playing (corner in Saturday’s game). If that’s where they see me at for the future, then I’m going to do my best to be the best boundary (short-side) corner this league has seen.”
Penalties and turnovers
An easy way to lose games in the CFL is to take lots of penalties and give up plenty of turnovers (fumbles, interceptions, possession on downs).
Both proved to be Achilles heels for the Eskimos during the 2018 season – penalties early in the year and turnovers late.
“I think we found that magic thing that allows us to be more disciplined,” said Maas, whose team ranked last in penalties at one point, but took fewer than 10 infractions in each of their last 10 games to finish fourth-best in the league.
Unfortunately, the Eskimos were minus-13 in turnovers during the last six games after ranking second in the turnover ratio at plus-six after 12 games, when they were in second place overall in the won/lost standings.
“The No. 1 stat to predict a win or loss is turnovers, and we’ve been on the negative end of that since we were 7-5, which simply isn’t good enough,” said General Manager & Vice-President of Football Operations Brock Sunderland.
“When you’re in the bottom third of turnovers, you usually don’t make the playoffs,” Maas agreed. “You usually have one of the worst records in the league.
“Right now, if you look at who is 9-8-7 in our league (in turnovers), they have the worst records. One of them is in the playoffs, but they don’t have an above .500 record. To me, that tells a huge story, and it was hard to overcome it.”
Did you know?
- That kicker Sean Whyte passed Jerry Kauric to move into third place on the Eskimos’ all-time list with 120 field goals. Only Sean Fleming (553) and Dave Cutler (464) have kicked more with the Green and Gold.
- That the Eskimos defensive line led the league with 46 quarterback sacks. Second-year national defensive end Kwaku Boateng led the Esks with nine sacks, newcomers Alex Bazzie and Jake Ceresna each had eight, and multi-year all-star defensive tackle Almondo Sewell did seven somersaults after dropping the quarterback.
He said it
- “To come off what he came off of last year, which looked like career-threatening at the end of your career and come back stronger was tremendous. Five hundred tackles. That doesn’t happen every day in our league. A tremendous player. Whether this is his last game or not, he went out probably as good as you can and, obviously, he’s the leader of our locker room on the defensive side.” – Maas about 30-year-old middle linebacker J.C. Sherritt.
- Asked about Reilly, who led the CFL in passing yards for the third year in a row, Mass said: “Everyone knows how I feel about Mike. I think he’s the greatest. He puts in the work every single day, all the things he plays through, all the things he does for our offence to be what it is also appreciated.”
- “That’s a great quarterback, man,” Mitchell said about Reilly. “You don’t just pick him up off the street. That guy is truly a workhorse, truly somebody who’s in here until five, six, seven o’clock every day, puts in the work and you see it, and it shows on the field.”
- “If Winnipeg had lost to Calgary (in the second-last week of the season), I would have played (Saturday). I was fighting to get back for this game.” – Injured wide receiver Derel Walker, who was knocked out of the lineup on the Labour Day Classic after catching 51 passes for 875 yards.
- “If you look at our last three games, we played one bad quarter of football in 12 quarters,” said Maas. “In BC, we were shut out 21-0 (in the third quarter). Those other 11 quarters, we had the lead in just about every one of them, so we played some pretty damn good football down the stretch.”
- “I’m going to work hard and try to get back (to the Eskimos). I’m going to get in the best shape of my life next year and I’m going to make it (through) the whole year, play all the games and try to get us in the Grey Cup” – running back C.J. Gable, who had his first 1,000-yard rushing season at the age of 31.
- About the fact that Reilly is a free agent and not guaranteed to be wearing Green and Gold next year, Sewell said: “Oh, he’s coming back. Don’t worry about it. We already had that talk!”