August 7, 2019

Eskimos Trade For Talented Kick-Returner

Christion Jones has big shoes to fill, just like pretty much every kick-returner who has joined the Eskimos during the last 19 years.

Jones, 26, was acquired in a trade with the Saskatchewan Roughriders on Monday for veteran wide receiver Kenny Stafford.

“The measuring stick here with Gizmo is pretty high,” admitted Brock Sunderland, the Eskimos General Manager and Vice President of Football Operations. “It’s kind of the equivalent of the Chicago Bulls saying, ‘Man, we need to get a shooting guard who’s like Jordan.’ Well, pretty hard to replicate that.

“We think this move, hopefully, answers that and gives us a big boost in the return game. We certainly expect it to.”

Henry (Gizmo) Williams, who went up on the Eskimos’ Wall of Honour in 2002, set CFL records with 26 punt-return touchdowns – including five in one season – and was the league’s all-time leader in punt-return and kickoff-return yardage after his outstanding 14-year CFL career ended in 2000. He totalled 23,927 all-purpose yards and held at least 11 Eskimos kick-return records.

Jones has already scored three punt-return TDs during 23 games with the Riders over the last three seasons. He has returned 111 punts for an average of 13.0 yards, with a longest return of 97 yards, and averaged 24.0 yards on 51 kickoff returns.

“The biggest thing is he gets north-south very quickly,” Sunderland said. “Foot on the ground, vertical. A lot of good returns usually come when you’re getting upfield quicker rather than when you’re trying to bounce it outside all the time.”

It’s the second year in a row that Sunderland has traded for a kick-returner – having picked up Martese Jackson from the Toronto Argonauts last year – and the third straight year he has executed a trade.

“It’s rare,” Sunderland admitted about CFL trades. “It’s hard to do so because most of the time if you’re shopping somebody or you’re inquiring, either people don’t want to give up what they have, or they just assume if you’re shopping a player, you’re just going to release him anyway.

“This was a unique scenario where our depth fit their needs, and their depth fit our needs. I don’t want to speak for Saskatchewan, but I think it worked out well for both organizations at this time.”

Stafford, 29, who played 47 games with the Eskimos over four seasons since 2015, had 30 catches for 366 yards and two touchdowns this season, but Edmonton has a lot of international receivers. In addition to Ricky Collins, Jr., who has had three 100-yard receiving games this season, veteran Greg Ellingson is expected to return to the active roster for Friday’s 8 p.m. game with the Ottawa RedBlacks at The Brick Field at Commonwealth Stadium after missing last week’s contest against the Calgary Stampeders. DaVaris Daniels could be back the following game, if he doesn’t play this week, and Kevin Elliott had six catches for 88 yards on Saturday while CFL veteran Josh Stangby is available on the practice roster.

The impetus to make the trade was two-fold:

a)  The Eskimos want to make their kick-return game more dangerous, and

b)  Jackson was hurt during Saturday’s game and, potentially, could have a long-term injury.

Jackson had only one yard on four punt returns Saturday, including losing five yards and the ball on a punt return late in the third quarter. Calgary converted the turnover at the Edmonton 40 into their first offensive touchdown in more than eight quarters.

“He had some returns that showed what he’s capable of doing,” Sunderland said about Jackson. “He was on the cusp a couple of times of flipping the field and even potentially scoring. There were moments of close to doing what we always thought he would do.

“But Christion is a guy who has been able to do that a little bit more consistently as of late.”

Rookie shines in first opportunity

After Jackson was injured, 2019 fifth-round draft pick Shai Ross took over the kick-return duties in the fourth quarter on Saturday. He had one punt return for 20 yards and two kickoff returns for 48 yards while also contributing a special teams tackle.

“I’ve been just sitting back and waiting for my shot,” said Ross, 25. “It is my rookie season. I can’t be too pushy. I’ve got to let it happen as it’ll happen. I’ve been ready for my shot for a while. I got that chance (Saturday), so I made the best of it.”

Ross returned kicks as a freshman with the University of Manitoba Bisons but had limited opportunities on the special teams role because of injuries the next two years.

Ross, who ran a 4.63-second 40-yard dash at the CFL combine in March, said he feels like he plays faster than that.

“I feel like I’m just dangerous with the ball in my hands,” he said. “Returning kicks has always come natural to me and is what I like doing.”

He wasn’t nervous when he received a chance to return kicks for the first time in his pro career.

“I was in the heat of the game,” Ross said. “I was able just to get in there and just do my thing. I wasn’t really nervous because I had already been running down on punt and punt return, as well.

“You’ve got to give credit to the guys in front of me,” he added. “They were putting themselves in good positions, and I was just reading the blocks and hitting it hard. The rest takes care of itself.”

Ross is a half-brother to Eskimos backup fullback Alex Taylor, who was a sixth-round draft pick in 2018.

“We have the same mother and grew up in the same household,” Ross said, “so we’re just brothers.”

Global player gets first special teams tackle

Maxime Rouyer, a 25-year-old linebacker who was selected fourth overall in the first European Draft this spring, made his first special teams tackle in the second quarter of Saturday’s game.

“That was a good moment,” said the only Global player on the Eskimos active roster. “I hope there’s plenty more to come.”

Rouyer, who has been only playing on special teams this year, said the play on which he tackled Calgary’s Romar Morris after a six-yard runback was the first time he had been on the punt team.

“It’s going well,” he said about his season. “My body’s doing well. I’m getting better with the whole game, the speed of the game, the size of the guys. Everything is getting a lot easier.”