Onatolu battles onto roster

JONATHAN HUNTINGTON, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:32 AM ET

The rise of Kenny Onatolu within the Edmonton Eskimos this fall has been one of the most impressive and surprising stories of the football season.

Benched for three games in the first half of the season, Onatolu appeared to be heading on his way out of town.

After all, the second-year import was scratched for nearly half of last year's games.

"There were times where we were debating whether there was a future for him," said Edmonton head coach Danny Maciocia.

"And (linebacker coach) Dan (Kepley) would stand up on my desk and say: 'He has got a ton of ability; we just need to keep working with him and hopefully he will cash in on one of these opportunities.'"

It's a good thing Maciocia listened to Kepley because Onatolu has cashed in - in a big way - on his latest opportunity.

The Nebraska-Omaha product is the Green and Gold's starting Will-linebacker (weak-side linebacker) after grabbing the position eight games ago.

By excelling at that position through the middle of the season, Onatolu has allowed the club to solidify its safety spot by leaving Siddeeq Shabazz in the centre-field position.

Shabazz had been the mainstay starter at Will for more than a year until the club tried him for a game at free safety this year.

"He has been outstanding," said Maciocia on Onatolu.

Added Kepley: "I am so thrilled for him. He is a guy that needs reps to make things settle clearly in his brain.

"He has come in from being in a rookie (last year) - listening to people, being a follower - and now he is a starter and knows he has things to contribute in the defence and locker room."

The 26-year-old Chicago native admits adjusting to life in the CFL last year was difficult after being an All-American in college.

"It was very tough last year, especially at first. Coming out of college I didn't really understand more of the politics behind football," Onatolu said.

"I figured the best players played at each position."

Entering Friday's Edmonton home game against the B.C. Lions (7 p.m., Commonwealth Stadium, CISN FM), Onatolu leads the Esks in tackles for losses with four.

He also has 41 tackles, one forced fumble, two sacks and two fumble recoveries - ranking him second on the team in that category.

"Sometimes things might not always go your way," said Onatolu on what he learned from year one in the league.

"But stay focused on the playbook, in the weight room and try to keep a positive mind about things."

Right now everything is positive for an emerging player in an improving Eskimo defence that held the Lions to 83 net yards rushing last week after keeping the Winnipeg Blue Bombers to 84 rushing yards on Oct. 4.

FINISH LINES: Onatolu has also chipped in on special teams this year, producing six tackles on coverage units ... The only defensive category he's absent from is interceptions.


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