August 13, 2019

Tuck Finds A Home With Esks On Offence, Defence, And Special teams

James Tuck is “Mr. Versatility” of the Eskimos.

The 29-year-old native of Aurora, Ont., bounced from offence to defence because of injuries to two national linebackers in recent weeks and, now, he’s back with the offence.

“I got switched over to linebacker a couple of weeks ago to help out with our depth because we had three other fullbacks on the roster, but now that we’re a little nicked up (at fullback), I’m coming back to where I started,” he said. “It’s kind of cool having an understanding of both playbooks and the special teams as well, so I kind of know the whole thing.”

Most football players only have to learn either the offensive plays or defensive plays, even if they can play multiple positions, but Tuck is a rare player. He also plays on all four special teams – punt, punt cover, kickoff and kickoff cover – and is currently tied with Tanner Green for the team lead with eight special teams tackles this season.

“It’ll be a busy week, but I’m excited to go,” he said about his added responsibilities in Friday’s game against the Toronto Argonauts at 5:30 p.m. at BMO Field (TSN, 630 CHED).

It’ll also be a chance to play in front of some family members and friends.

“Any time you’re playing back home where you grew up – I grew up watching the Argos – so you always get that little extra (motivation), and I played for them a little bit in ’17, so it’s always good to play against your old team,” he said.

It’ll be Tuck’s 49th CFL game. Not bad for someone who never even played football in high school (his school didn’t have a team).

Tuck was a hockey player growing up and never actually played an organized version of football until a friend invited him to “mess around” with the Newmarket Storm of the Ontario Varsity Football League the summer after he finished high school.

“And it kind of went from there,” he said. “It was weird.”

He was scouted by York University in Toronto during his two seasons with the Storm and joined the Lions at age 20.

“It’s a little surreal (that he’s playing professional football), but I worked really hard when I got into university to play,” Tuck said. “I kind of joke and laugh that ‘If I only did that when I played hockey growing up, maybe I could have done something in that arena.’

“Four years of hard work in university, and now this is my sixth year (in the CFL). It’s just been a constant grind, but it’s worth it every day.”

Tuck played two seasons as a linebacker with York and then moved to defensive end, where he was twice named the team’s defensive MVP.

“I was really undersized (he’s currently six-foot, 230 pounds) and they just let me loose,” he said.

He played all four special teams at York, so he was already comfortable with those assignments when he joined the Montreal Alouettes in 2014 as a fourth-round draft pick. He also spent time at the defensive end and fullback positions in 2015 and played 15 games with the Alouettes over three years before getting released after the season-opener in 2016. He played 15 games with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers the rest of that year and then four games with his hometown Argos in 2017 before getting rereleased and picked up by Edmonton.

Tuck impressed the Eskimos, registering 16 special teams tackles in only seven games, and had high hopes the following year until rupturing his right Achilles tendon in late April.

“I’ve been waiting my whole career to play a full season, so knock on wood, I’m off to a good start now,” he said. “But last year, I felt great coming in off the off-season after having a good year with the team the year before, and I was ready to push for fullback as well as come back and play special teams. And then that (injury) happened in Las Vegas in mini-camp.

“It was devastating, but it allowed me to take the whole year to rehab and then have the full off-season to train again. So now I’m back here, and it worked out.”

Because of his defensive background in college, he was a natural to shift to defence when the Eskimos needed some backup players at linebacker recently and then got the emergency call back to offence just before the Ottawa game last week.

“I started this year out of fullback in training camp,” he continued. “I had a good training camp and start of the season. I’ve done it as well for a year or two. I’m coming from the defensive side of the ball from university and early in my career, but I have a few years under my belt now.

“I have an understanding of our playbook. It’s just a matter of getting in on the book and studying the plays; just refreshing yourself. I only got into the offensive playbook last week at the end of Day 3/Day 4 because I was working with the defence.”

Not only did the Eskimos lose the services of veteran fullback Calvin McCarty (he’s on the six-game injured list) last week, but McCarty’s replacement, Green, was also hurt during Friday’s game.

Besides being a blocker in the two tight end sets, Tuck had to take over Green’s blocking responsibilities from the fullback position and even ran a couple of pass routes. And, of course, play on special teams.

“As much as everyone wants to get tackles here, we’re unselfish,” he said about the Esks special teams. “We like to see four guys, five guys piling up on the returner because we know we’re doing our job and we’re holding him to nothing. Everybody wants the tackle, but as long as we’re doing that, we’re happy when we’re watching film at the end of the week.

“I really enjoy the way we prep (prepare) here,” he added. “They put us in positions to win, but also to challenge ourselves and work hard, so I fit right in right away, and I just love what we preach here.

“I think I found a home here and I enjoy playing here very much.”