The Eskimos will release their secret weapon – Jovan Santos-Knox – when they try to clinch a CFL playoff berth Saturday against the BC Lions.
Game time is 5 p.m. at The Brick Field at Commonwealth Stadium (TSN, 630 CHED).
Santos-Knox, who will be full of pent-up energy after being sidelined all season with an injured foot, is only a secret for Eskimos fans because they’ve never seen him play in a Green and Gold uniform.
But the team itself has been patiently waiting for the 25-year-old weak-side (WIL) linebacker to get healthy after being a star player with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers for two years before joining Edmonton on the opening day of free agency in February.
“There’s a reason we went out and got Santos-Knox,” Eskimos Head Coach Jason Maas told Morley Scott on the 630 CHED Coach’s Show this week. “He is a tremendous linebacker. He will make a difference on our team.”
That’s no knock on the play of Vontae Diggs, who made 64 defensive tackles (second on the team), eight special teams tackles, two quarterback sacks, one interception, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries while playing WIL this season. Twenty-two of those defensive tackles, one sack, his interception and two pass knockdowns have come in the last three games.
“Diggs has played outstanding football for us,” Maas said about the 23-year-old rookie. “He’s played more football than he’s ever played in a season. The fact that he’s been able to do that is awesome.
“But bringing back Santos-Knox to help that lineup is a big deal for us. We’re excited to have him back. … He’s like a throw-back guy. He’s constant energy. He’s constant movement. He’s just excited to be here.”
If having Santos-Knox in the lineup for Saturday’s showdown with the 5-10 Lions is a big deal for the 7-8 Eskimos, it’s a much, much bigger happening for the player.
“This is a great day for me, a great week for me and I’m just looking forward to playing BC,” he said Thursday. “I broke down today just because I was watching film. I was like, ‘Man, it felt like (my football career) was taken away from me, and now I’m getting it back’ so I’m just feeling blessed and I’m grateful to be out here.
“It’s been a long journey. It definitely tested my patience. … I don’t think I figured out how much I love this game until I went through this little thing. I’ve been itching all year to get out there. It’s just great to be able to come in during such an important time for this team and, hopefully, make an impact.”
Santos-Knox was injured during the Bombers’ final game of the regular-season game last year against the Eskimos at The Brick Field at Commonwealth Stadium.
“I came off the edge and hit Mike (Reilly) pretty well,” he said about the former Eskimos quarterback. “I got up and said, ‘Someone must have stepped on my foot.’ ”
He played three or four more series before telling the Bombers staff that his foot “didn’t feel right” at halftime. They benched him and sent him for X-rays when the team returned to Winnipeg.
“X-ray comes in, and it’s a full break,” Santos-Knox said. “It’s just a weird rare thing that happened.”
His recovery from the injury has also been weird. There have been times during the course of the season when it appeared he might be close to making his Eskimos debut and then suffered another setback.
“I didn’t re-injure it,” he said. “It took a long time to heal. … Just a tough, dark time for me. I felt ready, felt good. Just wrong step one way and things give you a little setback.
“Now, it’s finally 100 per cent, and I feel like myself again, so that’s the best thing.”
Santos-Knox is listed as the starter at WIL on the Eskimos depth chart, with Diggs as the backup, but he said he wants to help the team “anyway I can.”
“Whether that’s special teams, defence, running down (the field), I just want to make impact plays and help my teammates and add a little swag and a little spark out there,” he said. “There’s no better time. I’m feeling the best I’ve felt – 100 per cent. I’m feeling like I’m going to pick up right where I left off last year once they let me spin. I’m just really, really excited to showcase what I can do and prove to my teammates that I’m a hell of a player and prove that through my play, my energy and just by never giving up out there.”
Maas said Santos-Knox was expecting to play in last week’s game against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, but the Eskimos were cautious and held him out of the lineup for one more week.
“He took it out on us in practice, just the way he attacked it,” Maas said. “We had a talk after that. The energy was fantastic. You just have to channel it the right way.
“That’s all we wanted to see,” Maas added. “To make sure he was ready because we’ve been bit a couple of times thinking he was and he wasn’t. It was more trying to take care of him and reining him back than just letting him go.
“Now that we’ve seen it for two weeks, we know he’s ready, and that’s exciting.”
Santos-Knox pointed out that Saturday’s game will be his first with his new team, “but I feel so comfortable in the system just because I’ve been here all year. I’ve been to every meeting, I’ve been watching every film, I’ve been watching every other team’s film, so I know the system really, really well to be able to walk out there and literally pick things up in a day.
“Obviously, there are small mistakes, just being out of football for a little bit,” he said. “But being able to understand the basic system stuff that we do and pick it up fast, I’m just excited to play for Coach (Phillip) Lolley (the Eskimos defensive coordinator) because I think he calls a great game. The way he calls his game is built for a WIL linebacker to succeed.”
Win and Eskimos are in
The Eskimos control their destiny as far as making the playoffs. All they need to do is win one of their final three games and they automatically qualify for at least an East Division cross-over semifinal playoff berth against the Montreal Alouettes.
One BC loss (the Eskimos have already won the season series with two victories over the Lions earlier this year, so they advance even if the teams finish the regular season with identical records) combined with a loss or tie by the Ottawa RedBlacks will also do the trick.
“We want to win,” said Maas. “We want to bury them and kick them out of the playoffs. We want to be in.
“We’re right on the doorstep. Not every team right now has the opportunity. We do, and we’ve got to cash in.”
The Esks also still have a chance to make the West Division playoffs by winning all three of their remaining games if one of the top three teams – Saskatchewan Roughriders (10-4), Calgary Stampeders (9-5) or Winnipeg (9-6) – lose all of their games.
“Playoffs come early, basically,” said Eskimos quarterback Logan Kilgore, who will make his fourth consecutive start in place of the injured Trevor Harris. “You’ve got a team that’s going to give it everything it’s got with its back against the wall, and we’re doing the same. We’ve got to find a way to get a win, and they’ve got to find a way to get a win. It’s going to be a fun game.
“In our mind in this locker room, it’s a playoff game,” he continued. “We have done a lot of great things this year, and we put ourselves in a position to control our own destiny. I’ve been on teams where you’re constantly watching the standings hoping for this team to do this or this team to do that. The scenario right now is in front of us.”
“It’s that time of year that the leaves start changing, the weather gets a little chilly,” said fullback Calvin McCarty, who played his 200th CFL game last week.
“That’s real football weather, so we’ll be ready to go.”
Make Life of Reilly ‘miserable’
The Eskimos defence dominated the Lions during two contests earlier this season with 12 quarterback sacks, a 5-1 turnover advantage and by limiting BC to just 53 yards rushing each game.
Edmonton’s defensive game plan will be similar, but this time the Lions will be full of confidence after winning each of their last four games.
“The thing that no quarterback is great at – I don’t care how great they are – is if you get pressure in their face and you are hitting them earlier than they expect to be hit,” Maas said. “That is what affects every quarterback. That’s what we did very, very well the first two games we played against them. We hit (BC’s Mike Reilly) and hit him a lot, and we hit him earlier than he wanted to be hit. We have to be able to do that in order to beat them.
“But, first, it’s going to start with stopping the run. If we can be physical upfront and control their run game, that is going to help us get to him early and often. If we don’t get to him, it’s going to be a long night.”
Maas said the Eskimos have to “make life miserable” for Reilly on Saturday.
“If he decides to take off and run, we need to punish him,” Maas stated. “There’s no question about that. You hit him as hard as you can and with as many people as possible. If he decides to take it down, which he will … he knows a couple of first downs taken by his legs, his toughness, gets their sideline going. But there’s nothing quite like hitting a quarterback either and knocking him down and making him get back up slower. If he takes off, he’s going to pay for it when he takes off.
“We’re still capable of controlling the line of scrimmage. That’s what we’re going to hang our hat on this game. We have to control the line of scrimmage. We have to be more physical than them. We’ve got to be able to stop the run. You don’t like Mike sitting back there and passing it, but if you can take the run away and make them have to beat you that way (with the pass), we’ve got to get pressure on them from there.”
Big plays are key
After that, it’ll come down to which team makes the big plays – a pick-six (interception-return touchdown) for Edmonton’s first defensive major in 38 games or maybe the team’s first kick-return TD in 79 games or a 60-yard pass or run score.
“Can we do some things that are electric because playoff football is like that,” Maas said. “It could be a play here or a play there that turns the momentum and turns the whole game on its head. We’ve got to be able to make those plays.”
Santos-Knox wants to make those type of plays.
“Any time I step on the field, hopefully, I’m trying to make an impact play, whether that be a turnover, a sack, something like that,” he said. “Tackles are nice, but we want to make the impact plays, things that are really going to change the game. That’s what I’m striving for.”
Running back CJ Gable, who is three yards shy of rushing for 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons, and national wide receiver Tevaun Smith are both on the one-game injured list this week.
Second-year running back Shaquille Cooper, who rushed for 128 yards and a touchdown while catching five passes for another 48 yards against the Toronto Argonauts in July, makes his second start of the season while international kick-returner Christion Jones starts at wide receiver with Global player Diego Viamontes making his CFL debut as a backup receiver.
With the addition of Viamontes to the game roster, backup linebacker/special teams player Maxime Rouyer (France) shifts to the practice roster.
Veteran defensive back Forrest Hightower moves from defensive halfback to cornerback on the wide side of the field to replace Josh Johnson, who was hurt last week, while rookie Brian Walker makes his first start since Aug. 3, this time at Hightower’s defensive halfback position. Walker previously filled in for the injured Don Unamba at SAM (strong-side linebacker). Johnson is still on the game roster as a backup defensive back.
First-year Eskimos defensive back Tyquwan Glass will make his second consecutive start at corner. The versatile Glass has started at three different positions in the secondary. Saturday will be his eighth start overall.
Rookie offensive lineman Kyle Saxelid will make his third start and second at left tackle. Saxelid’s last start, also at left tackle, was on Aug. 23 against the Blue Bombers. Veteran offensive lineman Travis Bond, who started the last two games at left tackle, is the backup on the O-line.
Receivers Ricky Collins, Jr., (22 yards) and Greg Ellingson (39 yards) are closing in on 1,000-yard seasons.