The pads went on but the gloves came off at Edmonton Eskimos training camp Wednesday.
Tempers flared during a rushing play that started out routine enough, but ended with right tackle Colin Kelly tossing a haymaker that knocked the helmet off of second-year defensive back Godfrey Onyeka.
And while Onyeka easily gave up 100 pounds to the heavyweight offensive lineman, he didn’t back down as teammates were quick to jump in and break them up.
But that didn’t stop both players from getting escorted to the dressing room, their time on the field done for the day.
“They’ve got to learn from that. Learn to get frustrated in a game and still keep playing and get the guy back the next play, within the rules,” said Eskimos head coach Jason Maas. “Throwing punches isn’t within the rules and it doesn’t show how tough you are and it definitely doesn’t show how smart you are as far as making a good choice.
“So our guys have got to learn from that and get better, and they will.”
While some coaches don’t mind seeing that kind of fire in their players, Maas can’t be counted among them.
The fourth-year head coach is coming off a season where he had to spend entirely too much time and effort putting out a pesky fire of his own when it came to penalties. Edmonton led the league in that department throughout the first half of 2018, before finally seeming to get a handle on things.
But they still ended up surrendering a division-worst 1,481 yards on 137 penalties in a 9-9 season, where one more win would have made the difference in making playoffs.
Instead, the lack of discipline contributed to the embarrassment of missing out on the post-season entirely, in a year where their city hosted the Grey Cup game.
“It’s not very disciplined and we talked about it the first day it happened,” Maas said, referring to a minor scuffle that broke out along the line of scrimmage Monday.
That was Maas’s one warning.
“The second time, those guys are going to get thrown out of practice and those two guys got thrown out of practice,” he said. “The lesson to learn from that is you do that in a game, you let your team down and it makes it much harder to win a football game when you’ve got two less guys playing.”
It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility, however, for tensions to mount Wednesday as the level of physicality got cranked up when the players put on pads for the first time in camp.
“It ramped up, for sure. I felt it was a really good practice,” Maas said. “I thought guys were physical and stuck their nose in there, so we’ll go into the film and see really what we were about.
“But I definitely liked the start.”
Padded practices have become the gold standard of evaluation for CFL coaches in training camp, and are every bit as rare.
The newly ratified collective-bargaining agreement has seen the sessions cut in half this season from 10 last year, all of which are only allowed to take place in training camp. And they will be further reduced to just three padded practices in 2020 in an effort to further cut down on contact.
“I have mixed feelings about it,” said Eskimos starting centre David Beard, a University of Alberta product. “There’s some definite positives in terms of mileage you’re putting on your body. I’ve spoken with a few of the other player reps who have been looking into it and there’s some pretty convincing stats that indicate player safety.
“On the flip side, pads also protect you to a certain extent. And we don’t slow down too much without pads.”
But it sure looks and feels more like football.
“I think everybody gets excited. We talked about it last night, if you add the five practices to the season, then you’re at 25 games if you approach every day like that. So when we talk that way, I think it perks everybody’s ears up to how important those padded practices are,” Maas said. “We need to get a lot out of them. We can finally finish blocks and hit people and all those things for the first time and, yeah, I think guys are excited about it.
“How excited they’re going to be two or three days from now? Maybe not, but the first time doing it in a while, you’re always excited.”
A little too much excitement in the case of Wednesday’s expelled pair.
“It’s the story of every camp, the harder you get going, you fly around that much harder, it gets more emotional,” said Beard. “Guys care about making a living for their families and that’s a big deal.”
On Twitter: @GerryModdejonge
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