Eskimos have high hopes for rookie receiver Brandon Zylstra
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EDMONTON — Brandon Zylstra humbly says his role Friday night in his first ever CFL game will be a simple one: catch the ball when it's thrown to him and block when assigned.
The inconsistent Edmonton Eskimos are expecting more than that when the rookie out of Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., makes his debut against the B.C. Lions.
The six-foot-three 220-pound wide receiver was added to the roster to replace Cory Watson who injured a leg in the Eskimos loss to the Saskatchewan Roughriders on Sunday. And he's chomping at the bit to get into game action.
"It was a long road to get here, but I felt I had put in the work and I deserve to be here," he said after the team's final walk-through Thursday. "I talked to a lot of guys, all the older guys say your time is coming, just be patient. So I've been waiting and making sure I'm ready."
Impressed with his abilities and his dedication at practices through the first two-thirds of the season, the Eskimos gave Zylstra jersey No. 83, the number previously worn by CFL all-star receivers Waddell Smith and Jason Tucker who both rank in the top 10 of all-time Eskimos in receptions and yardage.
"Yeah, I heard about those guys before me," Zylstra said with a smile.
He's already making an impression on his teammates.
"He kind of reminds me of how (Derel) Walker was last year. Quiet. Humble guy," said veteran receiver Nate Coehoorn. "Every practice he's making a big play, whether it's second group or this week first group he's always making a big play. I expect him to do some damage this weekend."
"That's pretty cool, coming from him," responded Zylstra. "I'll see what I can do."
Walker spent the first six games on the practice roster last year and once in the lineup he had a record-breaking Eskimo season that ended in him being named the CFL's Most Outstanding Rookie.
Head coach Jason Maas said Zylstra "has size, speed, he has a really big catch radius, he's tough.
"He's worked his butt off the whole season on the practice roster and was prepared mentally and physically to play. That's what great about Brandon. He's one of brightest guys we have in our receiving corps as far as understanding our system."
Zylstra took Maas's message to heart back in training camp.
"Coach told us from day one to practice as if you're the starter so that's what all us backups have been doing, we're studying, been in al the meetings, doing everything the starters are doing."
And when he takes to Commonwealth Field Friday he plans to deal with the crowd just like a veteran.
"I zone out," he said. "I don't notice the crowd or anything. I'm just going to play football, doing what I've been doing in practice."
That he even got to the Eskimos practice roster shows a lot of what Zylstra is made of. He was undrafted coming out of a small, division three school so went about calling football people looking for a place to play.
"I always felt like I had more to give than I had ever shown. I felt I had put in the work, that I was able to play at the next level so I wanted to prove to myself and everybody else that I can play at this level."
The Eskimos signed him as a free agent in May and now he gets his chance to not only show his stuff, but perhaps become a trailblazer for other division three athletes.
"They get overlooked a lot because we don't get the exposure, it's not televised at all, our crowds are less than 5,000," he said. "None of us are on scholarship or anything, so there's a lot of hard workers in division three, balancing athletics and schooling."