Will the Edmonton Eskimos find their ground game despite the loss of John White?

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Will the Edmonton Eskimos find their ground game despite the loss of John White?
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Here's the third installment in our series of CFL team previews, looking at the Edmonton Eskimos. Also check out our pieces on the B.C. Lions and Calgary Stampeders, and stay tuned to 55-Yard Line for more.

The Edmonton Eskimos' 2014 campaign was remarkable, as the team improved from a 4-14 finish the previous year to a 12-6 one, second-best in the CFL behind only Calgary. They also made it to the West Final. Much of that improvement was thanks to the defensive scheme brought in by new head coach Chris Jones, which helped Edmonton concede a league-low 340 points on the year. However, the Eskimos' offence was strong as well, and the ground game was a big part of that. They led the league in offensive yards per game (363.8) and yards per carry (6.4), and were second in rushing yards per game (136.6) and points per game (27.3). Will Edmonton be able to maintain that success on the ground despite starting running back John White suffering a season-ending ACL tear in training camp?

White was a huge part of the Eskimos' improved fortunes in 2014, rushing for a team-leading 852 yards with an average of 6.9 yards per carry. That was a big step forward for him, as he only had 260 rushing yards the previous year with a 3.8 yards per carry average. It was also a step up for the team; Edmonton's rushing leader in 2013 was actually quarterback Mike Reilly, with 709 rushing yards.Their top RB that year was Hugh Charles, who had 605 rushing yards, but averaged only 5.4 yards per carry. The Eskimos cut Charles before the 2014 season started, paving the way for White's emergence. Now, the question is if White's injury will clear the way for someone else. 

At the moment, the team's going with Chad Simpson as their starter, which is interesting considering that they only signed him after White's injury. The 29-year-old Simpson had also been out of football since his previous CFL stint, with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 2012 and 2013. He got back on Edmonton's radar at an open tryout in his native Florida earlier this year, though, and the Eskimos figured he was worth a further look. He impressed enough in the preseason to move past rookie Shakir Bell (White's initial backup) on the depth chart, though, despite a strong showing from Bell in the final preseason contest. Simpson's the starter for now, with Bell on the practice roster. Eskimos' head coach Chris Jones told Chris O'Leary of The Edmonton Journal that Simpson's speed is part of what drew the team to him

"Any time you can add a guy who’s a talented No. 1 and has the experience that he has, it’s certainly a feather in your cap. He ran 4.35 (seconds for a 40-yard dash) for us … on grass, so he can really run. Everyone knows he can block really well. He has to make sure he’s in his (play)book and knows his assignments. That’s my No. 1 thing with him."

Edmonton GM Ed Hervey told O'Leary the team feels confident enough with Simpson and Bell that they're not looking to add further running backs at the moment:

"We’re going to give our guys their opportunity. We believe in them. If we weren’t happy with the guys at this point, we would have made some moves prior to this. We feel that Chad and Shakir give us the depth that we need at that position right now. ...We’re always looking, there’s always opportunities out there, and if something comes up we’ll look at it, but as it sits this week, the backs that we have are the backs that we’re going with at this point."

Both backs certainly have some potential. Following a college career at South Florida and Morgan State, Simpson spent two years in the NFL with the Indianapolis Colts, and he appeared in 14 games in 2009, including the Super Bowl. He had further cups of coffee in the NFL with Buffalo and Washington before heading to Winnipeg in 2012, and he was very good in his first season with the Blue Bombers, collecting 1,039 rushing yards with an average of 6.0 yards per carry. 2013 was a downturn for him, though; he had 581 yards through nine games, but with a lower average of 5.4 yards per carry, and he then suffered a foot injury that knocked him out for the rest of the year, and he wasn't brought back after the season. We'll see if Simpson can find top form again, but if not, Bell's also an intriguing possibility; he had a great college career at Indiana State, and showed promise in the preseason. Both carry more uncertainty than White would have, but there's definitely a chance one or both of these guys can provide Edmonton with a decent ground game. 

The Eskimos have some advantages beyond that, too. Reilly's rushing skills provide them with yet another way to pick up yardage on the ground (he had 79 carries for 616 yards last season, an average of 7.8 yards per carry), and his ability with his feet helps open up further space for the passing game. He threw for 3,327 yards last season despite some injuries, showing particular chemistry with Adarius Bowman, who led the CFL with 1,456 receiving yards. Free-agent pickup Wallace Miles looked good in the preseason and may be another valuable target, and the additions of Greg Wojt and Alexander Krausnick-Groh may help cover offensive line losses; Matt O'Donnell went to the NFL, and Simeon Rottier is on the six-game injured list. Edmonton also has the aforementioned remarkable defence, and most of their key pieces there are back; Canadian defensive back Chris Rwabukamba (who left for B.C. in free agency) will be a loss, but the team managed to resign key players like Odell Willis and Don Oramasionwu. Still, the biggest question about the Eskimos this year may be the ground game. With enough production there and continued good showings elsewhere, they could be a real Grey Cup contender, but if they can't replace White, there might be a step back.

Prediction: 11-7, second in West, win in divisional semi-final, loss in West Final

Keep an eye on 55-Yard Line for more CFL team previews!

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