EDMONTON — For all of the changes to their roster, the most significant difference with the Edmonton Eskimos this season will be their approach on defence under new co-ordinator Phillip Lolley, starting against the Montreal Alouettes at Commonwealth Stadium on Friday.
Lolley, 65, a linebackers’ coach with Edmonton’s 2015 Grey Cup team, is back after three years away and so is the brand of football he expects from his defence — a unit that is aggressive, plays fast and flat-out gets after people.
"No matter what defensive group I’ve ever coached, I want them to play fast," said Lolley, who first came to Edmonton in 2014 after 14 years at Auburn University.
"To play fast, you’ve got to know your job and be confident. Every defence I’ve had, I try to see what their strengths are, what they’re good at, and I build around that. It all ties in. Basically, that’s why I try to do."
Despite having the CFL’s passing yardage leader in Mike Reilly, Duke Williams leading in receiving yards and compiling the most net yardage in the league, the Eskimos finished 9-9 and missed the playoffs in 2018 with the Grey Cup party in their own backyard.
Not all the blame falls on a defence overseen by Mike Benevides, who employed a bend-but-don’t-break approach during his three seasons as defensive co-ordinator, but the Eskimos were middle of the pack, mediocre, in too many defensive categories.
"I think we proved it in the pre-season," head coach Jason Maas said. "I think we are aggressive. I think our guys do possess the speed, the hustle that we’re looking for.
"We had a conscious effort to say what our defence identity is going to be. It’s going to be aggressive and it’s going to be hustling to the ball, and that means everybody … at the end of the day, that’s our mindset."
Lolley, who followed head coach Chris Jones from Edmonton to Saskatchewan in 2016 and spent 2017 with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, has a blend of new faces and proven veterans to work with this season.
"We’re going to be aggressive," said returning defensive end Kwaku Boateng. "Coach Lolley likes bringing a lot of pressure to the quarterback.
"From a fan’s standpoint, you’re going to see everybody getting to the ball and a lot more quarterback pressures. That’s what I love to do. I like getting off the ball and getting to the quarterback, so any opportunity where I get a chance to go mano-a-mano, I take pride in that. I want to compete."
Boateng, Almondo Sewell Alex Bazzie (injured) and Nick Usher return up front. All-star Larry Dean, in from Hamilton, takes over from retired J.C. Sherritt at middle linebacker. Don Unamba, also in from the Tiger-Cats, is at strong-side linebacker.
In the backfield, all-star Anthony Orange, signed from B.C., will play one corner and returnee Godfrey Onyeka is at the other.
"We want to be an aggressive team always, but within the rules," Lolley said. "All those guys up front, I try to rush more than just three or four, you know? That’s my whole deal. I do that a lot.
"I’m 65 years old. I’ve been in the game awhile and I don’t want to let people down, especially the guys I coach. I feel a tremendous responsibility to get it right, but it takes everybody buying in and everybody doing their job. We’re in this together."
MONTREAL (0-0) at EDMONTON (0-0)
Friday, Commonwealth Stadium
IN THE SPOTLIGHT – Free agent signing Trevor Harris, who passed for 5,116 yards and 22 touchdowns on the way to leading the Ottawa Redblacks to the 2018 Grey Cup against the Calgary Stampeders, makes his debut as Edmonton’s starting quarterback in place of Reilly.
NEW BOSS – With the Alouettes and Mike Sherman parting ways last Saturday, offensive co-ordinator and quarterbacks coach Khari Jones is interim head coach. Jones, MOP with Winnipeg in 2001, inherits a team that was 5-13 under Sherman in 2018.
THE NOD – Jones has named third-year quarterback Antonio Pipkin as his starter. Pipkin, 23, got into six games in 2018. He completed 78 of 131 passes for 1,120 yards, three touchdowns and was intercepted eight times. Pipkin got into one game in 2017.
AERIAL ASSAULT – The Eskimos passed for 839 yards and seven passing touchdowns in two games against Montreal in 2018. In a 44-23 win on June 26, Edmonton passed for 415 yards and four touchdowns. In a 40-24 win Aug. 18, they had 424 yards.
DOUBLE DIGITS – Edmonton has beaten Montreal in 10 consecutive regular season meetings, dating back to a 47-24 loss at Commonwealth Stadium Oct. 5, 2013. Montreal won both games that season, prevailing 32-27 in Montreal July 25.