C.J. Gable just might be the missing piece for the Edmonton Eskimos.
While the Eskimos have had some terrific running backs over the years, they haven’t employed a 1,000-yard workhorse in the parts of six seasons quarterback Mike Reilly has been running the show.
Gable sure looked like a candidate to be that guy after he arrived from Hamilton late in 2017, but he didn’t get much work in his first two games this season.
However, Gable stepped up in a 41-22 win over the B.C. Lions at Commonwealth Stadium on Friday, establishing career highs with 23 carries and 165 rushing yards. The game turned on the ground, not on the strength of Reilly’s passing arm.
“The run game is a huge part of the CFL,” Reilly said. “You certainly see it later in the year, in October and November, when the weather starts to change, but it’s nice when you can start the season out and get the run game going, get it untracked.
“You saw it last year in the final third of our season when C.J. showed up. Things really started to pick up and change for us offensively. It makes everything easier. It makes the pass game a lot easier. People have to start loading the box up and the offensive line gets the ability to fire off on run plays, so now the D-line can’t just pin their ears back and pass-rush the entire time.”
In his four games with the Eskimos in 2017, Gable had 367 yards on 72 carries.
He had been quiet leading into Friday, carrying 18 times for 76 yards. Gable set the tone early against the Lions when he rumbled for 21 yards. Reilly stuck with him after that as the Eskimos improved to 2-1 heading into Saturday’s game in Toronto against the Argonauts.
“I give credit to the offensive line. They made the holes for me and I tried to hit them,” said the 30-year-old Gable, who has 241 yards on 41 carries this year. “You get into a good groove and after that I was feeling it. That’s a big thing, getting started fast. I told myself, ‘just relax, it’s going to come, it’s going to come so don’t rush anything.’ ”
Gable’s most productive CFL season came in 2013 when he was a rookie with Hamilton – he had 130 carries for 782 yards and seven touchdowns in 15 games. Gable also played 15 games in 2016, picking up 693 yards on 126 carries.
“He’s an unselfish player,” Reilly said. “In the first two games of the season, we weren’t running the ball as well as we did in the third game. He was still there in pass protection and doing what was asked of him.”
While Reilly had good running backs in John White and Shakir Bell during his previous five seasons in Edmonton, the quarterback led the team in rushing in two of those seasons. He had 709 yards in 2013 and 390 yards in 2017. He was second twice, in 2014 and 2015.
The ability to run the ball is a big part of what makes Reilly a handful for opposing teams, but it also accounts for a lot of extra wear and tear on the league’s reigning most outstanding player, who has back-to-back seasons with 5,000-plus passing yards.
“C.J. barely beat me out in 2013,” smiled Reilly. “I think he was fourth overall or something and I was fifth. I remind him of that all the time.
“You’ve got to do what the defence gives up to you and there’s going to be times where I’m going to tuck it and run. As you get into your veteran years as a quarterback, you don’t have to rely on that as much because of your knowledge of what the offence is supposed to be doing. But having a guy like C.J. takes the pressure off that as well.”
Since 2008, the Eskimos have had just two running backs rush for 1,000 yards. Jerome Messam had 1,057 yards in 2011 and Arkee Whitlock notched 1,293 in 2009.
The Eskimos don’t necessarily need Gable to replicate that, but the benefits of having a running threat not named Reilly are obvious.
“I know I can get 1,000 yards easily if I get the ball enough,” Gable said. “I’ve just never had the opportunity to. Here and now, I’m getting that opportunity to show what I can do.
“I think every back wants to get 1,000 yards. That’s still the mark as a running back. That’s the thing. You want to get over 1,000 or you’re not working – at least that’s what I feel like.”