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July 19, 2019

Saxelid Gives Eskimos New Look On O-line

A familiar face will be absent from the lineup when the Eskimos try to extend their winning streak against the Montreal Alouettes to 12 games on Saturday afternoon.

Matt O’Donnell has been an ironman on the Eskimos offensive line since his second season in the CFL. He has played each of the last 40 games through the 2017, ’18 and ’19 seasons, 66 of the last 67 regular-season games, and 98 of 102 games since he stepped into the starting lineup – mostly at right guard – in 2013.

The 30-year-old veteran suffered a lower-body injury against the BC Lions last week and was placed on the six-game injured list.

“It’s good news to know that he’s not out for the season and now it’s just a matter of him getting his recovery and getting the rehab he needs,” said head coach Jason Maas.

While the six-foot-11, 350-pound O’Donnell will be missed on the offensive line, the Eskimos have got off to a 3-1 start this year because they’ve had excellent replacement players for a host of injured starters, including right offensive tackle SirVincent Rogers, cornerback Anthony Orange and linebackers Don Unamba and Jovan Santos-Knox.

Kyle Saxelid, a second-round draft pick in May who played most of the last game after O’Donnell was injured, is expected to keep that tradition going while stepping in at right guard for the 2 p.m. game at Montreal’s Percival Molson Stadium.

“I have full faith in him,” said quarterback Trevor Harris, who avoided a major knee injury himself in the BC game. “He’s a good football player, and we’re very blessed and lucky to have him.

“We’re sure going to miss (O’Donnell), but Kyle’s going to do a great job, and we have all the confidence in the world in him that he’s going to step in and we’re going to pick up right where we left off.”

Saxelid, 24, grew up in Elk Grove, Calif., and was a starting offensive tackle for 3-1/2 years in college at UNLV. Even though he had never been in Canada until the CFL Combine in March, the six-foot-seven, 290-pounder was eligible to be drafted this season because his mother, Cheryl, was born in New Brunswick before growing up in the United States.

Harris has been able to throw for 1,362 yards, eight touchdowns and a league-high average of 340.5 yards per game this season because of the protection he’s received from the offensive line. He’s only been sacked once and hasn’t given up an interception in 156 pass attempts.

Including last season, Harris has gone 218 passes without a pick – the sixth-longest interception-free streak in CFL history. Former Saskatchewan Roughriders QB Darian Durant has the league record of 323 passes without an interception while ex-Esks pivot Ricky Ray ranks second at 247 pass attempts. Harris needs only six more passes to tie former Eskimos QB Mike Reilly at 224 and 17 passes to match Dave Dickenson at 235.

“I was aware there’s a streak because people are asking me about it and saying stuff about it,” Harris said. “You don’t want to throw a pick on any play. Hopefully, you can string them together like that and see how long we can go – hopefully, the whole year.”

For the record, former Eskimos safety Neil King is the last player to pick off a Harris pass on Oct. 13, 2018, at The Brick Field at Commonwealth Stadium. Harris was playing for the Ottawa RedBlacks at the time.

Harris said he’s “not much of a superstitious guy,” so he doesn’t have any particular quirks to keep a good thing going.

“I think that takes my focus away from what is actually going to matter for our preparation and the way we’re going to play,” he said, explaining that his focus is simply “taking it one play at a time, no matter what.”

Montreal’s starting quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. also has an interception-free streak going of 71 pass attempts.

The Eskimos, who exploded for 607 yards of offence in the season opener against the Alouettes, have averaged a league-high 451 yards of net offence this year with a different receiver posting 100-plus yards each game – Ricky Collins, Jr., in the first and third weeks, Greg Ellingson in the second game, Kenny Stafford in the third game and national receiver Natey Adjei last week.

“It’s an equal-opportunity offence,” said Adjei, who had a 77-yard pass-and-run touchdown against BC to record the first 100-yard receiving game of his six-year CFL career.

The Esks also have limited opponents to a league-low 222 net yards of offence per game, with 10 different players having recorded a quarterback sack.

While the Eskimos have the current longest winning streak against one team in the CFL against the Alouettes (11 games dating back to 2013, including the last five in Montreal), they aren’t expecting the game to be a blowout. Edmonton only pulled out a 32-25 come-from-behind victory in the season opener while Montreal, 2-2, has done a better job of protecting its quarterback while producing points in the second half in winning its last two games against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Ottawa RedBlacks.

Return game builds confidence

Kick-return specialist Martese Jackson had five punt returns for 75 yards (15 yards/return), with a longest runback of 24 yards, and two kickoff returns for 52 yards (26-yard average) last week against the Lions in what Maas called “our best performance” on special teams this season.

“Hopefully, they continue on with that,” Maas added. “They get confidence in Martese and Martese gets confidence in those guys, and we continue to get the production. It’s much nicer as an offence to start with the field position we had last game.”

Short yardage

  • Maas has moved into 10th place on the Eskimos’ all-time list for most wins by a head coach. Now in his fourth season, Maas has 34 wins. Neill Armstrong is next at 37 victories. Ron Lancaster has the most wins as an Edmonton head coach with 83.
  • Harris is 483 passing yards away from the 20,000-yard mark in his CFL career. Only 35 players have ever accomplished the feat. He also has at least 20 completions in 17 consecutive regular-season starts and matched his career output with three rushing touchdowns on short-yardage situations this year.
  • Running back C.J. Gable’s 415 rushing yards is the most he’s ever had after the first four games of a season. His previous best was 291 yards in 2018.
  • Gable needs 104 yards to reach the 2,000-yard rushing mark in his CFL career.
  • Kicker Sean Whyte, who leads all CFL kickers with 53 points this year, has made 14 straight field goal attempts, including five kicks of 45 or more yards.
  • Harris needs 20 passing yards to tie ex-Esk Kerwin Bell for 36th place on the CFL all-time passing yards list (19,537). Another former Eskimos QB, David Archer, is in 35th place at 20,671 yards.
  • Harris is currently on pace to set Eskimos single-season records in completion percentage (73.08) and passing efficiently (116.3).
  • Saturday’s contest will be Montreal’s first Saturday home game since Oct. 20, 2007.
  • National offensive lineman J’Michael Deane, a 33-year-old, eight-year veteran with the Calgary Stampeders, Ottawa and Toronto Argonauts, is now the backup on the offensive line while former draft pick Kwabena Asare, who was released after training camp, was added to the practice roster.
  • The Eskimos’ longest winning streak against the same team is 12 games against the Saskatchewan Roughriders.