Stoked about special teams

CON GRIWKOWSKY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:54 AM ET

Over the past two seasons, one huge aspect of the traditional Eskimos game has been missing in action.

Nobody had to reach for a milk carton to see something has gone horribly wrong with the special teams.

Chronicling special teams big-play production during the non-playoff years' drought is a pretty easy exercise. Once you get to zero, there's no need to count any further.

There have been no kickoff or punt return touchdowns since the 2005 Grey Cup year. That same year was the last time the Esks took back a blocked punt for a TD.

You have to go all the way back to 2000 to find the last time an Eskimos returner hauled a missed field goal attempt to da house.

With a couple of off-season moves, the Eskimos hope to remedy the situation in an area that quite often means the difference between winning and losing.

First, the team brought in Noel Thorpe as special teams co-ordinator. Thorpe had spent the past six seasons in Montreal.

Then, in April, the Esks landed Keith Stokes, whose breakaway speed earned him CFL Outstanding Special Teams Player of the Year in 2004.

Stokes attended East Carolina, the alma mater of a well-known Eskimos alumni, Henry (Gizmo) Williams.

"Nobody's ever going to replace Henry Williams," said Stokes. "When they recruited me there, they were showing me these films and I said 'who's this guy flipping all the time?' "

Fair enough. There will only be one Giz. Even though there are expectations that Stokes could be the game-breaker the Esks have been looking for, it would be unfair to expect too much.

Over the first six years of his career, Stokes has put up his share of numbers.

He's got a dozen regular-season return TDs and one memorable 81-yard punt return TD against Toronto that helped pave the way to Winnipeg's Grey Cup appearance last year.

"Special teams is a big part of the game," said Stokes, who's also caught 10 career TD passes. "You win two phases of the game, most of the time you win the game. Whether it's offence and defence, you win specials and D, you win the game. I'll just try to do my part."

Stokes's familiarity with both Thorpe and head coach Danny Maciocia played a large part in his decision to sign here after Winnipeg released him.

"It seemed to be the best fit for me," said Stokes. "I thought this was the place to be. We had a pretty good time (in Montreal). I knew a couple of coaches on the staff here and that helps."

He's scored a return TD every season since breaking into the league with Montreal in 2002, when he was named an East all-star and outstanding rookie, except for 2006.

Yesterday, Stokes made a couple of good snags in his rotation in the receiving corps. During the 2005 season, Stokes produced 832 receiving yards as a starter for Winnipeg.

"It's not just for fun," said Stokes. "This is a great receiving corps they have here and I'm going to work hard at receiver. If somebody goes down, I don't want to be that guy that they look at and they say 'we can't run this play because this guy doesn't know what's going on.' "

Maciocia still has plenty of options in the rebuilding project. Stokes is a proven commodity, Tristan Jackson has returned punts at the collegiate level and Maciocia calls Kelly Campbell the 'wild card.'

"We'll be much better back there than we were a year ago," Maciocia promised. "We need somebody who's explosive. We've got some candidates."

In the limited-roster world of the CFL, versatility is the key.

"He's explosive," said Maciocia about Campbell. "The question now is if Kelly's one of our five starting receivers, do we want to constantly put him back there for punt and kickoff returns?"


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