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May 27, 2019

Eskimos defence impressive in first pre-season win

Edmonton FC vs

“Hello, Edmonton. I’m Don Unamba, and I’m here to play football.”

That’s basically how Unamba, 30, introduced himself to Eskimos fans with his body language on Sunday afternoon when he dove to make an interception on the first play of the first CFL pre-season game this year.

“I couldn’t have written a better story for how that all played out,” said Unamba, one of three linebackers the Eskimos signed on the opening day of free agency on Feb. 12. “You come to a new team and to be able to make an impact like that on the first play of the game, that was cool.

“I had the flats on that play. I made my run read. I looked back to get my read, and the ball was right there. I caught it and made the play.”

The Eskimos had to settle for a 20-yard Sean Whyte field goal after Unamba’s turnover and a 28-yard scramble to the BC 11-yard line but later scored 19 unanswered points to defeat the Lions 22-7 in front of 23,549 spectators at The Brick Field at Commonwealth Stadium.

“You expect those things to be made by Don,” said Eskimos Head Coach Jason Maas. “Watching him play in this league – what we saw of him last year – and what we’ve seen of him in (training) camp, you kind of expect that stuff to happen.

“But on the first play, it’s pretty special. Hopefully, that’s (a sign) of more things to come.”

The 2018 CFL All-Star with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats is playing strong-side linebacker, a hybrid linebacker/defensive back position often found in pass coverage. He also tackled BC running back Shaun Wick for a two-yard loss while playing slightly more than a quarter of the game.

“It was exciting from the defensive perspective,” Eskimos defensive end Alex Bazzie said about Sunday’s game. “For us to try to get the new playbook down pat, to be able to go out there and put a performance up as we did, that was a beauty.

“It was just a great atmosphere, the fact that we were just happy to play some football and show what type of future we have down the road in this league.”

Weak-side linebacker Vontae Diggs had a game-high five tackles and one of the five quarterback sacks by the Eskimos while Nick Taylor, who played 15 games with the Esks last year, had four tackles and a sack from the strong-side linebacker position.

Maas admitted that it was difficult to get 95 players ready to play a pre-season game so early in training camp (only 81 actually dressed for Sunday’s game).

“I just like the effort our guys gave all 60 minutes,” he said. “It’s tough to get together in one week and get everybody on the same page, all three phases (offence, defence and special teams), and play football.

“To run as many plays as we did against another team, I’m just thrilled that we got through it and now we can evaluate something. This will be the first time that we’re really able to see guys finish (a play on game film) and we can do the true evaluation process.”

Because the Eskimos don’t tackle their teammates and seldom wear pads during practice, the coaches don’t get to see a play right through to the finish.

“You think a guy makes a play, but does he really make the play?” Maas said about practices. “We get to see it now and see how they performed under the lights. (Watching game film Sunday night) will be all about the individuals and how they performed, how they executed the offence, defence, special teams; the effort they gave on every single play, and then we’ll be able to build our team better from there.”

Maas was happy to see the improvement in their kick-return game Sunday. Sophomore Jordan Robinson had 99 yards over three consecutive punt returns in the second quarter, and five punt returns overall for 106 yards, one kickoff return for 27 yards and a missed field goal return for 17 yards while Eskimo newcomer Joshua Stangby had a 74-yard punt return and two kickoff returns for 27 yards.

“I thought our return game was dynamic,” Maas said. “Our average was really high on punt return. That’s kind of our expectations. We talked a lot this off-season about the improvements we want to make, and I think we took strides today to prove that we were on the right step forward.”

Robinson, 24, said playing Sunday’s game was good “because you get your feet back under you” and “you get the speed of (the CFL game) a little bit again.”

But he wasn’t taking anything for granted because “everybody knows our special teams game wasn’t too good last year.”

Robinson had an impressive kick-return outing in the second pre-season game in 2018 at Winnipeg, scoring a 98-yard punt-return touchdown and finishing with 205 return yards over a total of eight punt and kickoff returns.

“I was excited, and I felt the team was excited a little bit last year just going off what we did in the pre-season, but I feel like we shouldn’t ride that wave,” he said cautiously. “Just wait for the season to come and keep on building on what we did today and the next game and see what happens in the season.

Robinson, who averaged 8.03 punt-return yards and 19.25 kickoff-return yards during eight regular-season games last year, said he’s learning to be a little more patient and confident “with reading whatever I see out there (as far as blocking lanes) and just hitting it.”

Last year, he had a tendency just to catch the ball and do whatever he could to get as many yards as possible.

Robinson also played running back for the last 20 minutes of Sunday’s game, finishing with 43 yards rushing on eight carries.

“The more things I can do, the better it is for me,” he said.

Offensively, the Eskimos played all four quarterbacks – starter Trevor Harris (eight of 12 passing for 50 yards) for the first quarter and first series in the second quarter, incumbent backup Danny O’Brien (10 completions on 16 attempts for 69 yards) and former Toronto Argonaut/Hamilton Tiger-Cat Logan Kilgore (three for six passing for 38 yards) for five series each during the second, third and/or fourth quarters, and rookie Jeremiah Briscoe (completing two of three throws for 24 yards) in the last five minutes of the game.

Kilgore scored the Eskimos’ first touchdown on a one-yard quarterback sneak on third down midway through the second quarter and completed a 12-yard pass to national receiver Tevaun Smith in the end zone late in the third quarter to complete the game’s scoring.

Smith was the Eskimos’ first-round draft pick in 2016 but spent the last three years in the NFL.

“I’m definitely trying to adjust (to the Canadian game after spending the last seven years in the United States playing college or NFL),” Smith said. “I’ve got a bunch of other receivers helping me out, so I’m doing my best to work my butt off and prove that I deserve a spot on the team.”

Smith, who played about a quarter and a half in the game, used his speed to get open after catching a defensive back flat-footed in the end zone.

Maas said he knew the offence would be challenged in the pre-season game.

“In practice is one thing,” he said. “To go in the game and see it live and see it fast and do all those things, obviously, we’ve got work to do. But we knew that going in. There were really good things done, but things that I know in a week or two we’re not going to miss out there as an offence, not just one person.”

Harris, one of the key free agents the Eskimos signed in February, pointed out that it was only “our fifth or sixth day together as an offence, a new offence for a lot of us.

“We had a lot of fun out there,” he said. “We did a couple of good things. We did a couple of bad things. And we’ve got some things to work on. It’s a good thing for us to have this pre-season (game) and have some more time to get some work.”

The Eskimos won’t have much time to prepare for their second pre-season game against the Blue Bombers in Winnipeg. They play at 6:30 p.m. on Friday at IG Field.

“As many reps as we can get, the better,” Harris said. “I’d love to play the whole game if I could. That’s just the competitor in you. But you’ve got to be able to take a step back at this point in camp and look and see the things you want to get better at, things you want to fine tune, the things you want to change.

“The things we need to get better at and work on, we have a lot of things on that list.”

The Eskimos used 17 different receivers in the game, including Mexico’s Diego Viamontes, who didn’t catch the only pass thrown his way but fielded his single punt return.

Two other Global players were also on the stats sheet, with Mexican defensive back Jose Alfonsin making a defensive tackle while France’s Maxime Rouyer had a special teams tackle.

BC’s only touchdown came on a 63-yard punt return by Shakier Ryan.

The teams combined for 24 penalties for 279 yards (13 for 144 by the Eskimos).