It feels like Friday’s game at The Brick Field at Commonwealth Stadium should be an Ottawa RedBlacks team reunion.
Thirteen Eskimos players – seven of which will be in the lineup for kickoff at 8 p.m., Head Coach Jason Maas plus three other members of his coaching staff, and General Manager & Vice President of Football Operations Brock Sunderland used to be with the RedBlacks.
Wide receiver Greg Ellingson, 30, pointed to the RedBlacks’ success during his four years in Ottawa as one of the reasons all those people ended up in Edmonton.
“We were in three Grey Cups and the playoffs every year,” he said. “If you’re a team that’s doing that, it means you have the calibre of players who can compete and can play.”
Of course, Sunderland is also a factor, having recruited many of his current players during four seasons as the RedBlacks’ assistant GM while Ellingson, quarterback Trevor Harris and left offensive tackle SirVincent Rogers (who hasn’t played this year because of a torn tricep injury suffered during training camp) all came onboard on the opening day of free agency on February 12.
“Coach (Maas) always says it’s a faceless, nameless opponent, so you try to treat it the same way,” Ellingson said about Friday’s game, “even though you do have history with the guys. But when you’re in the moment (during the game), everybody’s a competitor no matter which team you’re on, so you’re just trying to win.”
There won’t be any sentiment or nostalgia seeping out of Ellingson upon seeing his former team, its players or the familiar uniforms.
“It’s hard at the pro level to have any feelings and withhold any competitiveness just because it’s a team you used to play with,” he stated.
Besides, Ellingson is a competitor every day in practice, so why should a game be any different.
“In practice, I’m going to go hard no matter what day it is or where I’m at in the season or what team I’m on,” he said.
He will be aware that Ottawa’s defensive players “are the guys I went against every day in practice … so it’s kind of the same thing except it’s live now. You’re just competing to being a little bit more physical and competing more to win for the team you’re playing with now.”
Before the game can be a different story, Ellingson recalled thinking about former teammates like receiver Luke Tasker and quarterback Jeremiah Masoli before playing the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, another former team he was within 2013-14.
“I used to play with those guys,” he explained. “(I wanted to) see how they’re playing. It’s fun to watch them. I’m an offensive player, so I don’t compete against them.”
It’ll also be fun for Ellingson to visit after the game with all the players he practised against in Ottawa, “to catch up with the guys and see how they’re doing.”
“I get to play against them now, so that’s fun,” he added.
Ellingson said he “had a little animosity towards how things went down (when he left Hamilton), so there’s a little more fire against that.” But he said that having a chip on your shoulder doesn’t really change much. “I have hard feelings, but I’m going to go out and compete just like I do every week.”
Asked if he cheers for his former teams when he’s not playing against them, Ellingson said: “Now that I’m in Edmonton in the West, I’m rooting for the East teams to beat the West teams, no matter which team it is. If it’s like Ottawa-Toronto, then I’ll probably be pulling for Ottawa if it’s a game that doesn’t really matter or benefit us in any way.”
The other former RedBlacks who’ll play for the Eskimos in Friday’s game include Harris, defensive backs Anthony Orange and Josh Johnson, offensive tackles Tommie Draheim and Colin Kelly and defensive tackle Mike Moore, who has four quarterback sacks in the last four games. Three ex-Ottawa players are injured, including defensive back Forrest Hightower, while three are on the practice roster.
Eskimos make wholesale changes
Ellingson is excited to get back on the active roster after not playing in last week’s loss against the Calgary Stampeders.
He’ll be among 10 player changes affecting three starting positions on both offence and defence plus two special teams adjustments on the Eskimos roster for Friday’s game. That’s almost one-quarter of the players on the active roster.
“We’re just looking to get the W (win) because we’re falling short a little bit in different aspects,” he said. “Especially in the first half (last Saturday) when we had seven drives and seven punts. That’s not really our identity to do that. We’re just looking to get better this week.”
Harris pointed out the Eskimos were in second-and-long (anywhere from 12 to 20 yards) five times in the first half last week. Four of those situations were created by penalties (two holding, an illegal procedure and an offside infraction).
The offence finally heated up in the second half as Harris finished with 373 passing yards, his second-biggest production of the season.
Five of the Eskimos’ lineup changes this week are positive, with four veteran players returning from the injured list. Besides Ellingson, wide receiver DaVaris Daniels will play only his third game of the year while strong-side (SAM) linebacker Don Unamba and boundary (short-side) cornerback Anthony Orange come off the six-game injured list. With Orange back at corner, Josh Johnson moves over to defensive halfback.
“It feels like my first game,” said Unamba, who was injured during the first half of the season-opener. “It’s been a while since I’ve played football. I’m excited just to practice, be back with the guys again, be back in the huddle and run around again.”
Rookie Brian Walker, who did a good job replacing ‘The President’ (Unamba) at SAM, is now on the practice roster along with Tyquwan Glass, who had five defensive tackles, a special teams tackle and an interception last week, and receiver Kevin Elliott, who had six catches for 88 yards in his first game with the Esks this year.
Meanwhile, injuries sent four more players (fullback Calvin McCarty, kick returner Martese Jackson, punter Hugh O’Neill and rookie receiver Shai Ross) to the six-game injured list.
Placekicker Sean Whyte will take over the punting and kickoff duties from O’Neill, who was injured during Calgary’s 93-yard punt-return touchdown that was nullified by a Stampeders penalty late in the first quarter. O’Neill was still able to handle kickoffs and punts for the rest of the game.
The Eskimos acquired kick returner Christion Jones from the Saskatchewan Roughriders in a trade for receiver Kenny Stafford to replace Jackson earlier in the week. Jones hasn’t played since July 1 and was a healthy scratch for the last three Riders contests after missing a game with injury.
Jones said his main focus is getting on the field and being healthy.
“I’m just glad that I came to a team like Edmonton,” he said. “They have so much drive, and they want to be good and so much attention to detail, so much focus here. And a great group of guys. The vibe in the locker room is great. No hesitation on introducing themselves or introducing me into the offence or kicking game.”
Jones, 26, is known as a north-south returner.
“It’s all about getting positive yards and putting the offence in a great position to score points and you trying to score points yourself, so the offence doesn’t have to do that and as a momentum swing,” said Jones. “The kicking game is just as important to this coaching staff as it is to me. I take a lot of pride in doing what I do.”
Jones had three punt-return touchdowns during his first two years in the CFL in 2017 and ’18. That’s three more than the Eskimos have had as a team in the last few years. Kendial Lawrence had the last punt-return TD in August 2015 and the last kickoff-return touchdown in October 2014.
“None of that is my concern,” Jones said. “The least of my worries.”
Also coming off the roster are fullback Alex Taylor (one-game injured list) and defensive back Nick Taylor (released) while running back Shaq Cooper, linebacker Jonathan Walton and four national players – defensive backs Scott Hutter and Bryce Bartlett, receiver Harry McMaster and offensive lineman Kwabena Asare – are all activated.
Hutter (2019), McMaster (2018) and Asare (2017) are all Eskimos draft picks.
Meanwhile, Walton shares the Eskimos team lead of seven special teams tackles with 2018 draft pick Tanner Green and James Tuck.
- The Eskimos have not allowed a point in the first quarter in the last two games.
- The Eskimos have had more offensive yards than their opponent in six of their seven games.
- Edmonton has allowed just three opponent touchdown drives in the last four games (56 possessions).
- Ottawa kick returner DeVonte Dedmon had 382 kick-return yards and two touchdowns in last week’s game against the Montreal Alouettes. He had 189 yards on punt returns, and 187 yards on kickoff returns to set a club record and post the second-highest total of kick-return yards in CFL history. He also became just the 16th player to have two kick-return TDs in a single game (it has been accomplished 20 times overall).
- RedBlacks kicker Lewis Ward has made 67 consecutive field goals dating back to his first CFL game last year. That’s 28 more field goals than the next longest streak in league history.