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October 31, 2019

Eskimos Have Outstanding Candidates For CFL Awards

Quarterback Trevor Harris and middle linebacker Larry Dean lived up to their advanced billing this season.

Signed as key players on the opening day of free agency in February, Harris was named the Eskimos’ Most Outstanding Player this season and Dean, the team’s Most Outstanding Defensive Player when the first round of the 2019 CFL Awards were announced this week.

Also honoured were defensive end Kwaku Boateng (Most Outstanding Canadian for the second year in a row), centre David Beard (Most Outstanding Offensive Lineman), kicker Sean Whyte (Most Outstanding Special Teams Player for the second year in a row) and linebacker Vontae Diggs as Most Outstanding Rookie.

Local members of the Football Reporters of Canada plus Head Coach Jason Maas voted for the Eskimos award winners.

The 2019 Shaw CFL Awards will be announced on Thursday, Nov. 21, in Calgary.

“It’s a big honour to represent your club in any award like that,” Maas said. “Obviously, we play a team sport for a living, so any time individuals are noted, it does take a team to do that as well. All of those guys who were represented understand that.

“Those guys who got nominated, a lot of them are leaders,” continued Maas. “Even Vontae Diggs, who’s a rookie, getting nominated. Obviously, he’s learning from one of the best I’ve been around, and that’s Larry Dean.

“What I’ve appreciated about Diggs is … he’s shown up to work every day.”

Harris, 33, was named a CFL Player of the Month in June and August and was on pace to throw for more than 6,000 yards at one point before an injury to his throwing arm forced him to miss almost five full games.

Despite playing only 13 games, he still leads the league in completions (343) and is second in passing yards (4,027). He completed 71.8 per cent of his passes for 16 touchdowns, along with six interceptions, and has rushed for 139 yards and six TDs.

“It’s a huge honour, but it means that my teammates were great around me,” Harris said about the award.

The Eskimos signed Harris, who played in two of the last three Grey Cups with the Ottawa RedBlacks – winning the championship game in 2016 and playing in last year’s contest at The Brick Field at Commonwealth Stadium.

“We all felt very fortunate to get Trevor in the off-season,” Eskimos Head Coach Jason Mass said. “This league is quarterback-driven. You have to have one to win. Definitely getting Trevor here, we knew we’d have a chance, and that’s what he provided us all year. Any time he played, he gave us a chance to win the games, and he played at a high level every game that he was in there. He’s been very consistent with his play, a great leader in the locker room and, ultimately, did what he had to do to get (healthy enough to play last week).”

Harris said it’s been difficult to sit out games this fall. He was extremely upset when he was told he was going to have to miss three or four weeks after a couple of unsuccessful comeback attempts because his arm wasn’t getting any better.

“I just want to be out there battling,” he said.

Dean, 31, had the reputation as being a great leader when he played with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats the past three years. He’s also a pretty good football player, ranking second in the league with 89 total tackles.

“It’s humbling,” Dean said about being named the Eskimos’ top defensive player. “We had a lot of guys in (the locker room) who could be deserving of the award.”

“It’s an award for most outstanding defensive player, but you don’t get those awards without guys up front (on the defensive line), without guys on the back end (in the secondary), without coaches helping you along the way,” said Maas. “Nobody understands that better than Larry.”

Maas said Dean leads by example, although he’s not afraid to speak his mind if needed.

“Larry is consistent as the day is long,” Maas said. “Larry has been the same guy since the moment I met him. … Every day, he is consistent in his mannerisms, his effort. I’ve watched that man hustle on every play this year, whether it’s been in practice, training camp, in every game. That’s awesome when your leaders do that.”

For his part, Dean said he didn’t do anything special as far as being a leader.

“You can’t force that upon anyone or any team,” he said. “It just has to be a natural, organic fit, and that’s what happened here.”

Draft picks successful

Both Boateng, 24, and Beard, 26, were Eskimos draft picks – Beard in the second round in 2015 and Boateng in the fifth round in 2017.

Boateng has 18 defensive tackles and eight quarterback sacks to help Edmonton lead the league with 54 sacks. Meanwhile, Beard is an integral member of the offensive line that has given up only 22 quarterback sacks, the fewest in the league.

“It’s definitely a treat, and I’m grateful for it,” said Beard. “We obviously played very well early on, and we had some ebbs and flows throughout the season. The last game was another good one, too.

“We’re really happy as a group to perform the way we have over the season, but it’s not over yet. We have some more stuff to prove yet, so we’re looking forward to that more than anything.”

Beard was converted from a defensive lineman while playing with the University of Alberta Golden Bears and has since put on “a little over 100 pounds.”

Ask what it was like to add that much weight, the six-foot-five, 327-pound Beard smiled and said: “It’s delicious.”

He became the Eskimos starting centre halfway through last season.

Boateng is still grateful for the Eskimos giving him a chance to play as a rookie in 2017 and to become a full-time starter in ’18.

“I’m in an organization right now that sees the potential in me, which gave me that chance – especially in 2018 – to be that guy,” he said. “I’m just trying to make sure that I don’t disappoint anyone upstairs or anyone in the crowd or on the field.

“With every accolade that you do acquire, you get a taste of that success, and once I get a taste of that success, I want to get to that next level. I want to keep expanding my craft and adding more tools to the tool box.

“And I’m around a great group of guys, especially on the defensive line with Almondo Sewell, (Nick) Usher, Mike Moore and Coach (Demetrious) Maxie. Everyone, there is challenging me and helping me to become a better player.

“It’s just been a lot of lessons, to be honest with you,” he added. “It really stems back to this coaching staff upstairs that gave me the opportunity back in 2017.”

Boateng also said he probably wouldn’t have developed as fast as he did without being able to learn from great pass rushers like Phillip Hunt and Odell Willis during his rookie year.

“The award is nice, but the end goal is to win the Grey Cup,” Boateng pointed out.

Free agents valuable commodities

Whyte, who grew up in White Rock, B.C., was signed in mid-season in 2015 just before he was about to get a job “in the real world” while Diggs, 23, who was homeless and separated from his family as a youth, was recruited out of the United States.

Whyte, 34, has kicked a league-leading 47 field goals, including 25 in a row to recently tie his Eskimos club record, despite having to adjust to a new holder in backup quarterback Logan Kilgore this season.

“I’ll never forget the day Logan pulled me off to the side and said, ‘Hey, I want to be perfect at this. Tell me exactly what you want,’ ” said Whyte, 34. “After that talk, we went 25 straight.”

Whyte booted a career-high and team-record seven field goals in a game twice this year and has also made 32 of 33 convert attempts. In addition, he had 35 punts and 24 kickoffs while filling in for Hugh O’Neill over the six games the punter/kickoff specialist was on the six-game injured list.

“It’s always good to get an award, but ultimately, I want a Grey Cup,” he said. “I want another ring on my finger.”

Diggs has played in all 17 games, starting the first 15 games at weak-side linebacker while free-agent acquisition Jovan Santos-Knox recovered from a foot injury. He made the most of his opportunity, with 64 defensive tackles, 10 special teams tackles, two quarterback sacks, one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and an interception.

“Great addition,” Boateng said. “This was brand new to him – Canada and the CFL – and he’s shown that he’s capable and versatile enough to play within the box (to help stop the running game) and also in coverage. He’s the reason why when we started this season, our defence was impeccable. He was there on the boundary side with Mondo (nosetackle Almondo Sewell) and me and really helped solidify the edge.”

Diggs lived out of his mother’s late 1990s Oldsmobile in elementary school and started sleeping on a park bench in Chicago in Grade 4 while staying with different friends. It wasn’t until his sophomore year of high school that he found a stable environment when John and Nancy Zea, parents of twins brothers who had been going to school with him since Grade 5, took him in and combined with Downers North High School football coach John Wander to provide the support and discipline he didn’t have as a child.

Asked where he would be without football, Diggs said: “Not here. Dead or gone. Locked up. Out working at McDonald’s somewhere. I wasn’t always the greatest of people.

“I’ve been through a lot of BS, but thanks to the Zeas and thanks to the Downers Grove community (a Chicago suburb), I’ve also had a lot of great success, too. It’s awesome to have this (award), and it’s a great testament to Diamond Grove and Zeas and everyone who has helped me. It’s finally starting to pay off.”

That’s why he always takes a few minutes every day to reflect upon his life and be appreciative for what he has.

“I never thought I was coming to Canada,” he said. “I never thought I was going to be in the CFL, never thought the NFL (he had a tryout with the Washington Redskins in 2018) or whatever the situation I was in, I never even thought I was going to college.

“I do take certain things for granted, but I’ll never take football for granted ever again,” he added. “I’ll never take having meals to eat for granted ever again. … You’ve got to take your five or 10 minutes every day just to say thank you to whatever it is that you believe in.”