In-depth look at the new Eskimos’ coaching staff

The Eskimos have announced the bulk of their 2020 coaching staff.

There were no big surprises, and some names Esks fans are happy to see. Let’s take a look at who’s who.

Scott Milanovich – head coach, offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach, special teams assistant

A.J. Gass – special teams coordinator

Noel Thorpe – defensive coordinator

Demetrious Maxie – defensive line

John McDonell – offensive line

Winston October – receivers, pass game coordinator

Derek Oswalt – defensive assistant


In my Scott Milanovich piece, I listed A.J. Gass, Demetrious Maxie and Mike Gibson as coaches who should be brought back due to strong work last year. Two out of three will stay in green and gold next season, with Gass resuming special teams duties and Maxie staying with the CFL sack-leading defensive line from 2019.

Most of the D-line is scheduled to stay intact, Kwaku Boateng, Almondo Sewell, Mathieu Betts, and Jake Ceresna are among those under contract while Mike Moore remains unsigned and Nick Usher is off to the NFL. There should be ample opportunity to keep improving in Maxie’s third year overseeing the group. He’s now the longest tenured of the coaches, so continuity will be a big thing for him.

Gass has a strong vision for the special teams going into his second year as a pro coach. One quote in particular from him caught my eye:

‘Adequate’ would be a generous term for the collective last few years, but 2019 definitely saw improvement towards an average or better return game. With help from mid-season acquisition Christion Jones, the Esks were between third and sixth in almost all of the return and coverage special teams stats, except for big play returns. In 2020 the organization will hope to avoid going five straight years without a punt or kick return touchdown – yes, really. Edmonton could use a little danger.

Also returning is Oswalt for his second year as a defensive assistant after a myriad of university and professional assignments.

The New Guys

At long last, Noel Thorpe returns to Edmonton. He brings almost two decades of Canadian coaching experience, including three years and several job titles with the Eskimos from 2008-2010, and is obviously the most highly anticipated of the Esks’ new hires.

Three years into his best known role as defensive coordinator of the Alouettes, he was courted by the Eskimos after the 2015 season and was on the verge of resigning from Montreal and signing with Edmonton. That was before former commissioner Jeffrey Orridge clumsily stepped in to prevent the move.

Instead, the Eskimos picked up Mike Benevides (who was most recently with the B.C. Lions and is now in Ottawa) while Thorpe moved to the nation’s capital himself for 2018 and 2019. “Keep an eye on Thorpe moving to B.C. in a few years,” I say half-jokingly. The Redblacks-Eskimos-Lions pipeline is real and hilarious.

Thorpe has a very strong reputation as a defensive coach and will likely present a similar style to Philip Lolley’s ferocious and aggressive 2019 unit. He also worked on the same team as Milanovich once before, in Montreal in 2007, and has familiarity with a number of the other coaches.

October is best known in Edmonton as their feature kick returner from 2001-2004. He didn’t play a lot of receiver, with just 289 yards in his Eskimo tenure, but regardless he gets a small promotion from his Ottawa job of the last two years, adding ‘passing game co-ordinator’ to his official title.

He would have worked with Greg Ellingson and Trevor Harris in Ottawa in 2018, which was a very good year for the Redblacks, but he also had a brief spell as play-caller in their disastrous 2019 season. There is much to be learned about what he can do.

McDonell will take over a surprisingly good 2019 unit that currently has names like Matt O’Donnell, Kyle Saxelid, Colin Kelly, and SirVincent Rogers under contract, while David Beard and Jacob Ruby are among those to be determined. His most recent CFL job was in Ottawa, but he also brings many years of college football experience and spent time with Milanovich in Jacksonville.

Other notes

– Dave Campbell with some fascinating notes on coaching recommendations.

– From Gass on Milanovich’s “special teams assistant” title:

The succinct reaction from TSN radio 1260 Edmonton’s Jason Gregor tells you all you need to know about the Esks special teams history.

– It was out there last week that Milanovich and Edmonton had approached Ricky Ray about coaching, and more recently that Jason Maas and the Roughriders did the same. They got the same answer: Ray’s enjoying his family time and not ready for a sideline role, yet.

– Milanovich and Thorpe both made mention of the excellence of the Eskimo organization and especially their facilities, as all new players and coaches seem to do. Milanovich couldn’t resist a light reference to the Argonauts’ troubles a few years ago.

– Asked about implementing a new offence (though with many similarities to Maas) Milanovich commented on how new quarterbacks and offensive linemen tend to be fine, but it’s hardest for young receivers to come in and learn new systems. So his goal with Winston October is to make things as easy as possible for them in particular. He also pointed out how changes are best made at the beginning of a regime.

– It was mentioned through the coach interviews, the mix of returning versus incoming coaches and experienced versus young blood is as good as you could hope for. All across the board.

– I haven’t paid attention to see if this is common league-wide, but the entire Esks coaching staff is running a little low up top. Derek Oswalt leads the group with what I call “the Ricky Ray haircut”.

– The team stated that additional assistant coaches will be named in the near future to round out the coaching staff, most logically a running backs and defensive backs coach, so keep an eye out for that.

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