Tiny Tony's big chance

ROBIN BROWNLEE -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 9:29 AM ET

Tony (Tiny) Tomkins or Keyuo Craver?

The question of who'll follow in the fleet footsteps of Henry (Gizmo) Williams and Winston October as the Edmonton Eskimos' prime punt returner this season is as simple as that.

It's come down to two men for one job, and who gets it is a decision that'll be made largely based on what happens tonight against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

No pressure, gentlemen.

"It's very close," said head coach Danny Maciocia. "Ultimately, it'll come down between Tomkins and Craver. We've identified them as our return specialists. Chances are, we'll split it right down the line, a first-half, second-half deal, between the two.

"The reality is this is it. This is the last pre-season game. If we come back with questions, obviously, we need to sit down as a staff and address where we're headed. I don't want to experiment with this come June 24."

With roster spots and assignments to the practice squad to be determined by Saturday, Maciocia has his cards on the table.

Straight up, it's Tompkins, a five-foot-eight, 165-pound rookie return specialist-receiver from Port Arthur, Texas, against Craver, a fourth-year pro and defensive back drafted 125th overall out of Nebraska by the New Orleans Saints.

"That's how I'd categorize it," Maciocia said about Tomkins's skills as a return specialist. "He's more of a return guy, and then a receiver. Basically, along the lines of October.

COULD START

"Craver, on the other hand, is a defensive back who can definitely play the position. He could start for a few teams. I know he led the nation with Nebraska. It's going to be interesting."

Neck-and-neck after a 20-20 saw-off with the Blue Bombers Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium, Tompkins and Craver will try to get Maciocia to see things their way tonight.

Running back Elvis Joseph and receiver Chris Kelley also returned kicks against the Bombers, but they'll make the roster based on winning jobs at their positions.

"I didn't field the ball as well as I would like to," Tompkins said of his Esks debut. "It was an OK performance, I think, but I'm picking up the rules now and I can get a lot better."

IN TOUGH

Tompkins, 22, considers himself a kick returner who can play receiver, as opposed to vice versa. He returned three punts for five yards and added 36 yards on one kickoff return against Winnipeg. Craver had 30 yards on four punt returns and returned one kick for 21 yards. The diminutive Texan knows he's in tough against Craver, a former track man who has the edge in pro experience, and he's also well aware of the Esks' history of fine return specialists.

"There are big shoes to fill here," said Tompkins, who returned five punts for touchdowns in his college career at Stephen F. Austin. "That's what I want to do, just go out and try hard to do that. It's second nature to me. With the extra length and width of the field up here, it makes you smile when you see an opening."

Craver is pencilled in behind Davis Sanchez at one corner. Tompkins is looking to crack a loaded receiving corps that features Ed Hervey, Jason Tucker and Derrell Mitchell.

Tomkins and Craver both played their regular positions in the first game against the Bombers, but Maciocia will look at both today strictly as kick returners.

"It's a question that's been unanswered. Hopefully, we'll have an answer when we leave Winnipeg," Maciocia said.

"We're definitely not going to start them. We're saying, 'Your No. 1 priority Thursday is the return game.' They're going to be pretty fresh when they line up back there and we'll see exactly what they've got to offer."


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