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July 31, 2019

Practice Roster Players Wait For Golden Opportunity

No one on the Eskimos was surprised when Shaq Cooper ran for 128 yards and a touchdown in last week’s game against the Toronto Argonauts.

Cooper, who also caught five passes for 48 yards in an overall 176-yard performance, had run for 102 yards with five catches for 41 yards in his CFL debut last year.

“Shaq’s a great running back,” quarterback Trevor Harris said after the Toronto game. “He did a great job for us tonight.”

But playing opportunities have been few and far between for the five-foot-10, 190-pound running back since he joined the Eskimos in 2018. He started and played in only two games last season and one this year when starting running back C.J. Gable was sidelined with an injury.

“I appreciate C.J. for letting me play,” Cooper said. “I pray that C.J. gets healthy and he’ll be back. But if he’s not, I’ll be here for him, and I’ll always have his back.”

Cooper, 26, spent the first three weeks of the season on the injured list after straining his hamstring two days before the first pre-season game on May 26. He was then placed on the practice roster for two games before getting added to the active roster last week.

He did lose a fumble at the Toronto one-yard line early in the game, but Head Coach Jason Maas attributed that miscue to the lack of contact in practice.

“Any time you haven’t played football at all this year, no pre-season games, we don’t wear pads in practice – we’re not allowed to anymore, so there’s no contact in practice ever – it’s very difficult to simulate game speed and game hits,” Maas said. “We’ve just got to work on that stuff with him.”

Cooper isn’t the first gold nugget the Eskimos have hidden away on their practice roster in recent seasons. Wide receiver Derel Walker sat out the first six games before winning the CFL’s Most Outstanding Rookie award in 2015, Brandon Zylstra led the league with 1,687 receiving yards in 2017 after playing only the final six games of the 2016 season, and Bryant Mitchell finally got a chance to showcase his abilities when he caught 60 passes for 867 yards and three TDs in 11 games last year after playing only eight games during his first three seasons with the team.

“Usually, when you come (to a new team), there’s people who’ve been around the league for a while, so they get the benefit of the doubt to play first most times,” said veteran defensive back Nick Taylor, who played 15 games with the Eskimos last year. “People like Bryant Mitchell – you see that he had talent, you see him at practice, and he’s making catches and stuff like that – you just have to wait your turn actually to get out there and perform.”

“It’s football,” he said. “People go down all the time, so you’ve always got to be prepared to play. Even though you’re on the practice roster, you’re usually the next man up (when an injury happens), so you’ve always got to be ready … you know at any moment it could be your time.”

Still, Taylor said it’s “really hard” to be on a practice roster “because it takes your mind to different places because you think you should be out there and know you should be out there (on the field during games). It gets a little frustrating, so you’ve got to go home and relax and think about it and overcome it.”

Taylor, 31, a four-year CFL veteran who spent his first two years with Ottawa, was released by the Eskimos at the end of training camp but rejoined the team two weeks later. He spent three games on the practice roster before getting activated as a backup defensive back/special teams player against Toronto.

The practice roster is also beneficial for young players new to the CFL “because you still go to meetings, you still get to prepare, you get all the information the starters do, and you still get the reps (repetitions during practice),” according to Taylor. “That’s a great thing, so you’re always prepared when your chance comes.”

Taylor pointed out that the CFL game moves a lot faster and is different from what most American rookies are used to playing.

“There’s always a learning curve, so the more you see, the more you get to understand it. … Once it’s your time, you get to go do your thing, and you have the reps to know it a little bit better than just coming off the street.”

Sometimes, Taylor said, a practice roster player plays even better during games than expected.

“Practice is still practice for a lot of people,” he said. “Some people can turn it up that extra notch for a game, so you might not be able to see all the talent in practice because there’s a certain way things are supposed to be run. In the game, you’re basically on your own, and you’re playing with your talent, so you really get to show it off.”

CFL teams use the practice roster to stockpile players in the event of injuries and to help develop players. The Eskimos currently have 11 players on the six-game injured list and two players on the one-game injured list.

Four of the original 11 players who started the season on the practice roster have been playing the last four or five games. Cooper and Taylor were among four practice roster players added to the game roster last week.

Only four players – rookie quarterback Troy Williams, 2019 draft pick/defensive back Scott Hutter and Mexican Global players Diego Viamontes (wide receiver) and Jose Alfonsin (defensive back) – have been on the practice roster for all six games to date.

The Eskimos can place as many as 12 players, including two Global players, on the practice roster. Among the remaining 10 practice roster players, a minimum of two must be national (Canadian) players. Besides the Global players, there are currently four national players (two defensive backs, an offensive lineman and a receiver) plus two rookie QBs and an international receiver, offensive lineman and linebacker on the Esks’ practice roster.

The practice roster can be expanded for 30 days after Sept. 1, coinciding with the NFL’s final cut-down day after training camp.