The 2019 Eskimos are on a mission.
After being the first 9-9 team in CFL history to not make the playoffs in the crossover era, the Eskimos revamped the make-up of the team that not only lost a 1,500-yard-plus receiver to the NFL for the third straight season but also its starting quarterback to free agency and its leading tackler to retirement.
The Eskimos reloaded their roster on arguably the craziest day in the history of CFL free agency, eventually signing 12 players from other teams.
Nineteen newcomers – including 2019 draft picks Kyle Saxelid, an offensive lineman, and receiver Shai Ross – stuck on the Eskimos’ active roster to start the regular season while 17 new acquisitions ended up on the injured list or practice roster.
“We just went out to get great people to replace great people,” said Head Coach Jason Maas. “At the end of the day, the guys who remained in this locker room understood that last year wasn’t good enough, no matter who was here, and we needed to change some things. We needed to look top to bottom and figure out some things that could make this year better.
“We addressed those things through personnel, through the way we operate, through the way we were going to build this team,” he continued. “Looking at it through training camp, I think we’re heading in the right direction. Ultimately, it’s about us going out together, performing together, performing for one another and starting it at home against Montreal and let the rest of it play itself out week to week.
“We just want to start fresh and start new.”
The Eskimos open the season at home for the first time since 2016 with a matchup against the Montreal Alouettes at 7 p.m. Friday at The Brick Field at Commonwealth Stadium. The Esks have won each of their last 10 games against the Als dating back to July 24, 2014.
Edmonton has also won its season opener on the road each of the last two years, but the last time the Esks won a season opener at home was in 2012.
The Eskimos had to overcome a difficult front-loaded training camp schedule that saw them play both of their pre-season games before two CFL teams played even one game and will start the regular season with 13 new starters, all but four of them newcomers to the team.
With 12 players already on the injured list – including left tackle SirVincent Rogers, weak-side linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox, defensive end Alex Bazzie, offensive lineman Travis Bond, receiver DaVaris Daniels, special teams standout Christophe Mulumba-Tshimanga and national receiver Anthony Parker – the Eskimos are already working into their depth players. Rogers, Santos-Knox, Daniels and Parker were all acquired through free agency.
“We need to get back to making Edmonton a place where people want to be and don’t want to leave,” Maas said. “One of the main objectives coming out of (training) camp was to become a close-knit team, and I think we accomplished that. We picked some really good guys. “
Maas said the selection process was built on character “just making sure we had the right guys in that locker room.”
It’s obvious that free-agent quarterback Trevor Harris and free-agent middle linebacker Larry Dean are character guys because they were voted as the offensive and defensive captains, respectively, by the players despite being new to the team.
“Larry and Trevor have been great character guys in other locker rooms, so we’re just glad to have them here,” Maas said.
With all the newcomers this year, Maas took a different approach during training camp. He put players in different meeting groups so they would get to know each other better and arranged for several team-building opportunities like playing lawn darts or competing in a basketball shoot-off or having a trivia contest about teammates and extended Eskimos staff throughout training camp and the first week of the season.
“I’ve seen it over the course of my career when the team knows each other really well, and they’re playing for one another, they enjoy being in the building, they’re having fun out here; generally, it lends itself to playing better football,” Maas said. “Even though we’ve got a lot of new faces, this team is as close as any team we’ve had coming out of the gate.”
Maas is trying to create a positive culture about everything that’s available to the players from the facilities, what happens on the field, weight rooms, recovery, equipment, medical and coaches.
“Everybody is all in,” he said. “You’re treated well here, with dignity and respect, and we want to get back to people just wanting to be a part of that and wanting to make it better.
“More than anything, we’ve just talked about it more (than the Esks have in the past), and we’re going to continue to talk about it because that is, ultimately, what helps you win ball games, that chemistry within an organization and within a team.”
Fullback Calvin McCarty, who is about to start his 13th season with the Eskimos, said the team-building exercises helps “to see your teammates in a different light.”
“We’re communicating and also learning about the extended staff because it’s not just about the players, the coaches, the guys like Andrew Jones (former offensive lineman and now community relations coordinator), the people who are here every day that we see in the hallways and we walk by,” said McCarty, who was voted Eskimos special teams captain. “At the same time, it’s getting to know everybody because it’s all bigger than us and it is one team.
“I feel good about it,” he added. “I like the fact that we move around. We don’t always sit in the same groups when we have meetings. We’re put in different teams and switch it out throughout the year, so you get a chance to know your teammates better, so I see the benefit on that side.
“I’m positive about it. Whatever we’ve got to do to get better, if that’s part of it, then I’m all about it. The test is the course of the season, though.”
Meanwhile, Harris, who convinced receiver Greg Ellingson and O-lineman Rogers to come with him when he left the Ottawa RedBlacks, is already taking notes about Maas’ team-building approach for his future coaching career. He believes that the Eskimos are already a tight-knit group that’s only going to grow stronger bonds.
He likes that his teammates are learning something every day about what it means to be an Eskimos player and why it’s important and the fact that there are standards – not rules – to follow, like being early to meetings.
“We have standards with how we practice,” Harris said. “We have standards of how we play and of how we prepare and of the way that we conduct ourselves. We’re true professionals, and I really love what we’re doing.”
Dean, who came over from the Hamilton Tiger-Cats along with strong-side (SAM) linebacker Don Unamba, didn’t want to compare his Eskimos experience to previous teams because “each team is its own entity.”
“I just like what we’re doing here,” he said. “It helps you get familiarized with your teammates, their strengths, their weaknesses. You can figure out what makes them tick and click so you can help motivate them on a different level outside of just football. You know what buttons to press.
“(Maas) does a great job of just keeping it fresh, keeping everyone energized.”
The Eskimos are excited about the speed of their linebacker crew and believe their defensive backs are “significantly better” at man-to-man coverage than the team has had the last couple of years, according to General Manager and Vice-President of Football Operations Brock Sunderland.
They’re also counting on another big performance from the defensive line with third-year defensive end Kwaku Boateng and a slimmer Almondo Sewell at nose tackle.
Harris said the learning curve with the offence has been a few steps forward, then a few steps back, at times, because of “the different ways that we’re operating our offence,” but Sunderland said the new receiving corps looks good, and he’s confident about the depth at running back.
The offensive line is versatile, with players who can play on both the left and right sides. Second-round draft pick Saxelid, who grew up in Elk Grove, Calif., but is considered a national player because his mother was born in Canada, impressed enough during training camp to be the team’s only backup O-lineman in the season opener.
“He’s been everything we thought he would be,” Sunderland said.