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August 29, 2019

Usher Thrives On Physical Play His Mother Hated

If Nick Usher had his coming-out party in last year’s Labour Day Classic, he’s been going “all night long” this season.

Usher, 24, may have shocked Eskimos fans when he beat out veteran Alex Bazzie for a starting job at defensive end during training camp, but he’s followed that up with an impressive performance during the first 10 games of the regular season.

The six-foot-three, 235-pound native of Los Angeles is tied with defensive back Josh Johnson for fifth place on the team with 23 defensive tackles while his five quarterback sacks are only one behind defensive linemates Almondo Sewell, Mike Moore and Kwaku Boateng.

“For our room (of defensive linemen), to get to the quarterback is everything,” said Usher, who joined the Eskimos practice roster in October 2017 and played eight games last season. “Now I’ve finally got my shot to come out and actually show my game. I’m pretty excited how it’s looking right now.”

Eskimos Defensive Line Coach Demetrious Maxie thinks Usher’s game may be destined for a different level.

“I believe an NFL team is going to try to take him away from us at the end of this season,” Maxie said. “I don’t think there’s any other defensive player who is more physical and aggressive than he is right now.”

Usher has had as many as five defensive tackles in a single game, forced a fumble and has sacks each of the last two games.

“He’s an interesting, athletic, dominating great player to work with,” Maxie added. “He understands schemes, he understands football, he just wants to play, and he wants to win.”

Usher came up 10 yards shy of scoring his first touchdown since a high school all-star game (fumble recovery) when he returned a Calgary fumble 40 yards to the Stampeders’ 10-yard line in last year’s Labour Day Classic. A hit by SAM (strong-side) linebacker Chris Edwards had popped the ball loose.

“Mondo (Sewell) tried to grab it and missed it,” Usher said during an Eskimos podcast earlier this season. “I’m like, ‘Well, I’m going to take it.

“Running down the sideline was good, and I hear Alex Bazzie saying, ‘Hey Ush, he’s coming.’ I looked around and see the receiver coming. I started picking up my knees to make sure I got as far as I could before he caught me.”

Maxie, for one, wouldn’t be surprised to see Usher have a similar performance to the quarterback sack, defensive tackle, forced fumble and fumble recovery he made in last year’s Labour Day game in the next instalment of the Battle of Alberta at 2:30 p.m. Monday at McMahon Stadium in Calgary (TSN, 630 CHED).

“Nick is a game-changer,” said Maxie. “I believe he’s going to take control of this game and dominate.”

“For me to have a game like that again would be great and awesome for the win, but if I don’t have any stats or anything like that and we get a win, I’m happy too,” Usher said. “All I care about right now is to get a W (win) and help the team win, man.”

Usher grew up in a blue-collar family surrounded by a lot of gang violence and poverty in South Central L.A. near the new Los Angeles Stadium that’s under construction in Inglewood.

Other than playing with his buddies on the street, he didn’t get to play organized sports when he was younger because both of his parents, Norman and Geraldine Usher, were working and not available to take Nick or his younger brother, Nigel, to practices or games. He also has a sister, Gail.

Eventually, Usher got a chance to play basketball, then baseball for a year and soccer before finally checking out the one sport his mother didn’t want him to play.

“The funny thing about me is I started playing football late,” he said. “I started playing tackle football in high school. My mom wouldn’t allow me to play. She thought it was too dangerous for me at first. She thought it was too physical.”

Usher told his mother that he “liked it” after he finally tried football for the first time.

“She was kind of mad for a little bit,” he recalled, “but, after a while, she gave in.”

Everything’s good now between Nick and his mother.

“She knows this is everything I do and I love it,” he said. “We’re all happy.”

Usher’s high school coaches liked what they saw – a super athletic player who they had to get on the field. He started out at receiver, but was quickly shifted to defence, where he played safety, linebacker and defensive end, because “they said I didn’t give up on anything.”

“They just loved the pursuit and the love of the game I had,” Usher said. “I was so eager to learn the game.”

Ironically, Usher fell in love with the physical aspect of the football that scared his mother so much.

“I just liked the feeling of running into somebody at first,” he said. “Just understanding this is a game; that it’s a gladiator sport. It’s the best dog, the biggest and nastiest dog wins.

“I don’t think that being physical was ever a problem with me playing football.”

He played defensive end in a 4-2-5 defence during his first three years of college and then served as an outside linebacker in a 30 defence (three down linemen, four linebackers) in his senior year. He signed as an undrafted free agent with the Seattle Seahawks in 2017, was released before training camp, had workouts with the Oakland Raiders, Jacksonville Jaguars and New England Patriots, and actually played an NFL exhibition game with the Patriots against the New York Giants.

“I played the whole game,” Usher said. “I had three or four tackles and half a sack.”

He joined the Eskimos a few weeks after the Patriots released him.

“I wouldn’t change it for the world,” Usher said about his football journey.

Maxie was already aware of Usher before he arrived in Edmonton.

“Actually, I knew of Nick when he was in college,” said Maxie, who has been fine-tuning Usher’s skills the last two years. “He attended the University of Texas El Paso. I coached there, and I played there, and I kept in touch with a lot of coaches and ex-players who stayed there. His name always came up. When I had the opportunity to meet him two years ago, it was a pleasure. I pretty much knew what type of kid and player he was.

“Nick always was athletic and outgoing and physical. He works hard, and he’s always trying to be the best that he can possibly be. He’s a team player. That’s what makes him that much more unique. He’s not just looking after himself. He’s looking after the team and the defence and just trying to make things right so we can win.”

Usher said he had to adjust to the CFL game, where defensive lineman line up a yard off the ball instead of on the line of scrimmage like they would in the U.S.

“Without a yard, it’s three steps (to the quarterback),” Usher said. “Now, up here, it’s anywhere from four to five steps. It wasn’t a big change, but it was a change you had to make coming up here and playing in the CFL.

“Now, you’ve just got to get off faster,” he continued. “Now it’s a game of who’s getting off of the ball first, who has the best technique.”