John MacKinnon: Edmonton Eskimos defensive linemen rush to cram it all in
Training camp pace hectic, perhaps because CFL team expect players to go on strike soon
EDMONTON — Watching a Chris Jones practice makes me think of college students cramming for final exams.
The pace is frenetic; the urgency palpable. And the intensity, as rush end Marcus Howard said Friday, “is off the chain.”
Maybe, just maybe, Jones, the Eskimos rookie head coach, is trying to cram as much of his system into the players’ minds and muscle memories before they go on strike.
Time is of the essence. Also, the more tape the coaches can collect on their players, the better they can evaluate the personnel, particularly in a truncated training camp, if it comes to that.
The players also are learning a new defensive system, with Jones the de facto co-ordinator and Ed Philion, the former Montreal Alouettes sackmaster, coaching the defensive line. So, you know, practise, practise, practise.
“I’m getting coached hard,” said Howard, whose 10 quarterback sacks last season were tops on the Eskimos and sixth in the CFL. “I didn’t think coming into training camp that I would get coached this hard, even though I knew that Coach Jones was a defensive (co-ordinator). You feel the pressure, coming from him and all the defensive coaches.”
Howard reckons he’ll be in better shape than he was last season — arguably his best so far in the CFL — what with all the running to the ball, fast-paced repetitions and so forth.
“It’s night and day from last year and the year before that,” Howard said. “I don’t know how many two-a-days (practices) we’ve had already, I lost count, but waaayyy more than we had last year the whole training camp.
“It’s a tough camp.”
For one thing, Howard and his linemates are learning on the fly. Forget the old saw about ‘first you get good, then you get fast,’ Jones wants his players to be fast even as they hustle to master new concepts, new schemes, even new technique.
“Definitely, it’s a big change,” Howard said. “My technique has to be different than I was used to the past three years. That’s a major adjustment.
“Hopefully, as training camp goes on, I can learn the technique they want, learn the angles that they want, learn the stance that they want me to be in, and hopefully once I learn that, I can start playing faster.”
Howard is lining up more frequently upright at the line of scrimmage, as opposed to a hunkering down in a three-point stance, which is a challenge, but a manageable one.
“I think it’s for me and Odell (Willis) and other guys to see more,” Howard said. “See if it’s a run, help us read our keys more.
“I’m pretty sure if it’s second and long, they’ll let me get down (in a three-point stance), because I feel I’m best at that.
“Right now, I’m trying to follow what they’re asking for.”
A Chris Jones defence, in the estimation of Willis, is: “Disciplined, fast and aggressive — three keys. There’s no other way you can explain it.
“(In practice) he puts us in situations so we could think fast, so when we get to the game, everything just slows down. In practice, you have to think fast. If you don’t, you’re just going to be out there lost. But if you’re lost, what you can do is fly to the ball as fast as you can and be aggressive when you get there.”
Sure, above all, be fast as you work to get good.
For his part, Philion’s approach to coaching the defensive line is straightforward.
“Basically, I want them to be physical,” Philion said. “I think if you look at the teams that have won the Grey Cup or the Super Bowl, they’ve had physical defences.
“I believed that as a player, and I’d like to see my guys do the same thing. We want to be technically sound, know our assignments and be physical up front.
“Everything starts up front with the offensive and defensive lines. If you can dictate the tempo of a game with your front, it makes it a whole lot easier for your offence.”
Of course, the Eskimos lost a big piece of physicality, when six-foot-one, 303-pound defensive tackle Ted Laurent, a free agent, signed with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, after first sniffing around the NFL for a job.
“Ted was a big part of what we did last year,” Howard said. “When he was healthy, when we were all healthy, I felt we were one of the best defensive lines up here.
“Losing Ted was a big loss for us. But we have Almondo Sewell. Donnie O (Oramasionwu) is a good player, Eddie Steele has stepped up his game the later part of last year. And now in training camp, he’s running with the ones (first string), so he has stepped up his play.”
Sewell, who recorded 39 defensive tackles, including eight sacks, was named a CFL All-Star last year. But he has been unable to practise owing to an undisclosed injury, since Day 2 of training camp. That may be less of an issue for him, given his stellar play last season, though.
Willie Jefferson, the six-foot-six, 234-pound converted wide receiver who plays rush end, hasn’t been able to practise, either, so there is limited tape on how he translates his speed and size into pressure on quarterbacks.
Speaking of physical, Cedric McKinley (six-foot-six, 300 pounds) and Daniel Ross, (six-foot-five, 305 pounds) are two recruits who bring plenty of that quality to the competition to fill the hole left by Laurent’s departure.
“We like ‘em big, for sure,” Philion said. “Last year, in Toronto, we were very young up front, but we had size.
“Here, we’re a little smaller, but we have experience. It’s a lot easier to get what you’re trying to teach across to a veteran group. They’ve seen it before, the game slows down for them.”
In the meantime, the mantra is: Hurry up and hurry up.
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