J.C. Sherritt will be a marked man by offensive linemen this CFL season.
The Edmonton Eskimos linebacker registered a league-record 130 tackles last season and was named CFL defensive player of the year.
The problem for opposing teams, however, is that first they have to get through Edmonton's formidable defensive line before they can get to Sherritt.
And that, says head coach Kavis Reed, will not be an easy assignment for any opponent, including the visiting Saskatchewan Roughriders who are in Edmonton for the Eskimos' home opener Saturday afternoon.
"One of the most important things about the position he plays, it matters who is in front of him," said Reed when asked if he expected teams to key on Sherritt. "If we did not have a formidable group in front of him, it might be the case, but being that we have arguably one of the best groups of inside guys it's going to be difficult for offences to scheme to get to J.C."
Sherritt, who signed in Edmonton as a free agent prior to the 2011 season, also doesn't think opponents will be able to key on him.
"With the D line we have they can't do that. For the same reason when we play Saskatchewan I'm not going to focus on Cory Sheets," he said. "You just can't focus on one player."
Which means the third-year pro could be looking at another great season of bringing down opposing running backs, receivers and quarterbacks. Besides his record-breaking number of tackles last season, the five-foot-nine, 218-pound Sherritt also had three sacks, three forced fumbles and five interceptions.
With 202 tackles in his first two seasons, expectations will be high for Sherritt to continue to lead the Eskimos' defence this year.
'We have a very talented football team, a team that has its core leadership intact. We expect there will be some bumps in the road a but we feel we are battle tested.'—Edmonton Eskimos head coach Kavis Reed
"I set my own expectations," the native of Truckee, Calif., said. "You can't get caught up in things outside of our family because people are going to take things out of context or expect certain things. I know what I want personally and that's just to win."
Losing the east-west cross-over playoff game to Toronto last fall was a major disappointment for Sherritt and he has high expectations for the team this year, especially the defence.
"Talent-wise this is the most talent we've had on defence in the three years I've been here," he said. "At the same time our talent was great last year and then injuries happened and things occurred. Our potential is great but if you don't take it week by week and get better, well, every CFL team has a great defence and if you're not matching their pace, not getting better every week, that talent is going to go to waste."
With a young offensive line and rookies or newcomers in some key positions on offence, any Edmonton early-season success will likely depend on how well defence and special teams perform.
Reed said management spent the last couple of years building the team around the defensive line that ran into a rash of injuries last season that severely hampered its effectiveness.
"This year we hope we will remain healthy and have those guys continue to be the focal point of our team," said Reed. "When you have a formidable defensive front seven it makes it very difficult on opposing offences and if they're not scoring points, you have a chance to allow your offence to grow and develop."
The defensive line in front of veteran linebackers Sherritt, T.J. Hill and Damaso Munuz is anchored by ends Marcus Howard, re-signed in the off-season, and newcomer Odell Willis, signed as a free agent. Ted Laurent and Almondo Sewell line up inside.
Reed said he is very comfortable with his team heading into the season.
"We have a very talented football team, a team that has its core leadership intact," he said. "We expect there will be some bumps in the road a but we feel we are battle tested. As young as we are, we have enough veteran guys who have seen enough to be able to navigate those young guys through.
"We're hoping every game we're going to be very competitive and have an opportunity to win."