April 2, 2024

Rob Vanstone: Samuel Emilus took “the first step in a Hall of Fame career”

As Samuel Emilus talked about adding a year to his contract, I was reminded of an extension of a different description.

On May 16, he made what was, in this appraisal, the most spectacular catch of the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ 2023 training camp.

Emilus fully extended himself to make a diving grab of a Trevor Harris aerial. The catch, by itself, was highlight-reel material. But the degree of difficulty increased exponentially due to the imperative of keeping at least one foot in-bounds while moving full-speed from left to right at Griffiths Stadium in Saskatoon.

Somehow, Emilus was able to perform a toe-tap before landing on the sideline.

That eye-popper of a play foreshadowed a 70-catch, 1,097-yard season — a breakout performance that was the catalyst for a new deal.

Emilus, whose introductory CFL contract was to expire after the upcoming season, is now signed through 2025.

The extension was announced on Monday. The following morning, Emilus met with the media via Zoom.

Of course, I had to ask him if he recalled the aforementioned play from last year’s Coors Light Training Camp.

“Not at all,” he replied, pleasantly.

That catch would be of the “I’m going to post that one on all forms of social media” variety for anyone who cannot make such a play as a matter of routine.

“I know I’ve made a few catches like that throughout last year, in practice and in games and, really, over my long time of playing football,” the 26-year-old Emilus noted.

“But it is funny that you recall that and cool that you recall that.”

I also recall that, from Day 1 of training camp, Emilus turned heads.

The initial blueprint was for him to receive front-line reps for at least the first half of the 2023 season while fellow National receiver Kian Schaffer-Baker recovered from hip surgery.

“Obviously, Kian was hurt, so somebody had to fill his shoes and I was the one they called upon,” Emilus said. “I was ready — also from a playbook standpoint — and I felt like the Z (slot) position was more involved in the offence. Any plays where my name was called, I just made the most of it.

“But, going into training camp, I felt that I was more involved in the offence, and that just helped with my confidence.”

Emilus carried over the strong play into the regular season.

In the opener against the host Edmonton Elks, Harris found Emilus for a 13-yard completion on second-and-eight. That clutch catch was a crucial component of a 13-play, 83-yard march that extinguished all but the final seven seconds of the fourth quarter and helped the Roughriders win 17-13.

Five days later against the visiting Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Emilus tied the Roughriders’ record for touchdown receptions in a game (three). His first three CFL touchdowns allowed him to move into an 18-way tie for the team’s single-game record.

Emilus created even more of a buzz on Aug. 20, when he made a leaping grab for a 37-yard touchdown when the B.C. Lions visited Mosaic Stadium.

It was, as I wrote at the time, “part reception, part interception.”

Initially, it appeared that Lions defensive back Marcus Sayles had the best shot at catching a high, arcing pass that was aimed down the left sideline.

Watching from the press box, I impulsively concluded that Emilus’s role would be defensive in nature, with the best-case scenario being the prevention of an interception.

How silly of me.

Emilus swooped in, caught the football at peak elevation, and tumbled into the end zone as a disbelieving crowd erupted.

That was also the game in which Schaffer-Baker marked his return to the lineup by scoring a first-quarter touchdown. Long before that, Emilus had become entrenched as a starter, and any notion of him merely filling in for Schaffer-Baker had evaporated.

By season’s end, Emilus had exceeded 1,000 yards in his first season as a starter and earned recognition as the Roughriders’ Most Outstanding Player.

It was, as Harris asserted last week, “the first step in a Hall of Fame career.”

Remember, too, that Emilus emerged as a star during which the Roughriders started three different quarterbacks — Harris, Mason Fine and Jake Dolegala — due to injuries.

Harris, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Roughriders’ fifth game of 2023, is far past the recuperative stage and poised to lead the offence from start to finish.

“There’s a good energy coming into the season with a new coaching staff and I feel like the sky’s the limit for us,” Emilus said.

“Obviously, we had an injury bug at the quarterback position, but this year we’re starting at Square 1.

“We’re excited. We think it’s going to be an explosive playbook and we’re just ready to get rolling.”

The playbook is being installed by Offensive Co-ordinator Marc Mueller, whose hiring was one of the first major moves by the new Head Coach, Corey Mace.

Mace’s appointment has helped to energize the fans, for whom Emilus had a message to conclude Tuesday’s Zoom session.

“Come look for us,” he said. “It’s going to be a great year.

“We’ve got a new coaching staff and we’ve got some things rolling that are going to help us head the right way.

“Just come support us. We’re going to make you all proud. We’re going to make the province proud. We’re going to need you all, for sure, at home games.

“See you all in June.”