Eskimos banking on major roster turnover
In the midday heat of training camp, Edmonton head coach Kavis Reed stood with his arms crossed, eyes shrouded by sunglasses, and watched receiver Tyler Scott finish a play at half speed.
"You hustle to the ball," he yelled.
To illustrate the point, he chucked the ball 20 yards downfield.
"Go get it," he shouted.
With his teammates watching, Scott dutifully hustled over, picked up the ball and ran it back.
Eskimos general manager Eric Tillman says 2011 is all about accountability for a team that was 7-11 last year and missed the playoffs for the third time in five seasons.
"Far too often in this business it [the blame] is put on the coaches," he said. "A huge portion of what happened [last year] was some of the players letting the coaches down, so we needed significant change."
Tillman, hired late last season, hasn't just tinkered under the hood with the Eskimos, he's pulled the engine out.
Key veterans have left, been traded, or shown the door, including linebacker Maurice Lloyd, kick returner Tristan Jackson, receivers Kamau Peterson and Kelly Campbell and defensive back Lenny Walls.
Tillman has improved the Canadian talent — that had been allowed to wither on the vine under former GM Danny Maciocia.
Receiver Chris Bauman, offensive tackle Brian Ramsay, and defensive tackle Jermaine Reed have come over from Hamilton. Offensive lineman Scott Mitchell and receiver Nate Coehoorn have arrived via the draft.
Meet the new boss
Reed is also new. A longtime Tillman protege, he was the defensive coordinator in Winnipeg last year and gets his first shot in the top job. Rich Stubler is the defensive coordinator and Marcus Crandell handles the offence.
The Esks once again will rise and fall with veteran quarterback Ricky Ray.
At age 31 and entering his ninth season, Ray is a pinpoint passer but one who can't run his way out of trouble.
He has been hampered in recent years by substandard line play but still managed last year to complete two-thirds of his passes for 3,565 yards and 11 touchdowns.
He said the challenge will be yet again learning a new offensive system.
Under the Maciocia regime, offensive co-ordinators literally changed like the seasons, from a straight-ahead offence under Maciocia to a complex check-down system under Jacques Chapdelaine, to a straight ahead attack under Rick Worman to a razzle-dazzle system under Kevin Strasser.
"I need to get some reps. This is a new offensive system for me " said Ray.
"[But] we've got to do it together. We can't just rely on one guy like Fred Stamps to make all the plays for us."
Stamps is the go-to guy on a new receiving corps. The sure-handed slotback led the team in 2010 with 80 catches for 1,223 yards and five TDs
Jason Barnes also returns while Ray will also throw to former Winnipeg Blue Bomber Adarius Bowman and speedy Ray Fisher, who impressed in the pre-season.
Daniel Porter, Arkee Whitlock and non-import Calvin McCarty will carry the ball.
The offensive line, banged up by injuries in the pre-season, will again rely on Patrick Kabongo, the monster six-foot-six guard who has shed 75 pounds under direct orders from Reed and will play at about 315.
Can't get worse
The defence will be better simply because it can't get any worse.
It allowed 388 yards against and more than 30 points per game on average — worst in the CFL. Edmonton had just 31 sacks and allowed 48 touchdowns — also worst in the league.
T.J. Hill, the wrecking machine linebacker who led the team with 91 tackles last year, replaces Elliott Richardson at safety and is considered the linchpin of Stubler's attacking defence.
Rod Davis returns to lead the linebacking corps.
Up front, defensive end Greg Peach is the cornerstone of a revamped line. Dario Romero was released and is now a Saskatchewan Roughrider. Adam Braidwood was let go while he fights an assault charge.
On special teams, former Indianapolis Colt speed demon Brandon James will handle kick-return duties while former Montreal Alouette Damon Duval and young holdover Derek Schiavone will do the kicking.
But special teams, like everything on the Eskimos, remains fluid, even for a league where players wash in and out of the roster like waves on a shoreline.
"There's not a magic wand," said Tillman. "But our goal is to play on the last Sunday in November.
"If our goal was anything less than that we'd be cheating our fans."
Edmonton begins the regular season Sunday night in Regina against the Roughriders.