TORONTO — A record-breaking season has earned Solomon Elimimian a rare nomination.
The B.C. Lions linebacker was named the West Division finalist for the CFL’s outstanding player award Thursday after registering a league-record 143 tackles. The six-foot, 227-pound Elimimian became the first pure defensive player in over 20 years named a conference nominee for the league’s top individual honour.
"It’s a great honour and I’d be remiss if I didn’t appreciate my teammates and thank them for all they’ve done and how they’ve motivated me to be the best player I could be," Elimimian said in a telephone interview. "In 2010 I came to Canada fourth on the depth chart. I didn’t start, got hurt then I finally made it on the roster.
"After winning the Grey Cup in ’11, I went to the U.S. (signed with NFL’s Minnesota Vikings) but it didn’t work out. In 2012 I was injured a lot but bounced back in 2013 so when I think about all the adversity I’ve been through it makes it even sweeter."
Several two-way performers have won the outstanding player award — in 1992 Ottawa linebacker Angelo Snipes was a runner-up to Calgary quarterback Doug Flutie for the honour.
Toronto Argonauts quarterback Ricky Ray was named the East Division’s outstanding player for a second straight year in voting by the Football Reporters of Canada and nine CFL head coaches. Despite injuries to veteran receivers as Chad Owens, Andre Durie and Jason Barnes, and promising rookie Anthony Coombs, Ray led the CFL in passing yards (4,595), TDs (28), completion percentage (68.5 per cent) and completions (425).
But Toronto missing the CFL playoffs has put a huge damper on Ray’s season.
"I’d much rather be known for being a winner and being in the playoffs than putting up good stats," Ray said during a conference call. "The reason we play this game is to be able to accomplish some things as a team and obviously win the Grey Cup.
"There’s no other feeling like that."
Ray was among three Toronto nominees. The others were kicker-punter Swayze Waters (special-teams) and defensive lineman Tristan Okpalaugo (rookie).
Elimimian, the CFL’s top rookie in 2010, was also a finalist for the outstanding defensive player award along with Montreal Alouettes linebacker Bear Woods.
Woods, 27, finished second to Elimimian in tackles with 89 despite missing Montreal’s first six games. The former Troy University star added seven sacks and an interception anchoring an Alouettes defence that recorded a CFL-best 47 turnovers.
The 2014 season wasn’t Ray’s best as he’s thrown for over 5,000 yards three times over his 12-year career. But it was a down year offensively in the CFL with no 5,000-yard passer, just one 1,000-yard rusher and only three receivers cracking the 1,000-yard plateau.
Proven performers like quarterbacks Travis Lulay of B.C. and Darian Durant of the Saskatchewan Roughriders, Owens and running backs Andrew Harris of the Lions and Calgary’s Jon Cornish — last year’s outstanding player — were all hampered by injuries.
At the same time, many defensive players, including Elimimian, Woods, John Chick of Saskatchewan (league-high 15 sacks), Eric Norwood of Hamilton, Calgary’s Shawn Lemon, Ricky Foley of the Riders and Edmonton’s Odell Willis of Edmonton (all with 13 sacks) were huge contributors with their respective teams.
"You look across the board and there’s a lot of defensive players who’ve had great seasons," Elimimian said. "Quarterback, receivers, those are glorified positions and when you play defence you understand that.
"I think people understand how important defence is to winning … but everyone loves a good offensive show."
While Cornish, 30 appeared in just nine games he still won a third straight CFL rushing title with 1,082 yards. That earned the New Westminster, B.C., native the West Division nomination as top Canadian, an honour he has won the last two years. Only Tony Gabriel (76-’78) has captured it three consecutive seasons.
Laurent, a six-foot-three, 303-pound Montreal native, claimed the East Division nomination as top Canadian. The 26-year-old had a career-high nine sacks and 24 tackles in his first season with Hamilton, which finished atop the conference standings.
The other finalists include Calgary centre Brett Jones and Montreal tackle Jeff Perrett (top lineman), kicker Lirim Hajrullahu of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers (special-teams) and Edmonton Eskimos linebacker Dexter McCoil (rookie). Perrett’s nomination came after he wasn’t voted to the East Division all-star squad Wednesday.
The winners will be announced Nov. 27 in Vancouver.
Jones, 23, is in line for a second individual honour after being named the CFL’s top rookie last year. The six-foot-two, 318-pound Jones was the only Calgary offensive lineman to start all 18 regular-season games and helped the Stampeders (league-best 15-3 record) establish the CFL’s top rushing attack (143.9 yards per game).
The six-foot-seven, 320-pound Perrett started all 18 regular-season games as Montreal allowed just 31 sacks — second-fewest in the CFL — while attempting 558 passes. Perrett, a native of Lethbridge, Alta., is in his eighth campaign with the Alouettes.
Waters was a dual threat, leading the CFL in scoring (184 points) and punting 47.7 yards. He made 47-of-53 field goals (90.4 per cent) and his 53-yard boot was the league’s longest this year.
But Waters played the season with a heavy heart as during training camp his best friend Tait Hendrix, 27, died in a motorcycle crash. That prompted Waters to change his jersey from No. 30 to No. 34, the number Hendrix wore during his high school career.
"The season got off to a rough start for me, training camp was kind of a blur," Waters said. "But once the season got going I started off strong both punting and kicking.
"I’d much rather still be in the playoffs but for me personally to look back and see I put a complete season together, stayed healthy and performed pretty well the best I could is very rewarding."
Hajrullahu, who joined Winnipeg as a free agent out of the University of Western Ontario, converted 40-of-46 field goals (87 per cent), with his longest being from 51 yards out. He made 11-of-14 attempts from 40 yards and beyond and began his career making 22 of his first 24 attempted field goals.
McCoil recorded six interceptions to finish tied with Calgary’s Jamar Wall for the league lead while scoring a CFL-high three defensive TDs. McCoil, who played collegiately at Tulsa, also had 67 tackles, 10 special-teams tackles, four sacks and seven pass knockdowns.
Okpalaugo appeared in 17 games with Toronto, his 12 sacks accounting for more than a quarter of the Argos’ total (42). He also had 38 tackles, two interceptions and a fumble recovery.