Monday, July 4, 2011

CFL Camp Countdown: Eskimos search for consistency

Okay, so the name is somewhat a misnomer, as they actually started training camp Wednesday. Still, here's the last entry in the CFL Camp Countdown preview series, looking at the Edmonton Eskimos and some of their interesting storylines heading into training camp. This is based off Tuesday's conference call with Edmonton club president Rick LeLacheur and head coach Kavis Reed (general manager Eric Tillman was on another call with an agent, and not available for comment). Highlights are below in point form.

? One of the most notable elements of the Eskimos' offseason (and indeed, the last half of their year after Tillman took over in September) was the amount of roster turnover. It wasn't all about the sheer numbers, either, as much of the surprise over their housecleaning was around the amount of starters and other prominent players the club parted ways with. Roster turnover happens in the CFL, but it's often more focused around the edges of the roster; Edmonton seemed to cut closer to the heart. That caused me to ask Reed if they were happy with the guys they've found now, or if they plan to continue revamping the roster dramatically throughout the year. Reed said the changes were necessary, but they're hoping they've found a group they can maintain now.

"Philosophically, we believe that the guys we brought into training camp are going to be our roster," he said. "Barring injury, we plan to stay with those guys, as continuity is important."

? Reed said much of the team's past success, including their legendary five straight Grey Cups in the late 1970s and early 1980s, came when they kept good groups of players together.

"Historically, the Edmonton Eskimos have had consistency on the roster," he said. "We're trying to restablish that."

? Although this is his first year coaching with Edmonton and his first year as a head coach anywhere, that history and the metaphorical weight of the banners hanging over his head in the above picture are no secret to Reed. Before he started his CFL coaching career 10 years ago in Toronto, Reed played for the Eskimos as a defensive back from 1995 to 1999. He said the organization had a strong commitment to its great legacy during that era, and he wants to revive that.

"You can't argue with greatness," Reed said. "This organization has established itself on a tradition of winning. ... We're trying to reestablish the culture I played under. Attitude and talent are the criteria we're looking for."

? Given that past success and the lows Edmonton hit early last year, you could argue there's a lot of pressure on Reed to turn things around quickly. He doesn't see it that way, though.

"I don't feel pressure," he said. "I feel an obligation to be a part of that turnaround, and a return to that standard we've established."

? Along those lines, Reed said he's quite happy with the offseason moves the team made, as they were an attempt to upgrade all over the field rather than just at one or two positions.

"I think we improved globally," he said. "We increased our speed, we have better size in the receiving positions. I truly believe we improved in the area of Canadian talent and depth."

? One area where there will be continuity is under centre, where veteran quarterback Ricky Ray will again be taking snaps. Ray had a rough year in 2010, but Reed said that had more to do with injuries and other roster issues than any decline in his skills. He expects great things from Ray this season.

"We truly believe, as an organization, Ricky Ray is still a championship quarterback," Reed said. "He's healthy now. His decline statistically [in 2010] does not indicate a decline in his play."

? Reed said Ray is the only guaranteed starter heading into camp, though, which should make for a very interesting month in Edmonton.

"We're looking forward to a very competitive camp," he said. "Universally, we have to look at every area because we have only identified one starting position, and that's Ricky Ray's."

? Amongst intriguing picks from the regular draft, like offensive lineman Scott Mitchell and wide receiver Nathan Coehoorn, another new face to watch is that of Ted Laurent, the 300-pound Canadian defensive lineman Edmonton grabbed in this week's supplemental draft. Reed said he's been very impressed with the video he's seen of Laurent.

"He's extremely explosive, effective against the pass and the run," Reed said. "We see him as a monster on the interior of our defensive line, which allows us to start an American somewhere else."

? Reed said he understands that it is going to take time to get this new group of players to pull together as a cohesive unit.

"We know it's a process, and we will be patient with that process," he said.

? Despite that, though, he said the organization isn't content to write 2011 in as simply a rebuilding year.

"Internally, we have the expectation of winning," Reed said. "I think we have just as good of an opportunity to win as any other team in this league."

That's a pretty bold statement from the head coach of a team that missed the playoffs and wasn't even close to contending for the Grey Cup last season, but you never know how things will change year to year in the CFL. We'll find out how the Eskimos do when they start preseason play June 17 against Saskatchewan. They follow that up with another preseason game June 24 against Calgary, and open the regular season July 3 in Saskatchewan.

Ashley Olsen Danneel Harris Veronika Vaeková Eve Brittany Lee

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