Esks' Ray may suffer from (under) exposure

TERRY JONES, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:29 AM ET

EDMONTON - Job 1: Protect Ricky Ray.

That was the proclamation from general manager Eric Tillman. So far, so good. They protected him by not letting him play.

Rookie head coach Kavis Reed admits he gave his premier pivot less playing time in the pre-season than he wanted to because of concern about being able to protect him.

And the No. 1 question, as the players head to their dressing room today to become the 2011 edition of the Edmonton Eskimos heading into the 62nd regular season Sunday in Regina, is not just the usual ‘Ready or not?’

It’s, ‘Is Ricky Ray ready or not?’

And, ‘Are the Esks ready to protect the quarterback like they’ve never protected him before as promised, or not?’

The Eskimos are in deep, deep do do if Ray gets hurt again this season — especially early — with a 37-year-old returning from retirement at back-up in Kerry Joseph and two kids who have never played a down in the CFL, Eric Ward and Matt Nichols.

Ray quietly complains every year about not getting any playing time in the pre-season to find his form, to go into the season game-ready and sharp.

But this year, Reed admits he was going out of his way to give Ray the least action possible.

“We know how important Ricky Ray is to the success we’re hoping to have here this year and until we could establish what the protection is ... I probably left him in longer than I really wanted to against Calgary,” said Reed.

Ray’s pre-season block of work consisted of completing 11 of 19 passes for 160 yards, during a half in which the Eskimos’ offence time of possession was minimal, as Calgary’s offence had the ball for almost 20 of the first 30 minutes. Ten minutes and change isn’t much time to prepare for a season.

“We’ve had key injuries to shore up. We haven’t been able to find any luck at keeping American offensive tackles healthy,” said Reed.

“Our offensive line was a revolving door from day one of camp,” said Tillman.

“Gord Hinse broke his thumb and was placed on the nine-game injured list. We lost two of our top six guys, Cliff Washburn and Brian Ramsay, to multi-week injuries. Hopefully we’ll have them back by mid-July, but we’re still in a wait-and-see mode. And with Aaron Fiacconi, Greg Wojt and Scott Mitchell all missing valuable practice time, too, we simply aren’t where we want to be up front.

“Tim Prinsen is a quality offensive line coach, but goodness, he’s been dealt a lot of adversity.

“With rookies galore up front, we decided to limit Ricky’s exposure.

“Could that lack of playing time affect Ricky’s timing in a new system?

Yeah, sure it could.

“What unfolded certainly wasn’t the ideal scenario. But it was a better option than Ricky taking more hits than a pinata at a five-year-old’s birthday party in those two pre-season games.”

Reed said the Eskimos went out of their way, knowing the lack of live pre-season play they were going to give Ray, to get him as ready as possible in training camp.

“We made sure he had well over 500 throwing repetitions in practice situations,” he said of the nine-year veteran, who has already completed 2,882 of 4,300 passes for a .670 completion percentage and 35,935 yards with 186 touchdowns against 119 interceptions — and won a pair of Grey Cup rings.

“The young guys, Eric and Matt, have potential, but they’re rookies. So, yeah, protecting Ricky is very important,” admitted the GM of everybody in the organization having their fingers and toes crossed that Ray will remain upright all year, or at least until the two kids dip their toes in the water — or until Joseph gets rid of the rust and perhaps finds something resembling his form from whenever it was he last had it.

“If Ricky goes down we won’t make any excuses,” said Tillman. “We’ll alter our approach to magnify the strengths of K.J. or whoever is playing quarterback, and go forward with an expectation of success.

“We like our young guys. They’re both smart guys who have picked up the system very quickly. Matt has a strong arm and he did some positive things in our first pre-season game. Eric has shown really good accuracy and mobility. In a perfect world, the young guys will have a full year to develop. But right now, if anything happens to Ricky, Kerry Joseph will be our guy.”

Deep, deep, deep do do.

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terry.jones@sunmedia.ca


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