Ed Ilnicki won’t be a typical rookie when the Ottawa Redblacks open training camp.
The five-foot-10, 220-pound running back attended Ottawa’s camp last year before being released. But Ilnicki used that disappointment as motivation, returning to the University of Alberta and capturing the Hec Crighton Trophy as Canadian university football’s top player.
More importantly, he led Alberta to its first playoff appearance in seven years. Armed with a new two-year deal with Ottawa, Ilnicki will have both momentum and familiarity on his side this time around with the Redblacks.
“It’s much different now just knowing the things I’m going to be facing a little bit more,” Ilnicki said. “Last year, some people were able to give me advice on what to expect but until you experience it yourself, you never really know.
“Being at the U of A, I grew up in Spruce Grove so it’s not like I was moving across the country for a new competition level. Having a better sense of what the playbook is going to look like, how the days will go and the flow of camp, that’s a big difference. It’s going to be hard, there will be days that are really challenging . . . but knowing is huge.”
Despite having another year of university eligibility, Ilnicki reported to Ottawa last year intent on cracking the roster. When he was released, the Redblacks’ brass told Ilnicki he’d benefit from returning to Alberta.
It’s not what Ilnicki wanted to hear but the Redblacks were right. Ilnicki ran for 1,468 yards last season, setting a Canada West single-season rushing record while leading Canadian university football in rushing touchdowns (11) and carries (196).
He helped Alberta (3-5) earn the fourth and final Canada West post-season berth before the Golden Bears dropped a 39-22 first-round decision to eventual division champion Calgary (7-1).
“You’re always disappointed when you don’t make a roster but I knew as soon as I got back to Edmonton that I was pretty motivated,” Ilnicki said. “There was plenty to show.”
Ilnicki cited that as just one of many factors for his stellar 2017 season. There was also returning to the familiarity of the Golden Bears’ offence and coaching staff as well as banding with other fifth-year players to help the program end its playoff drought.
“It was something to be proud of,” he said. “What I’m even more proud of is how our entire team responded throughout the year . . . we were 3-1 our last four games and played Calgary very competitively in our first playoff game in seven years.
“Those were the things we’d all focused on and were finally able to get to the point where we could compete in that playoff setting that we’d been working so long to achieve.”
Ilnicki, 22, is scheduled to graduate in June with his bachelor of commerce degree in finance. After years as a student-athlete, Ilnicki is anxious to have yet another shot at becoming a full-time football player.
“There are so many things I loved so deeply about my experience at U of A,” he said. “I know the level of studying film and your playbook is going to go up more and more (in CFL) but I’m really excited because another part of that will be exploring Ottawa and understanding the new place I’m living in.
“I’m lucky to have this opportunity because I know there’s a lot of guys who for one reason or another aren’t able to pursue their football career and that’s something that motivates me a lot. To say you’re part of the one per cent of Canadian college players who get to continue to the next level and take that shot and get to experience it in a new place like Ottawa with a new organization that I’m excited to work with, that gets me amped up.”
In pro football, many rookies must cut their teeth on special teams. Ilnicki welcomes that opportunity.
“I know that’s going to be my best opportunity to get on to the field first,” he said.
And Ilnicki will go into his second CFL training camp having learned a valuable lesson last year.
“Just coming in and being humble,” he said. “It’s easy to say when you’re coming in as a rookie but you have to know what status the veteran guys have earned and where you fit in.
“It’s very hard for anybody’s ego to come in and work with the reps you get throughout camp, work as hard as you can in those periods and soak up every bit of knowledge so whenever you get your opportunity you’re ready. You have to check your ego very early on and for me that was something that took a little time to adjust to last year.”