Follow my leader

JONATHAN HUNTINGTON -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 9:53 AM ET

There is no truth to the rumour that the Edmonton Eskimos mailed a few samples of Valium to their season-ticket holders to cope with anxiety and stress through the first few regular-season games at Commonwealth Stadium.

After several key off-season defections from the defending Grey Cup champions, there's no shortage of worrisome questions floating around the diehard fan base.

- WILL THE renovated offensive line be able to handle the pressure?

With the retirements of Kevin Lefsrud, Bruce Beaton and Chris Morris, the Esks lost 32 years of combined CFL experience.

The new O-line - Joe McGrath, Dan Comiskey, Tim Bakker, Glen Carson and Patrick Kabongo - has only played a portion of one pre-season game together.

- IF RICKY Ray is plastered to the turf and knocked out of action, will this club's 34-year string of playoff appearances end?

Without Jason Maas, Jason Johnson is the new No. 2 pivot but has only thrown five regular-season passes in three years.

- WILL THE defensive line resemble a brick wall or a wobbly chain-link fence?

Edmonton had two of the best defensive ends last year with Joe Montford and Rashad Jeanty, but both are gone.

In fact, when the season opens this weekend, the line will look almost completely different than last year, with Charles Alston, Robert Brown and either Andre Sommersell or Sherrod Coates joining veteran mainstay Steve Charbonneau.

- BUT THERE'S one other major question that has been overlooked this spring: Who is going to fill the leadership void?

This team has lost a truckload of key leaders.

In the West Division final, it was Maas who rallied the troops on the bench, practically screaming at every player on the sidelines in the second half before he entered the game and led them to victory.

In the Grey Cup, Montford stood up in the locker-room and addressed the team at halftime. So did Morris.

Although Jeanty wasn't able to play in the Grey Cup, he was a team captain.

So, who is going to step up this year and motivate the team?

Who is going to be listened to and be able to push the right buttons at the right time in that locker-room?

Linebacker A.J. Gass and receiver Ed Hervey are undisputed leaders still with the club, but there are other players that head coach Danny Maciocia is looking to.

"I think for Mathieu Bertrand and Mike Maurer that this is their time," said Maciocia.

The coach is also looking at Comiskey - and he knows his new job.

"I do have more responsibility this year and I hope I am doing everything I can to take care of it," said the nine-year CFL veteran, who is helping teach in the film room and on the field.

And on the other side of the ball, defensive end Tim Fleiszer knows what's at stake.

"Leadership is incredibly important in this league," said the Harvard product, who lived in the shadows of Montford and Jeanty.

"One important factor in the course of a season is knowing when you need to push that pedal to the metal.

"Through six months it's pretty much impossible to keep yourself revved at the red line, so you need to know that there are certain times that you need to put (down) the pedal.

"That's a role I am trying to fill.

"Hopefully we are going to be able to pull together and take another run at this thing (called the Grey Cup)."

It's incredibly important for this team to come flying out of the game against Calgary in this back-to-back series to start the year.

In an ultra-competitive West Division, one loss will likely separate a team from the playoffs and the couch in November.

We'll see if the new leaders in the locker room will have this team fired up and ready to meet the critical challenge starting Saturday night in Cowtown.


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