Esks face tough road to repeat as Grey Cup champs

The Edmonton Eskimos won it all in 2015, but the odds of repeating that feat appear daunting in 2016.

Edmonton’s Grey Cup winning coaching staff bolted, as did core members of its dominating defence.

Only two other teams have back-to-back Grey Cup wins in a generation, and this year every opponent will bring its A-game to make a statement or settle a score.

In other words, says Eskimo quarterback Mike Reilly, situation normal.

“Since the time that I’ve been here (in Edmonton) I feel like we’ve always kind of been the team in the league where they’re like ‘Well they got some talent but ?”’ said Reilly.

“I love that people are going to be gunning for us every single week.”

The Eskimos begin and end with Reilly, the unquestioned leader who is now in his fourth year as the starting quarterback.

The 31 year old from Kennewick, Wash., came back from a shredded left knee last season to lead the Eskimos to 10 straight wins, capped by the Grey Cup victory over the Ottawa Redblacks.

Reilly is known for making plays with his arm, and extending plays with his feet.

But under new head coach Jason Maas, things will change a bit. Maas is stressing an up-tempo offence and while Reilly will still run when necessary, he won’t be running very often as part of the playbook.

Part of that is to keep Reilly healthy. He’s had serious injuries in each of the last three seasons: concussion, broken foot, and the knee.

Reilly’s got some weapons to throw to, starting with receivers Adarius Bowman and Derel Walker.

Bowman was second in receiving in the CFL last year, recording 93 catches for 1304 yards and seven TDs.

Walker came off the practice roster after six games and lit the league on fire, making 89 catches and leading all receivers with a 92.5 yards per game average. He had six touchdowns and was named rookie of the year.

Nate Coehoorn and Chris Getzlaf will also line up at the receiver spots.

At running back, John White returns from a year off due to an Achilles injury and hopes to repeat his impressive numbers from 2014, when he carried the ball 123 times for 852 yards, averaging almost seven yards a carry.

Calvin McCarty is back at fullback.

The offensive line is solid with returning veterans Matt O’Donnell, D’Anthony Batiste, Simeon Rottier, Tony Washington and Justin Sorensen.

Edmonton’s defence was downright dominating in 2015, allowing less than 19 points a game on average.

That will be difficult to duplicate in 2016 as key members of the defence have left to try their fortunes in the NFL: defensive back Aaron Grymes (Philadelphia), linebacker Dexter McCoil (San Diego), and defensive end Willie Jefferson (Washington).

Linebacker and nickelback Otha Foster has gone to the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

The front four is solid, featuring veterans Odell Willis, Eddie Steele, Marcus Howard and Almondo Sewell.

Veteran JC Sherritt returns at middle linebacker flanked now by the versatile Deon Lacey and newcomer Kenny Ladler.

The secondary is, well, yikes.

The loss of Grymes was compounded in training camp when John Ojo, the team’s leader in interceptions last year with five, went down for the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon.

Veterans Pat Watkins and Marcell Young missed time in training camp with injuries.

The backfield shapes up with Watkins, Young, second-year man Deion Belue and free agent signings Neil King and Cord Parks.

On special teams, Sean Whyte came in last year for an injured Grant Shaw and earned a new contract.

Whyte hit 24 of 26 field goals and was perfect on converts.

Shaw will handle punting and likely kickoffs.

The coaching staff is led by Maas, a former Eskimo quarterback and the offensive co-ordinator of the Redblacks last year.

He took over after former coach Chris Jones and almost his entire coaching staffing took their Grey Cup rings and moved to Regina.

Former BC head coach Mike Benevides is the defensive co-ordinator.

Maas said the team is up for the challenge to show they are not one-cup wonders.

“There aren’t too many teams that repeat for whatever reason,” said Maas.

“When we first stepped in as a coaching staff we talked about that ? and we talked to the players that were here, the veteran guys.

“And we don’t get the sense at all that the guys are not ready to roll and don’t want to win another one.”

– CP